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Interview for

Aya Al-Mzayen


Interviewed By:

Chesley Chan

Date Interviewed:

Audio Recording of Interview
00:00 / 37:47

A refugee from Syria, Aya discusses the outbreak of the civil war, the violence she and her family faced in the capital, losing family members, and the process of fleeing for the United States. She describes how she wrestled with her faith in light of her experiences, her sense of isolation, and her struggle to find community in Dallas, Texas.

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Additional Notes

Narrator: Aya Al Mzayen

Date: 08/06/20

Location: Dallas, TX

Summary: A refugee from Syria, Aya discusses the outbreak of the civil war, the violence she and her family faced in the capital, losing family members, and the process of fleeing for the United States. She describes how she wrestled with her faith in light of her experiences, her sense of isolation, and her struggle to find community in Dallas, Texas.

Topics: civil war, perception of violence, violence, danger, family, maturity, being a role model, forced resettlement, abuse of power, doubt in God, belief in God, religious intolerance, acclimation, affinity groups, diversity, belonging, pandemic


Section 1: (00:00 - 09:39)

  • Unrest at home - Violence against government dissidents broke out slowly in Syria around 2010, starting off as retribution for protests and anti-government rhetoric in the form of human mutilation and resulting in dictatorial imposition of violence.

  • Perception of violence - The conflict started in the rural parts of Syria, where Aya felt the problem would play out and be resolved. Slowly, the violence made its way into the capital, where she lived, permeating and disturbing her everyday life.

  • Violence - Aya saw gunshots, bombs, protests, and more right outside of her window. Her family lived next to the Russian embassy, which resulted in even more exposure to violence on account of the involvement of Russia in the conflict.

  • Immediate danger - Aya and her mother were walking on the street when they started hearing gunshots, so they started to leave. A car dropped something off on the street, and the two of them were hit by a makeshift bomb filled with nails. They felt isolated and without protection.

Section 2: (09:39 - 15:20)

  • Perseverance - Aya is typically calm, especially in contrast with more dramatic reactions to violence from her family. She related this to COVID, where everyone is in it together, so there is more faith that things will get better.

  • Maturity - Aya was forced to grow up quickly in the face of such danger. As one of the older siblings, she has felt overprotective over the rest of her family.

  • Family separation - Aya’s older sister was forced to resettle in Dubai because she could not enter the United States together with the family. Aya’s younger sister has never met her oldest sister, and this policy has continued to isolate her oldest sister from being present for major family events.

Section 3: (15:20 - 19:46)

  • Blacklisting - Those who were not with the Syrian government were assumed to be against. Aya described checkpoints, one of which being the cause of her uncle’s death.

  • Senseless death - Her uncle was a cancer survivor who was beaten up by the authorities after going through a checkpoint. His heart was unable to withstand the pressure of these blows and he suffered a painful death.

  • Abuse of power - Aya described the violence she experienced as being fun for those who perpetrated it. This was especially true because they experienced no consequences from their abuse.

  • Evacuation - The journey of fleeing Syria stood out as especially tiring. Aya reflected on the realization after the fact that her mother was pregnant while her family was fleeing, something incredibly taxing.

Section 4: (19:46 - 28:17)

  • Doubt - Aya and her family are Muslims, but her experience has created doubt in her mind. She wrestled with why these struggles must be happening to her, especially in a world of so much happiness and many rewards.

  • Faith - God is always there, even when you are feeling especially alone and vulnerable. Everything happens as intended and the good parts of life have been brought about by the same forces which brought the bad.

  • Persistence - God sends the toughest battles to the strongest people, which is something that Aya has grappled with, although she has humorously reflected that she could do without it.

  • Feeling alone - Prayer fills lonely silence, especially in an attempt to control what is most often uncontrollable. Prayer also requires patience, but often results in a positive outcome by facilitating this necessary patience.

  • Fitting in - The United States creates harmful assumptions around who someone is based on their identity, name, or faith. Aya experiences a shift between how someone initially perceives her and their impression of her after she says her name.

  • Acclimation - It often feels isolating to acclimate to a new culture and doesn’t happen easily because of the environment of the US. Religion helped her get through these challenges.

Section 5: (28:38 - 32:39)

  • Community - Finding a new American community in Dallas, TX has come with a lot of difficulty and not a lot of success.

  • Skin color - Aya finds difficulty fitting into her affinity communities because she doesn’t feel like she looks enough like any one of them. She doesn’t really associate with these communities that don’t feel like the right fit to her.

  • Affinity group identification - Different communities, especially those related to ethnicity, are often close knit and hard to break into. People are naturally drawn to people who look like them or who are from their place of origin, but she has found herself feeling most comfortable in the African American community.

  • Cultural differences - Back at home in Syria felt less divided in terms of community. The US seems to put more weight on everyone’s differences, so that she feels too divided between different communities.

  • Learning by living - Aya learned just how much research into a new place is needed. There are different expectations for speech and behavior in the United States than in Syria, which need to be learned.

Section 6: (33:05 - 37:40)

  • American culture - Aya has the conception that everyone in America is white, which is not what she experienced. She realized the country is actually much more of a melting pot, which is different from American movie portrayals.

  • Race relations - In Syria, there were people of different ethnicities which rarely mingled, compared to the United States, where everyone is thrown into the same areas and communities.

  • Language barrier - She had to learn the language as fast as possible, but is slowly improving and has definitely reached a point of smooth communication. The hardest part of the English language for her is punctuation.

  • Pandemic - Staying with only family for the most part is really challenging. Protests bring up the feelings of America’s skeletons that aren’t always apparent from the outside, but abundantly clear upon arrival to the United States.

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