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
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.