The Syrian refugee next door — From war-torn to Woodrow Wilson High School

Aiya Al-Mzayen (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
Aiya Al-Mzayen. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

‘I started to hear gunshots in the streets and see tanks blowing up rebels’

A lot has been said — both good and bad — about the 4.8 million Syrian refugees who fled near-daily violence seeking peace in whatever nation would take them. Their plight is so frequently used as political fodder, it is sometimes hard to find the humanity through the rhetoric. Syrians remain a rare minority of the refugees who have found sanctuary in our city — Myanmar, Afghanistan and Iraq being the largest strongholds. But Texas has resettled more Syrian refugees than any state in the nation, a total of 41,647 between 2010-15, with more coming every month. Only a handful have made homes in East Dallas, where they’re doing their best to carve out a new life in a foreign country, all while knowing loved ones still face danger back home. It’s not an easy task, especially when you’re a 16-year-old girl who is more used to the crack of gunfire than the silence of a peaceful street. But despite moments of longing for the country she once called home, she is thriving in her final year at Woodrow Wilson High School. True, it can be hard for her to connect with classmates — with a perspective forged in violent flames, how could anyone who hasn’t walked the path understand a journey quite like this?

‘I didn’t feel like I stuck out’ 

Aiya Al-Mzayen doesn’t look like a young woman who has faced death over and over in her young life. Walking into her prestigious summer internship at the Perot Museum, she is ostensibly a young professional beginning her day as a curator or guest services coordinator. With her fair skin and blonde hair, she’s not the picture most have in their minds when they hear “Syrian refugee.”

The daughter of two dentists, Aiya has a mixed heritage unlike many of her peers. Aiya’s mother, Kira, was born in Kazakhstan, formerly the Soviet Republic, and met her father, Sameer, when she was his professor at dental school. Aiya and her older sister Dasha were born in Kazakhstan while her parents practiced there, but after facing discrimination, the family moved to her father’s homeland in Damascus, Syria.

“School in Syria was very different,” Aiya says. “We went to class from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, and every day was a different subject. We didn’t get to pick our classes like we do here, and after seventh grade the genders are split apart for class.”

Aiya, who also speaks Russian, French and English, learned Arabic alongside her Russian-speaking mother upon moving to Syria. Even though she was a fair-skinned transplant, Aiya felt right at home in Damascus. “I didn’t feel like I stuck out, there was a lot of diversity.”

Aiya’s parents ran a dental clinic that was open late into the night, a community service they offered so patients didn’t have to miss hours at work to receive dental care. “Many times they would not charge their patients if they couldn’t pay,” Aiya remembers.

While she calls her childhood normal, it brimmed over with experiences that set her youth apart from most East Dallas teens. “Once I was walking down the road, and a woman spoke to me from a car, asking if I would like to marry her son who was a doctor. When I told them I was only 13, she asked if I had an older sister.”

The Al-Mzayen family’s neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, was largely leveled after they fled the area in 2014. (Photo courtesy of the Al-Mzayen family)
The Al-Mzayen family’s neighborhood in Damascus, Syria, was largely leveled after they fled the area in 2014. (Photo courtesy of the Al-Mzayen family)

‘What kind of government would kill kids?’

She was 11 when violence begin to envelop her country. “I remember seeing a story on the news about a boy who was tortured and killed because he wrote on a school wall that he didn’t like President Bashar Al Assad,”Aiya remembers. “People came out and protested and asked, ‘What kind of government would kill kids?’ ”

But still even then, the unrest seemed far away, not something she lived alongside. “This was out in the country, and didn’t really impact life in Damascus,” she says.

It didn’t stay that way for long. Six months later, tension between the government and its protestors reached fever pitch, with violent results across the nation. “The shootings and helicopters all became closer,” she says. “I started to hear gunshots in the streets and see tanks blowing up rebels who were fighting in Damascus.”

