Netflix's 'Degrassi: Next Class' Tackles Syrian Refugee Crisis

Courtesy of DHX Media

The returning teen soap humanizes Syria's bloody civil war by using Rasha and Saad, young Syrians coming of age in a Toronto high school, as a dramatic hook.

Netflix's Degrassi: Next Class, returning today for a third season of 10 new episodes, has dared to take Syria's refugee crisis as a dramatic setting.

Degrassi franchise creator and executive producer Linda Schuyler tells The Hollywood Reporter her writer's room just couldn't ignore the horrors of Syria's civil war dominating front pages in the last year. But humanizing the deadly conflict for Degrassi: Next Class goes beyond rubbing the audience's nose in Aleppo to letting teen angst speak loudest.

"We look at what's happening in the world and our job is not to make these stories political, or about social injustice, but to explore the authentic emotions characters might be going through," Schuyler explains. Among the new third season characters is a hijab-wearing Rasha Zuabi, played by Canadian actress Dalia Yegavian, and Saad Al'Maliki, a brooding young man played by fellow Canadian thesp Parham Rownaghi, who also struggles to find his footing in Canada.

The first episode opens with a big banner in front of the Degrassi high school that reads “welcome” in Arabic, and a second Arabic banner in the building's foyer that translates as “safe space for everyone." Despite that open embrace, cultures soon collide when a Muslim prayer room created for Rasha and Saad shares space with the Queer-Straight Alliance.

Goldi, a returning Muslim character, insists the LGBTQ students make the new Syrian students uncomfortable, prompting accusations she's homophobic. "We're not trying to suggest it's all sweetness and light. We do understand there are conflicts and difficulties," Schuyler said of real-life Syrian-Canadians trying to find their way here a year after Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made headlines worldwide by personally greeting planeloads of refugees arriving in Toronto.

Of course, the Degrassi franchise, which launched the acting careers of Drake and Nina Dobrev, has never shied away from controversial topics after earlier turning issues like abortion, rape and school shootings into primetime entertainment. Netflix in 2015 first picked up the long-running teen drama after it ended a 14-year run on MTV in Canada and TeenNick in the U.S.

But making Degrassi: Next Class audiences examine the inexplicable terror of a war-torn Syria that Canada's newest immigrants left behind calls for a host of dramatic plot twists. During one episode, Degrassi students discuss terrorism and Goldi is asked about Islam.

Rasha quickly jumps in to insist not all Muslims are terrorists. Rasha and Goldi later clash over what it means to be a "good Muslim," before an eventual sexual awakening for Rasha has her remove her hijab and start a secret lesbian relationship with Zoe, the acting school president.

Away from the streaming drama her team produces out of Toronto, Schuyler says she's proud Canada opened the door to Syrians fleeing violence and persecution in the face of a political backlash in the U.S. against refugees considered a possible terrorist threat.

"What we have said as a country is, we know there are difficulties, we know there are problems. But on a much larger scale, it's the human thing to do. It is the right thing to do," she said. "I'm very proud of our country for doing that, and I'm very proud right now that I do not live in the United States," Schuyler added.

In Canada, Degrassi: Next Class, produced by DHX Media, anchors a primetime block on Family Channel, F2N.

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