The Syrian Civil War was roughly a year old by the time Dalya Zeno and her mother, Rudayna Aksh, fled Aleppo for Los Angeles in 2012. Arriving in Southern California as American citizens, Dalya and Rudayna struggled to adjust to life after Syria in a nation that, they believed, could be unwelcoming toward Muslims.
Dalya’s Other Country, a PBS POV documentary from filmmaker Julia Meltzer which premieres tonight, explores the personal and societal challenges facing a middle-class, Arab family during a time of great unrest for Syrians worldwide. While they are citizens and not refugees, their story paints a picture of the struggles faced by Syrians who feel fear and prejudice in the United States. Shot between the daughter’s freshman and senior year at an all-girls Catholic school, both mother and daughter are attending school in Southern California, pushing forward on creating a better life for themselves amid the trials and tribulations during the rise of President Donald Trump.
Ahead of Monday’s premiere, Dalya and Rudayna spoke with Jezebel about Syria, their struggles, and living life as Muslim women in America during the Trump administration. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
JEZEBEL: By the time you left Syria, the country was embroiled in the start of a war. What still stands out about leaving Syria for the U.S. at that point in its history?
RUDAYNA AKSH: It was difficult to leave Syria during the war because you have to leave everything over there—memories, your home, your country, everything. It wasn’t easy at all to leave Syria, and everyone, at that time.
DALYA ZENO: Yeah, it was so sudden. The last thing we saw of our country was war, which was so heartbreaking. Leaving and coming to the U.S. so suddenly was hard.
Given that you’re now in Los Angeles and are so far away from Syria, how have you learned to not just adjust to U.S. culture, but also cope with the horrific tragedies happening back home on an everyday basis?
Dalya: In our first two years in the U.S., we had a lot of trouble adjusting. Like we said in the film, it was very painful. We missed the country we lived in our whole life. I missed my father, my friends and life. I came here trying to adjust to a new language and culture. That was very challenging. I guess, slowly, we started learning how to deal with it. Thankfully, I think my mom and I adjusted really quickly. I think it took me two years to start to love life here and form my own life with new friends, a new school and life here. It all became a part of me and taught me so much.
Rudayna: For me, it was hard, too. Even though I used to live in the U.S. for 10 years, I didn’t have time to learn English very well and I was struggling most of the time. When I went back to Syria, I forgot most of my English. When I came back to the U.S. in 2012, it was very difficult for me. I went through a divorce and the war, leaving our home and family and most of our memories. It was very hard. When I came here, I stayed with my son and it was suggested for me to go to school. Life was easier for me when I started to go to school, as I was at home doing nothing and thinking about memories.
Dalya: Mom going to school taught her how to be this independent woman who learned how to do things on her own. It made her grow as a person.
Dalya, an important theme of the film is your relationship with your father following the divorce between him and Rudayna. When he came to visit you and the rest of the family, he mentioned how he’d rather live in Syria amid the bombing than enjoy living his life in America. Where do you think he was coming from?
Dalya: My dad lived in the U.S. in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and he had a successful life here. (They had me in Syria.) While in Syria, my parents formed a new life where we could learn Arabic and become religious in learning about Islam if we wanted to do that. My dad wasn’t very religious when he first lived there, but he did after he got remarried. From then on, religion made him get really attached to the Middle East, and he got used to a certain lifestyle. Coming back to the U.S. didn’t match up with the lifestyle he wanted to live.
It’s impossible to get through the film without touching on Trump. There’s one point during his campaign where you two described him as being prejudice and that his words don’t mean anything. Do you believe the prejudice you pointed to years ago has grown since then?
Dalya: Yeah, definitely. Him being president has showed an America that I, personally, never thought existed, with people who are prejudice started coming out more and more. There were more hate crimes happening against Muslims and a lot of minority groups, which I think made it not necessarily more prejudice but certainly emboldened them to do these acts. But there is a positive to it all. All of this stuff was shoved under the rug and it’s giving us an excuse to clean it all up. I’ve protested the travel ban, and I felt that it was very important to speak up, to show Muslims were just like any other Americans. It’s a great, important time for us to clean up what’s happening.
Rudayna, I know there was a time where you were hesitant, and even fearful, of wearing your hijab in public. You cited that you were living in a time of “weird and disturbed people.” What went into that decision?
Rudayna: When President Trump first became president and had his executive order to ban refugees, so many people liked what he said, so they tried to affect Muslims nationwide. During that time, I was scared. When I went to the car, I was afraid someone would hit me, so I would wear a cap on the top of my scarf. That fear, however, has toned down for me.
Dalya: I personally disagree with my mother. To me, because these people felt that way about Islam, I wanted to show them I was Muslim. I wanted to show them I’m not like that and that I’m not afraid of living in the U.S., my country. The idea of me being afraid of who I am and not practicing my own religion and not wearing the hijab in my own country, I thought that was a no-no. I didn’t want to surrender that.
Rudayna: I just wanted my daughter to be more conscious of what was happening.
Dalya: My mom’s fear is totally understandable. I’m just saying I didn’t feel that.
The film allows us to see Dalya grow up, going from a child to a young woman. With that, you also got a chance to grow up during Trump’s ascent. What’s it like being a young Muslim woman growing up during Trump’s rise?
Dalya: Hmm. He seems to be against lot of the minority groups, but you’ll see him kind of defending a group only to later say something negative about those same people. It’s very confusing.
Even though you’ve been in the U.S. for several years now, Syria is never too far from your minds. What do you think your life would have been like if you had stayed in Syria and not come to the U.S.?
Rudayna: I feel more comfortable now. I feel this is my second home. We made a good choice in coming here. If we had stayed in Syria, I don’t think we would be alive. We would have fallen victim to the bombs that destroy buildings, or—there are so many people who get sick or develop mental issues. I think we would be like them if we stayed there.
And if I had stayed there, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go to college. Here, I got my education. I got all the good things.
Dalya: When I came here, I was exposed to a lot of new experiences. I learned a lot. Here, especially in Los Angeles, it’s so diverse. I got to play basketball and soccer, work on arts and ceramics, and do a lot of new things that wouldn’t have been as accessible in Syria. And I want to go far in my education and get my masters. I want to do architecture. I want to go back one day and rebuild Syria, the country I lived in that’s being destroyed. I wouldn’t have had that dream if I was still there.
Dalya’s Other Country premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET on PBS’s POV program.
Timothy Bella is a features journalist and senior editor living in New York. His work has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, ESPN, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic and VICE. You can follow him at @TimBella.