Buildings in her neighborhood shook from the explosions, and clouds of smoke became omnipresent along the horizon, signifying the deadly war’s steady creep toward the city.

The family’s Soviet heritage made them a target. Russian forces supported Assad’s government, and rebels became suspect of anyone with ties to that region. Despite the rising danger, Aiya remained a calming force in the family.

“I never feared death,” she says, “I just tried to calm my mother down when she would be freaking out.”

As bombs dropped and bullets whizzed across the city, it was difficult to keep track of who had been killed that day, creating perpetual anxiety. Lists of the dead were posted around the city and shared via Facebook. The city was a powder keg.

When the violence finally struck close to home, it shattered the family’s attempts at normalcy. Aiya was at a park with her mother and younger sister, Alya, when they heard the sharp crack of gunfire followed by a deafening boom. “Right before the shooting, my sister ran over to ask for a drink of water,” Aiya says. “Right where my sister had been playing, a man dropped a box near a trash can, and it was a bomb that exploded as the car drove away.”

The homemade explosive was full of metal and nails that left cuts and bruises on Aiya and her mother as they shielded her sister from the shrapnel.

The family’s home was in a geographically precarious position, between the warzone brewing across the highway and the Russian Embassy that rebels were set on destroying. Violence surrounded the family. When a rebel threw a bomb into a neighboring apartment, the whole building shook, Aiya says casually.

At her middle school, students were forced to attend pro-government protests, regardless of their position on the conflict. “I would say my school was about 50-50 with supporters of the government and supporters of the rebels,” Aiya estimates. At first students and faculty could openly discuss the conflict at school, but the violence had a chilling effect on free speech. “If anyone said anything at school, parents who worked for the government would be told and then you are dead,” Aiya says.

The war hit home for the Al-Mzayen family around Aiya’s 13th birthday. Her paternal grandfather decided he’d give her what every teen craves: cash. He was shot dead by sniper fire as he walked to the bank to get her gift. “I was very close with him, and was low-key responsible for his death,” Aiya says with a completely blank face.

Tragedy would soon strike again following her family’s generosity in the face of desperation. Many residents were forced to live in a park near the family’s apartment after their homes were bombed. They tried to help by bringing food to those displaced, an act the Assad administration saw as a sign of support for rebel forces. In response, government officials came to the family home and took Aiya’s father away.

He was tortured while in custody for several days, she says — whipped and electrocuted. While he was gone, armed men broke into their apartment and held Aiya, her mother and her sisters in the bathroom. “They held guns to our head and they took everything,” Aiya says, adding that she believes they were affiliated with the government. The men stole gold, jewelry, cellphones, laptops and money. “We never really put money in the bank, and had everything in the house. They took everything that was easy to carry. “

It took a hefty bribe to get Aiya’s father back to the family alive. One of his friends was cut up and returned piece by piece to his mother, a fate they avoided by handing over their remaining valuables. “When he came home, he was hardly alive, and I was like, ‘OK, wow,’ ” Aiya says.

The family knew they needed to flee Syria to survive. They left behind their home, their dental clinic, as well as Sameer’s mother and brother. Sameer’s brother would later be killed at the age of 23 with an iron rod, Sameer says. His mother remains in Syria. “She doesn’t want to leave, and wants to die where her husband and son died,” Sameer says.

At 16, Aiya Al-Mzayen is a thriving senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, where her class schedule is stacked with Advanced Placement classes. She also ran track and takes part in the school’s internship program. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)
At 16, Aiya Al-Mzayen is a thriving senior at Woodrow, where her class schedule is stacked with Advanced Placement classes. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

‘You will go to America’

They packed three bags between five people, and began the 37-mile walk to Lebanon, which proved especially difficult due to the family’s mixed bloodline. Aiya’s family was seen as the enemy on both sides of the conflict. Their Russian passports seemingly aligned them with the Assad administration in the eyes of the rebels, and their aide of the displaced victims colored them as rebels to the government. To avoid persecution, the family traveled over the countryside as they escaped Damascus, avoiding checkpoints along the roads.

