‘POV’ Looks at a Student Who Escapes Syria’s Strife for Los Angeles

By Mark Walsh — June 26, 2017 2 min read
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The public television series “POV” opens its 30th season Monday night with an education-themed documentary that could not be more timely.

As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs whether to take up President Donald Trump’s executive order to temporarily bar entry to travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries, the show is airing “Dalya’s Other Country,” a 75-minute film about a schoolgirl and her family who fled the violence of Syria in 2012 and settled in Los Angeles.

Dalya and her mother, Rudayna, have fled Aleppo and moved in with Dalya’s college-age brother Mustafa, who had come to California to attend college before the violence started in their homeland. (Her other brother, whose name I didn’t catch, also lives in the area.)

The film, which airs on PBS on June 26 at 9 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings), doesn’t make clear the family’s immigration status, but the notes by director Julia Meltzer suggest they have U.S. citizenship. They also appear to have means, so they haven’t exactly arrived penniless. Nonetheless, they face challenges.

Rudayna has divorced her husband, who has stayed behind in Syria, because he took on another wife without Rudayna’s approval. Their interesting dynamic fills up some of the film, especially when the father, Mohamad, arrives in Los Angeles to visit his children and try to win back his wife.

The parents have decided that Dalya, who is around 13 or 14 when the filming begins in 2013, should attend a Roman Catholic girls high school, where she will not face much interaction with boys.

Dalya, wearing her hijab, stands for the Pledge of Allegiance and listens respectfully during required Catholic mass for students. We don’t hear from any administrators or teachers at Holy Family Catholic Preparatory School, but the school and Dalya’s peers, most of whom appear to be of Asian and Latino descent, seem to accept her readily.

Meltzer’s cameras follow the family over four years, though one gets the sense they were not a constant presence. During those years, Dalya gains confidence as she embraces certain U.S. high school traditions. She plays on the girls’ basketball team. She attends school dances (where boys from other schools are present), though always dressed conservatively.

We see Dalya and her mother watch with dismay in 2015 as candidate Trump demands what he at that time called a “Muslim ban.” Dalya is upset when Rudayna, who is also pursuing an education by attending a community college, decides to wear a hat over her hijab. “The point of the hijab is to show you are Muslim,” she tells her mother.

Los Angeles being the large, cosmopolitan city that it is, offers a family such as Dalya’s the support of a larger Muslim community, the familiarity of Middle Eastern grocers and specialty shops, and a degree of anonymity. But there is also some assimilation as Dalya hits the malls and Koreatown with school friends.

“Dalya’s Other Country” does not address how U.S. public schools are dealing with influxes of Syrian refugees. But the film never set out to do that. It is still an instructive and warm look at some newcomers to this country.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.