Working for Free

Today’s blog post was one of the hardest for me to write while I was compiling all of my stories for this memoir. It always evokes the same emotions when I think about it…the shock, the disappointment, and the gut-wrenching sadness…This post is about the time when I went back to the school that I had been teaching at for a long time now. The war was already going on and I had been laid off at this point already. It was winter and bitter cold and we were barely surviving on the little money I had saved. I remembered that at the end of the year if the school had a surplus they would distribute it amongst all of the teachers and staff. So I decided to try my luck and bike to the school and ask for what was rightfully mine. There were Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians who worked at this school- why should I have been denied my rights just because I was Muslim? Here is an excerpt of the story…

Irony of the List

“It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.”– James Baldwin

December 1992

The winter nights, cold, dark, and filled with fear, seemed endless. We quickly ran out of candles and, like many of our neighbors, we created a new source of light by burning cotton fabric strips soaked in vegetable oil. The new source of light produced clouds of smoke worse than the dense cloud of cigarette smoke in a crowded café. Nana, Samir and I gathered around it and shared our life stories to distract us from the fear of artillery or the sound of human steps. Once the rhythm of Samir’s breathing assured us that he was asleep, Nana and I would pray. We knew we had no refuge other than with God, so we asked for mercy, for the easing of our loneliness, and for protection, with so much sincerity that tears accompanied our words. We would chant: “La ilaha ilalah, La ilaha ilalah, La ilaha ilalah” (There is not god, but one God) until we fell asleep.

One night, as I closed my tired, worried eyes, the squeaking sound of footsteps on the wooden floor froze the blood in my veins. I didn’t know if a soldier, a ghost, or a burglar walked through the darkness a few meters from me. I panicked and tried to wake Nana up. When I touched her empty bed, I realized she must have been pacing in the dark room. My twitching nerves didn’t allow me to close my eyes the rest of the night.

The next morning I dressed warmly, placed the last of my money in my pocket, took my bicycle, and headed towards the pharmacy to buy sleeping pills for Nana and me. The cold north wind urged me to push the pedals fast. When I reached downtown, I heard someone shouting my name. I turned my head and recognized Mirsada, a worker from our school, running toward me.

“You cannot imagine what our coworkers are doing. They are giving payment to every employee who worked this year. Only five of us are not on the list. No paychecks for the Muslims.” Her voice was filled with disappointment and her eyes burned with wrath.

In our system there was a certain amount of money allotted to the school. In December, if there was a surplus, it was to be distributed as a bonus to employees based on how many days each had worked during that fiscal year. Since I had worked every day in 1992, I should not have been excluded.

“Wait! They must give us our part. We worked the entire year.” I clenched my fists. “I have to see for myself. Do you want to go with me?”

“I cannot. I am not sure that I’ll be able to control my temper.” She shook her head.

I grabbed my bicycle and headed straight to the school. My blood rushed and I didn’t feel cold anymore. I carried my bicycle inside and parked it under the steps. Teachers were waiting in line in front of the accountant’s office. I joined them and felt my heart thumping in anger and apprehension as I stood waiting. When I finally reached the head of line, the accountant, Mrs. Draganovic said, “I’m sorry Aisa, your name is not on the list. You need to talk to the principal. It is not my say.”

“Is everybody who worked this calendar year on the list?” I asked politely, looking at all people around me. Some of them looked at the floor, some looked through the window, and a few of them even looked at me, but didn’t speak. I didn’t move. I wanted them to witness discrimination and injustice.

Mrs. Draganovic sighed and said carefully, “I cannot make any changes. Go talk to the principal, please.” I noticed both, sadness and fear in her brown eyes.

I left he line and walked toward the principal’s office, remembering all the injustices he did toward me. I have to talk to him… fine. I am not afraid. I only fear God.

As I entered his office and walked toward his desk, his smile faded. He fixed his glasses and nervously straightened a pile of papers in front of him.

“Why isn’t my name on the list for the bonus pay?” Rage beamed from my eyes, but I controlled my voice. Words are like arrows, once released, they cannot be recalled Great wisdom is given to one who can control what is spoken and when. I was granted this gift, and for many years I had trained and perfected the skills necessary to tame my emotions.

