A Syrian Teen Chases the American Dream

For many, Los Angeles is a city of superimpositions. Each day we live in the present, experiencing the ordinary joys and mundanity of Angeleno life, but in the back of our minds we are somewhere else. Our minds are tethered to the distant cities and towns where we grew up, moored to the memories of loved ones far away.

We are here, but, at the same time, we are there. The two worlds exist on top of each other, like film stills overlaid as one composite image.  

For Dalya Zeno, this duality is all too real. At 12, she left her home in Aleppo, when her city was just entering the war in Syria, and relocated to Los Angeles. As she left behind her father, she began a new life with her mother and brother here, slowly finding her way as a Muslim teenager coming of age in Southern California.  

Dalya's Other Country, a new documentary by filmmaker Julia Meltzer, follows the Syrian teen over the course of almost four years, tracing her journey as the only Muslim in an all-girls Catholic school. Meltzer — who's also the founder and director of arts organization Clockshop — has a close connection to Syria. She spent time in Syria before the civil war, documenting a school for girls in Damascus, as a senior Fulbright fellow. Until 2010, she returned almost every year. Her feature documentary The Light in Her Eyes, about that Qur'an school for girls, debuted on PBS' POV series in 2012.

Now, with Dalya's Other Country, which airs on POV on Monday, June 26, Meltzer continues her exploration of Syria by providing an intimate portrait of its diaspora. Through the unfiltered honesty of Dalya and her mother, Rudayna, the film reveals how family can become a home away from home.    

We caught up with Meltzer via email to learn the story behind her documentary.  

Dalya at a mass at her high school
Dalya at a mass at her high school
Courtesy Julia Meltzer

How did you first discover the story of Dalya?

Dalya’s Other Country follows my last film, The Light in Her Eyes, about a Qur’an school for women and girls in Damascus, Syria. On and off from 2005 to 2010, I lived in Damascus and often traveled to Aleppo. Witnessing the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, where ancient trade routes, commerce and culture were active — despite constraints imposed by the Syrian regime — made a deep impression on me. In 2012, while we were in distribution of TLIHE, the city of Aleppo was in the process of being destroyed by civil war. I wanted to document a family or an individual who was connected to this city. My daughter was born in 2012 and I no longer had the flexibility to travel and leave home as I did for my previous film, so I searched for a way to tell a story about Aleppo from close to home. I met Mustafa Zeno at a screening of my last film and he worked with me doing distribution and outreach. I then met his sister, Dalya, and their mother, Rudayna, shortly after they arrived from Aleppo, and knew that I had found a compelling story.

What was her life like in Syria, and what was it like for her to relocate to Los Angeles?

Dalya was 12 when she moved to Los Angeles, and 13 when we began filming. Her life in Aleppo was that of a middle-class Syrian girl. She went to school, she was doted on by her parents, and she had a close circle of friends. Before Aleppo entered the war, it was extremely safe and a very family-focused place. It was hard for her to move to Los Angeles because she had to leave everything she had known behind, including her dad, who was her best friend. It really took her more than two years to adjust and to start to feel comfortable here.

Dalya with her family on graduation dayEXPAND
Dalya with her family on graduation day
Courtesy Julia Meltzer

How did you first meet this family?

I met Dalya through her older brother, Mustafa, who worked on The Light In Her Eyes. Mustafa became a co-producer on Dalya’s Other Country and was on board from the start.

What were some of the challenges she faced while trying to settle here?

I think the greatest challenge that Dalya faced was adjusting to the new configuration of her family with her parents' divorce. For the first two years of high school Dalya didn’t tell anyone that her parents were divorced because she was concerned that people would look down on her. Adjusting to a new culture was also hard, but I think losing her dad as a figure in her daily life was the biggest challenge. 

It seems like she is a person caught between many different worlds. She’s trying to follow the wishes of her mother in L.A., the guidance of her father in Syria, while trying to define her own identity, too. How does she cope with being pulled in so many different directions?

Dalya is lucky to have the counsel and support of her older brother, Mustafa. From what I observed, he was able to intervene at times and explain some things for Dalya to his parents. She also developed a close circle of friends who also come from immigrant families. I think this was a tremendous help for her as she went through high school.

Dalya during the "refugee ban" protests
Dalya during the "refugee ban" protests
Courtesy Julia Meltzer

How long did it take you to create the documentary and how much access did you have to the family?

I started shooting in 2013 and we finished shooting in January 2017. I relied on Mustafa to tell me what was going on and when there was an important event happening. There were many things that I missed out on, however! It’s hard to always be there for the big and small things that happen in family life. I did spend time with the whole family without my camera — just hanging out and eating dinner or having coffee. I think that helped a lot to build trust.

How did the story change once the Trump campaign began?

The story didn’t really change, it just took a different turn for the family and for all Muslims, really. I knew it was important to document their reactions and feelings about the campaign, but I think we all thought that it would be a passing moment. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.


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