February 23, 2020

Syrian teen and mother start over in L.A. in ‘Dalya’s Other Country’

A documentary from a Jewish director about a Muslim teenager attending a Catholic high school may sound like a hypothetical ecumenical exercise. But Julia Meltzer’s “Dalya’s Other Country” is an engaging coming-of-age story about a young girl and her mother who flee war-torn Syria to start a new life in a strange, new place — Los Angeles.

As children of the Diaspora, Jews will relate to the film, which premiered on PBS stations on June 26 and is streaming on pov.org.

Dalya Zeno lived a comfortable, middle-class life in Aleppo, Syria, where she was born, until 2011, when civil war turned the city into a war zone and it became increasingly clear to her family that they would have to leave. Her parents separated and eventually divorced. Her father, Mohamad Hassan, an olive oil exporter, moved to Turkey. Dalya’s mother, Rudayna Aksh — whose sons, Mustafa and Hammoud, were born in Los Angeles in the 1980s when she and her husband lived here and she became a U.S. citizen — returned here with Dalya in 2012.

Meltzer, a Reform Jew, had lived and worked as a teacher in Syria on and off between 2000 and 2010 and made her first film there, “The Light in Her Eyes,” about a Quran school for women and girls. Following a screening of the film at the Levantine Cultural Center on Pico Boulevard (now the Markaz) in March 2012, she met Mustafa Zeno and they became friends. They discussed the Syrian civil war, its impact on his family and the family’s plans to get out.

“I felt that the war was going to go on for a long time, and I still do,” Meltzer said. “I thought one way I could be of service was to tell the story of someone coming from Aleppo.” With Mustafa as a producer, the Zeno family consented to be filmed. “They had seen my other film and knew I knew about their culture. I wasn’t a random Jewish person,” Meltzer said.

But for Dalya, having a camera crew in her life was intrusive, especially at first.

She had finished eighth grade at a Muslim school in L.A., but there wasn’t a Muslim high school nearby and her parents thought that there would be too much peer pressure at a public high school. She enrolled at Holy Family High School, a private, all-girls school in Glendale, where she was the only Muslim student.

“I struggled a lot,” said Dalya, now 18 and a student at Pasadena Community College. “I was awkward and scared. I already stood out, and having the cameras around made me stand out even more. It was really nerve-wracking. It took me till my junior year to get used to it.”

The turning point was an overnight trip for the junior and senior classes when she “opened up to my classmates and they opened up to me,” she said. “From that day on I felt so much better. Going to Holy Family was the best decision ever. Holy Family is my family.”

Shooting the film there, however, was “complicated,” Meltzer said, citing restrictions, disruption concerns and privacy issues that necessitated getting a signed release form from every girl that appeared on camera.

Originally, Meltzer intended to focus solely on Dalya and a friend, who is Korean-Palestinian and American-born, but she opted to also depict the struggle Rudayna faced as a woman starting over after a divorce. As she says in the film, “My marriage fell apart, and then my country, too.”

“Here’s a mother and daughter who are in some ways going through very similar transitions at totally different places in their lives,” Meltzer said. “I thought it was a good way to go.”

“When I first came here I was discouraged,” Rudayna told the Journal. “I didn’t stay in contact with my friends because I wasn’t happy with myself. I had no hope. But when I started going to [Glendale Community College] and worked on my studies, that helped me a lot. I started thinking about something else — the future. I had no time to think about bad things.”

Rudayna is transferring to UCLA this fall, and Meltzer plans to document her experience for a short film that Mustafa will co-produce.

Mustafa said he is proud of what his mother has overcome and achieved. “To me, it’s important to show that Muslims, specifically Muslim women, are neither perpetrators or victims,” he said. “They do have agency to control their lives.”

Mustafa, who teaches Arabic at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA), and his brother, Hammoud, who lives in New York, are seen in “Dalya’s Other Country.”

Mustafa, who worked with the Los Angeles Arab Film Festival for four years and directed it in 2014, is developing a documentary about refugees and fences and walls, both literal and figurative, as well as a short feature about a dystopian near-future in which Muslims are sent to internment camps, as Japanese-Americans were during World War II. Both he and Meltzer are involved with NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

This summer, Dalya plans to visit her father in Turkey, where she would like to volunteer at a refugee camp. She also plans to transfer from Pasadena City College to Cal Poly Pomona and study to become an architect. She said she thinks about “one day going back to Syria and help contribute to rebuilding it.”

But it would only be for a visit. “I’ll always miss Syria,” she said. “I don’t think there will be peace anytime soon because there are so many groups fighting for control. But even if the war stopped, I wouldn’t go back because I’ve had so many opportunities to grow here and I love my life here.”

Rudayna said she wouldn’t move back to Syria, either. “I have a life here. I don’t want to go back to where the bad things and bad memories were,” she said.

She said she hopes her story will encourage women in situations like hers to get an education and become self-sufficient. She said she believes that the film will give people a better understanding of the situation in Syria and the plight of refugees. “We all have to think about others and how we can try to help,” she said.

As the film’s titular subject, Dalya admits that watching the film is “embarrassing
to me.”

“I don’t like to see myself as clueless and struggling and having people see how I was,” she said. “But I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback, and I’m just hoping someone benefits from it, even if it’s the smallest thing that they take from the experience.”

At a time when Muslims face increased prejudice, “The most important thing is for Americans to stand by each other because that is the only thing that will keep us together and strong,” Dalya said.

In the film, she attends a protest against then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S.

“It’s something I felt very strongly about because I could have been in these people’s shoes if I didn’t have citizenship. All these Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims were standing up with each other, and I felt so much love,” she said. “It made me more hopeful.”