He was still looking at the papers in front of him as if the answer has been written somewhere on them. Finally he raised is head and said, “Oh, are you inquiring about that little money?” He paused. “It is not salary, it is a gift for people who celebrate Christmas. We all know that Christmas isn’t your holiday and, therefore, you don’t qualify for it.” His lips moved in a horrible smile.

“I worked the entire year. Celebrating holidays has nothing to do with it. What you did is discrimination!”

As I pronounced the last word, raising my voice a bit, the principal stood up, put his glasses down, narrowed his eyes, and shouted, “How dare you say such things? You are questioning paying honest, hardworking teachers their bonuses for their holiday? You are the most ungrateful person!” He was yelling at this point and his face turned fiery red.

“I am not questioning Christmas, you know that very well. I am simply asking why I wasn’t paid what is lawfully mine,” I said in a firm voice.

He was quiet for a moment, lowered his voice, and said, “I have an idea. Don’t worry; I will give you the special increase for your holiday. Eid it’s called, right? I will make a request for a huge permanent increase in your salary, for the rest of your life. I’ll make an exception, only for you, so I will correct my discrimination. Are you satisfied? ” He chuckled.

My eyes barely held back my tears of anger. I couldn’t talk, but I prayed silently, Dear God, he is making fun of me. Obviously, he isn’t going to do anything about the pay. I am giving our disagreement to You, You are the best judge. Please give me the ability to control myself and be patient.

On my way home tears showered my face and I felt that the sky cried with me.

An Unforgettable Trip

This blog post is a piece of my story that I submitted to the StoryCorps, an organization with a mission to preserve the stories within each one of our lives and share them with the world. The story was recorded and also preserved in the #libraryofcongress, and is now an official part of the StoryCorps Archive. The official and full story will be published as part of my book. I would love to hear your suggestions and comments below!

“Is it a good idea to keep us here as though we were in a concentration camp?” asked Habiba. “Why can’t we travel like other people? Catholics are able to travel to Croatia, Serbs to Serbia. What can we do to make our trip possible, Aisa?”

Seka came in and joined our conversation. “You cannot lose anything if you ask her,” said Seka as her fingers played with her chin.

I contemplated about using a false I.D. card throughout the entire evening. One moment I saw myself caught at the border, frightened half to death as the police handcuff me and take me off to jail. The next moment I saw myself crossing the border without difficulty, hearing my daughter calling my name, feeling the hills reverberate to the sound of her voice, and looking after along three years at her beautiful face and into her sparkling blue eyes. My heart tightened with mix of anger and sadness when I looked at my name on my now useless I.D. card, the name I had always been proud, but now the name was preventing me from seeing my bellowed daughter. It seemed horrible that my name, the best present that my parents gave, had become wall separating me from my first born.

It was snowing as I walked toward the hospital, and I hunched inside my coat against the cold. As I entered the hospital, deep in thought about the I.D. card, I did not hear the noises and commotion that was going on around me. I thought about how would make my request, sighed, waited a few seconds, and then quietly knocked onto the office door. A great block of ice settled in my stomach.

The lady opened her eyes widely when she saw me enter. “Oh Mrs. Softic, how can I help you?”

It was the perfect question. I looked around the entire office. Glad that she was alone, I took a deep breath and said almost in a whisper, “I came to ask you to lend me your I.D. card.”

She frowned. I understood that she needed to know all the details, and, taking courage, I continued, “My daughter came to Germany from the United States. I haven’t seen her for three years. You know that I am Muslim and cannot travel anywhere. If I have your I.D. card, I’ll be able to travel to Belgrade,” I said, looking deeply into her eyes.

She sat very quietly as I spoke, and I could tell by the look on her face that my words had not softened her heart.

“I will be going alone,” I continued rapidly, my hope fading, “I will be leaving my son and ailing mother-in-law behind here in our home. I will spend only two days with my daughter. That is it.”

I looked at what was left of my hope, but she was silent, and her face had turned to stone. I knew that I had asked a great deal, but mother’s heart was heedless, seeking only the small laminated card that would open the way to meet my child. To see her again would bring me endless happiness.

“Why are you asking me? Don’t you have any friends who will help you?”

“You and I have physical similarities. I hope that I could pass the border with your picture,” I said, holding down the feeling that she didn’t want to help me.

“It is a very sensitive issue. I will have to talk to my husband,” she said as she looked down at the papers on her desk.

