Courage and housing Refugees

It’s Monday! This week’s post is about helping other refugees. Sometimes when you are stuck in this terrible world of destruction and calamities all you can think about is your immediate family. Their safety, well-being, where we will get the next food, and shelter..let alone other families who might be going through the exact same fears and emotions. This post humbled me because I happened to take in five families that were going through just that.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”   Nelson Mandela

 

Refugees Occupied My House

Travel was impossible during Nana’s illness, but now my resilience to fight for our home and justice were waning, and submission had taken over. The walls became quiet, and instead of echoing Nana’s prayers they began to straightjacket my soul. Even a light touch of wind on a window or door made me jump in anticipation of who was on the other side. I ran through the calendar and counted the days remaining in Samir’s school year.

I sensed that May 1 would be my last Labor Day at home, and I made fresh bread dough.  As I washed my hands, an ear-piercing explosion knocked me away from the sink. The sound of grenades explosions shook the house over and over again.

Breathing heavily, I ran upstairs and called, “Habiba, Habiba!  Grenades are exploding!”

“I don’t know what is going on!” she whisped. She covered her face with her hands. “Karadzic said he is dragging Bosnia into hell and the Muslim nation into annihilation. It looks like he is achieving his goals.”

At eight o’clock on the TV the Zagreb channel featured the headline, “CROAT ARMY ATTEMPTING TO FREE SLAVONIA AND RE-OPEN THE HIGHWAY.”

We looked at each other and Habiba said, “I am going home to pack our suitcases.”  She shook her head. “Please send my children home.”

I decided to wash clothes to try to lower my anxiety. As I spread the washed clothes on a rope, our neighbor Cvijeta signaling me to come closer.

“I came here to catch my breath. I couldn’t believe what is going on.”  She sighed. “The Croatian army have the newest European and American weapons. They are killing thousands of Serbs civilians and throwing them out of their homes. Croats are on the other side of the Una River only 40 kilometers away. They will be at the Sava River very soon.”

“What should we do?” I asked surprisingly.

“Oh poor Serbian civilians,” she said, clearing her throat. “I hope the Croats are not coming to Bosnia now, but you never know. We are so close to the border.” She blinked several times.

“I feel sorry for all the civilians suffering in this war,” I said, thinking of the many Muslim civilians killed in the war by both Serbs and Croats.  Each made its own concentration camps and torture centers, and each interned thousands of Muslims.

“I’ll be at home all day. If you need my help, please let me know,” I said, picking up my empty laundry baskets and ran through my garden to Habiba to share the news.

“This fighting isn’t good for us. The Serbs will come here from Croatia and push us out from our homes. Go home and pack your suitcase!” Her explanation made sense, but I just didn’t want to accept it.

“Why do we need to pay the price for their fights?” I was angry.

On my way home anxiety and fear took over. I went upstairs, collected all the books that had served as a hiding place for money, took documents, and jewelry and brought them all downstairs. I was exhausted, but adrenaline prevented me from getting any rest.

A few minutes after three o’clock, a heavy knock on the door scared me. I left some books on the floor and opened the door. A soldier, brandishing his weapons, was on my front steps.

“Mrs. Softic,” he said in a loud, intimidating voice. The people sitting on a truck in the driveway grabbed my attention. “My family and friends are coming to your house.” He signaled for the people on the truck to come in. I stood at the door, confused. When all of them had entered, I walked back inside as though I was one of the intruders.  My eyes stopped on the three elderly ladies, surprised by their sad look. One of them who dried her tears with the corners of her black scarves and sighed deeply. Five young ladies carried the children.

I rushed to the kitchen without finishing counting all of them and brought on the table all the food that I had.  “The food is ready,” I said looking at the younger ladies. “Please help yourselves, and feed your children. I am going to make soup, more fresh bread, and a lot of tea. We will have enough food for everybody. Please come to the kitchen, and I’ll try to help you.”

. Two elderly women came into the kitchen.  Still crying, one of them told me that their sons hadn’t been able to break through the Croat army line. Being a mother myself and having lived with my very ill mother-in-law when her son, a doctor, hadn’t been able to help her in the most critical moment of her life, I felt their emotions. I forgot that they were our enemies; and, since they had come to my house, I looked at them and served them as my guests.  There is no true victory in a war. Civilians are paying the price, I thought.

The soldier in uniform was in charge.  In the late afternoon more people came to the house without asking my permission. I was continually fixing food for newcomers, and the whole house smelled of fresh baked bread. I did not have time to pay attention to the sound of shootings going on outside. In the twilight, I met the soldier in the hallway, and he looked like some of the hatred had vanished from his eyes.  “Thank you for your help. It was very nice of you, but you really don’t need to serve us. We have enough young people here to take care of the children and the elderly.”

I looked at him, puzzled. Is he the same soldier? Did my bread change his heart?

“I am glad to help,” I said. “Let me know if you need more food or blankets.”

“We must use your rooms. We need a place to live, and we have no other choice,” he said softly. “You can keep one room downstairs for you and your son.” He paused. “Our people are going to use your kitchen. You can cook in your kitchen too.”

