What It's Like Being a Teenage Refugee in America

Photo: Dustin Pearlman
Dalya Zeno was 13 years old when she moved to the U.S. with her mother from war-torn Syria in 2012. They joined her two brothers who were already living in Los Angeles, and Zeno began adjusting to life as a newly American teenager.
Now at 18, she's graduated from high school and just finished her first year of college at Pasadena City College outside L.A.
On June 26, a PBS documentary chronicling Zeno's high school life as a Syrian refugee in California will premiere. Dalya's Other Country offers a glimpse at what the past few years have been like for Zeno and her family. Ahead of the documentary's release, we chatted with her on World Refugee Day about moving to the U.S., going to a Catholic high school, and how she feels being a Muslim refugee in America's current political climate.
What's it like going to a Catholic school and wearing a hijab? In the documentary, it says you were the only student wearing a hijab.
Honestly, at the beginning, I didn’t want to go because I was so afraid that I would stand out even more than I would stand out in a public school.
I was very nervous about that…but throughout the years, I loved going to this Catholic high school. I learned so much and I loved it. It honestly taught me a lot, and it made me become more open minded coming here. I loved learning about someone else’s religion and the way of living. I went to church with them every week, and it was a very interesting experience. I'm only 18, but it's one of the best experiences of my 18 years.
Photo: Anne Etheridge
Were you able to make friends pretty quickly?
The first year, I was very awkward — I personally was awkward, because I was afraid. I was afraid of coming to this new life and adjusting and changing so suddenly … I’m really a social person, but not when I first came here because I was afraid. But then slowly, by my sophomore year, I started getting closer with people, and by my junior year, we were all like family.
Was there anything you did or told yourself to help get over the fear?
My way of fitting in and trying to make friends is me trying to be on everyone’s level. So, because I didn’t live here my whole life, I came here and I felt like I had so much to catch up on, plus make new friends. So I was like: Okay, you have to make like three times the effort my other peers are doing.
I joined sports, and music, and I did ceramics. These things are unconsciously me trying to fit in and kind of being like everyone else.
Is there anything you really miss about Syria?
I definitely miss my family, and I feel like there, my life was more stable because I came here so suddenly. Now my life is definitely stabilizing a lot, and I love it here, but I think I was just so used to life there. I was born there; I lived there my whole life. I miss my friends.
Life there was kind of easy. [Here] you’re always working, you’re always doing something, you have no time. Time goes by so fast. But there, it wasn’t like that. You would go out, and the day would go by so slow because you’re having a lot of fun — you’re comfortable.
What do you want to do now that you're out of high school?
I want to do architecture ... The place I lived my whole life is kind of falling apart and being destroyed. I can't contribute in any way to that because I can’t stop the war. But I think one of the ways I can contribute is by being an architect and maybe rebuilding it one day — going back and rebuilding it. Perhaps it's a big dream.
I also wanted to ask you a little bit about politics, because I know you touch on it in the documentary. How did you feel during the 2016 election, when now-President Trump first proposed banning Muslims from entering the U.S.?
When he was first running for president, I honestly didn’t think he was going to win whatsoever. I kind of like thought it was a joke, honestly. I didn't take it seriously at all.
But when he actually became president, I was like: Oh my god, this is getting real, and I don’t know how this is happening. So, I was a little bit fearful. But after his election, I saw so many Americans, especially minority groups, standing up with each other and saying “no” to the muslim ban, for example, and all these things that he’s doing and asking for.
You’re always going to have people standing by you, and that brings a lot of comfort for me.
If given the chance, what would you say to President Trump about his travel ban?
It’s obvious why I’m against it, but also, if I wasn’t blessed with American citizenship, I would have been in the place of these people. I have family here, and I wouldn’t have been able to visit them and come here. People are coming either to visit or even to seek refuge, and you’re banning these people who are seeking refuge, not what [you] call "terrorists."
Terrorists will make their way into anywhere. Terrorist are not just going to come from these countries. To me, it’s really unrealistic. You’re only banning the people who don’t have access to anything.
Is there anything you wish Americans knew about refugees moving here from places like Syria?
These are just people seeking refuge, and seeking a better life, and running away from terrorism that is going on in their country. These are people that feel so alone.
These are just normal people, and what happened to them was so sudden, and that can happen to anyone.
Dalya's Other Country will air on June 26 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

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