They found their way to the Kazakh Embassy in Beirut, which helped them escape back to Kazakhstan. They lived with her mother’s parents while Aiya attended eighth grade and learned Russian. When asked to look back, Aiya starts to sound like a typical teen. “It was annoying being at my grandparents because I had to cook, and they are farmers and my grandparents were too critical of the young people,” she chides.

The Kazakh government would not extend her father’s visa, because of his Syrian background. He was told to go back to his country and fight, Aiya says.

Without visas, the family instead applied for refugee status, a decision that came with a painful consequence. Because Dasha was over 18 and considered an adult, she was not included in the family’s refugee application and was left behind to apply on her own. Dasha now lives in Dubai, but Aiya has not seen her in three years.

The family didn’t have any say in where the United Nations placed them. It took nine months and intensive background checks before they were approved as refugees. “They call you and then they say you can come,” Sameer says. “They said, ‘You will go to America,’ and we didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t a big problem.”

Sameer adds, “We talked to people who were waiting, just waiting. A lot of people are waiting for over a year to be approved. They choose people, and not every person gets chosen. Maybe it’s random, maybe it’s because of background checks, I don’t know.”

They were placed in Dallas in summer 2014 and have built a home on Garland Road. For Sameer, a dentist for 20 years, adjusting to life here has been especially difficult. “He lost his clinic, his home, everything,” Aiya says. He first worked in a warehouse before he was able to find work here as a dental assistant. He now works days and spends his free time studying to pass the board exams required to become an oral pathologist.

“When we arrived, there were no organizations to help us,” Sameer says. “Now there are plenty who help refugees get apartments and other things. We didn’t have any of that.”

Though frustrated with having to take jobs below his level of education, Sameer remains a hopeful and lifelong servant of his community. The Al-Mzayen living room is full of furniture they have collected and will pass on to other refugee families who relocate. “When we arrived, we had an empty apartment and sat on the floor. We want to help others so they don’t have the same problem,” he says.

When Aiya first arrived, she attended summer school at Rusk Middle School near Love Field Airport to help her learn English, but she did not find what she expected. “I thought everyone would be white in America, because of movies. When I walked in the cafeteria to see people of all different colors, I was shocked.”

Aiya was preemptively nervous about settling into America.

“I thought there would be a fancy group of girls who bullied everyone, that’s how y’all make it seem in the movies,” she says in her adopted dialect. “I had already accepted the fact that I would be made fun of and bullied for not knowing English. I was like, ‘I am going to be a loser,’ but that never happened. I was never made fun or bullied at all.”

Aiya has flourished in her new life in the states, though she misses the busy late nights of Damascus. “Life is over at 6 p.m. here,” she laments.

She’ll graduate from Woodrow Wilson this spring after just three years, due to her rigorous class load. Then it’s off to college to study medicine. She hopes to be a forensic pathologist with the FBI, one who determines the cause of death at crime scenes. It is a profession that is both fitting and haunting for a young woman who has come of age surrounded by violence and death.

Aiya’s experiences make her more confident and mature than most of her peers, but she has had trouble developing deep friendships. “People were always friendly, but I would only be interesting for a week. People will say that I am their friend because I am new, but I don’t really feel like I am friends with them, and there is no bond,” she shares.

Aiya’s best friend also is a transplant, though she is from Garland, not Damascus. “We get each other, and she lives close by. We are the same Zodiac sign and have the same characteristics, so I feel like we can actually talk.”

She’s found new life as an average East Dallas teen whose worries have shifted from homemade explosives and political tyranny, to mean girls and upcoming exams — albeit one with added perspective.

“Life has taught me to enjoy every day,” she says. “High school rumors still hurt, but whenever I look at the big picture, I am like, really? I am letting this affect me after a war that I have been through?


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