“It is a very sensitive, yes,” I said, desperately searching for a way to soften her heart. “If you were in my shoes, I would do it for you.” I paused. “I don’t have any legal way to travel and meet my child. I am Muslim, a prisoner in my own homeland,” I said, ready to cry. “Our religious differences do not matter. We are mothers and only we know how much we love our children. If someone told me I had to walk on hot coals the entire 250 kilometers to Belgrade to see my daughter, I would do it without hesitation.” My tears prevented any further discussion and I turned and walked toward the door.

“I’ll inform you tomorrow what my husband decides,” she said as I left her office.

How it All Started- A Flashback to Bosnia’s War

“You were born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within you.

         It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do same.” Nelson Mandela


August, 2010

The telephone’s insistent ring blended with the sound of a school bell in my dream. For a moment, I did not know where I was. Was I in the school in Bosnia where I had once taught or was I in my American home? When I finally realized the sound was my phone, I jumped from my bed, stumbled across the room, and answered the phone.

“I know it is very early in Cincinnati, but I couldn’t wait; I want to congratulate you,” said my sister, Dervisha. “You finished your Master’s degree; I couldn’t sleep from excitement.”

The first rays of the morning sun pierced the horizon just as we ended our call. The rays lit the photos arranged on my desk, and I saw myself as a preschool girl with my parents, brothers, and sister in our old house. The sun moved behind a cloud and my room darkened. The wind outside blew through the trees and I feared the coming storm. I glanced at the living room door and memories of my father flooded my mind. I had a clear image of him as he died holding and supporting himself with a door frame in our Bosnian home.

As quickly as the dark memories appeared, the sunlight outside returned and, for a moment, danced again on my school pictures. Ah, school – my destiny. I had spent more than half a century, as a student and teacher, in schools. I recalled my days as a teacher in Bosnia, picturing my classrooms, my students, their smiles, my lessons, and my last teaching day.

But clouds were playing against the sun, and the images on my desk faded into an image of a Serbian soldier who grabbed me at a bus station, his hands as rigid as a steel trap on my shoulders. I remember how his cold machine gun had brushed my face and how he shouted, “Are you crazy! If you don’t get yourself on the bench immediately, I’ll kill you. Can you hear me? I’ll kill you!” I could still remember his cold, stone-like appearance and my certainty that he intended to rape me. I turned a light on in my American home to stop the awful memories.

A sudden burst of thunder startled me and other memories of the war resurfaced. It was no longer thunder that I heard, but rather, from out of my past, the sharp sound of explosions. I stood in silence, but the explosions embedded deep in my memory became louder and louder, forcing my heart to beat rapidly. The sounds of machine guns accompanied by the blasts of thunder turned my hands to ice and I shivered. I remembered for a moment the destroyed villages and towns in Bosnia, the broken boards on sidewalks, the bricks, and the shattered glass from the windows of houses, mosques, and businesses that lined the once lively streets. During the war, chaos and destruction were everywhere.

The lightning illuminated memories of thousands of Bosnian refugees on their unforgettable journey from Bosnia and Croatia. The refugees twisted the Brotherhood and Unity Bridge from dawn to late in night in a huge undulating line that looked like the biggest and ugliest snake on the Earth. Elderly residents, wishing to take their the last breath in their homes, were standing on the Sava River’s Bosnian shore, waving with their shaky, wrinkled hands and drying their tears as they called their grandchildren’s names. “Hassan, Hussein, Fatima, Amra, Leila, Said, Yusuf, Ibrahim…..don’t forget Nana, don’t forget Grandpa, don’t forget Bosnia.” The wind had muffled their words and wrapped their sentences in the river’s waves.

My reminiscing faded as heavy rain pelted my windows. I walked a few steps, collapsed on the bed, and covered my face with my hands. Uninvited, the memories came again, and I saw a soldier in my wheat field wielding an axe. I moved my head toward the door and met another soldier ready to enter my house. I recalled my friend, Yelena, giving me her I.D. card so that I could attempt to cross the Serbian border. Tears rolled down my cheeks and my hands still trembled.

I believe that God heard our prayers and saved us during the last Bosnian war, so we thank Him and spread words about His power and His blessings. Our only weapons were our prayers. I never prayed more seriously before – crying out and asking God for protection – as I did during the war. I had nobody to defend me, no human power to rely on.   God prepared me, built my strength, he gave me special tasks and placed me in special families with strong grandmothers, and great parents and to Him, I offer my undying gratitude.