Just then a strong male voice calling my name interrupted our conversation. I was surprised when I saw my cousin Redjo, his wife, and their six children on the steps.

“We are terrified to stay in our own home tonight,” Redjo said. “Many Serbs are coming from Croatia, and we are frightened they could come to our home and kill us. May we please sleep here?”  Redjo whispered, holding a baby in his hands.

“Yes, of course!” I said and walked towards the kitchen.  “Thank God we have enough space in the kitchen for your family.” I had two sofas and several blankets for Redjo’s family.

“We have many guests tonight.” I did not mention who they were.

When Seka, Habiba and her children came to our room, we locked the door and made places to sleep. Samir and Muhamed, Habiba’s son, slept on the sofas, but Habiba, her daughter Aldiana, Seka, and I sat close to each other and listened carefully to all the sounds in and around the house.

“How many people are in the house?” Seka asked softly.

“More than 30,” I whispered.

“I’m frightened,” Habiba said, “frightened that they may come upon us in the night and kill us all. Some of them looked very angry.”

“I am not sure that we are safe in this house anymore,” said Seka as she pulled the coffee table closer to the door.

“It is good that Redjo came with his family here,” I said softly. “The Serbs don’t know who he is, and they may think he is our protector.”

Around midnight all sounds ceased. Habiba and I shared our fearful thoughts until the roosters announced the coming of a new day. I walked through the house, silent as a shadow, and made myself ready for prayer.

When Redjo recognized the people in the kitchen, he jumped up as though a hornet had stung him, signaled his older boys, grabbed the hands of his young children, and ran outside. I followed them carrying a basket with bread and sour cream. Once outside Redjo’s wife and I spread sour cream on dinner rolls and gave them to the children who were still half asleep.

“Why didn’t you warn me who your guests are?” Redjo protested.

“Thank God, we survived,” his wife said as they walked home.

The kitchen became a beehive. I showed the ladies how to mix powder and water to make milk and where the tea herbs, coffee, and sugar were. When I began making another ball of bread dough, the elderly lady came close to me and touched the dough. “Thank you for making bread. Everyone likes it.”

“If we have bread, we cannot go hungry,” I said, still kneading the dough. “Look, Monday, May 8, is a holiday for me. I am Muslim, and I celebrate Eid. I’ll make pitas for all of us that day,”

“Are you really Muslims?” she whispered and our eyes met. I didn’t understand what she wanted to know. She noticed my confusion and then clarified, “Your mother, father, husband, and children are Muslims too?”

“Yes, we are all Muslims,” I answered washing my hands.

“I’ve never met Muslims before.  I thought that Muslims were different: dirty, unfriendly, ignorant – that they were all our enemies. I didn’t want to come here yesterday, and I especially didn’t want to end up spending the night with Muslims.”  She became quiet for a moment. “But your hospitality and generosity have surprised me.” The tone of her voice sounded like an apology.

I surveyed the area with a few quick glances and whispered, “God is one. He created Adam and Eve. All of us are their children, one family with similar souls and bodies. We are born with different talents and different abilities and we are divided into different religions, races, and groups in order to help and learn from each other. It is people who breed pride and hatred, spread misunderstanding and even blood on this earth in the name of religion, ethnicity, culture, or tradition. But every one of us has to return to one God and answer to Him about our deeds and doings on this earth.”

“You are right,” she said with a gentle smile.

After lunch a strange mix of screaming, crying, and laughter was coming from upstairs. I ran to the hallway, and heard, “Mr. Golic just came back from Croatia. His family and friends are shouting and crying for joy.”

I didn’t want to disturb their celebration and went back to my room. The older lady opened the door, and the soft glow in her eyes touched my heart.

“Thank God, my son came.” She paused. “We are leaving your house now, and I want to thank you for everything you did for me and all of our families.” She opened her old arms and embraced me.

“I am only sorry that we had to meet under these terrible circumstances,” said a strong voice coming from a tall, middle aged, exhausted officer. He sat on the steps, covered his face with his hands. “Oh, Mrs. Softic, our leaders, Serb leaders, betrayed us.” He sobbed. “At the beginning of the war they gave us weapons and instructed us to resist Croatian politics. They promised to support us to build Serbs Krajina. Yesterday they left us to defend ourselves! This is a great shame!” Tears rolled down his cheeks.

I was quiet, uncertain of what to say.

“Western Europe, especially Germany, that old bitch, gave the Croats the best weapons. They killed many Serbs yesterday.” He stood up and pointed with his finger. “I am going to Banja Luka to kill Croat families and take their homes. Their soldiers pushed me from my home, and that is what I will do to them.” He paused. “Thank you for taking care of my family.”

Repeating History

In light of what happened last week in North Carolina and Texas, this week’s story is a eerily similar look at the past of how Muslims were discriminated against in Bosnia. Personally, I feel that these authorities were hate crimes, and Muslims were specifically targeted. I have lived through this in Bosnia. But I pray that the families find teh strength and guidance to continue to live and get through this tough time and that the mosque in Texas is rebuilt soon. I pray that the proper authorities take action and investigate the situation fairly and thoroughly. For articles to the two incidents I am referring to please see:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/11/chapel-hill-shooting-victims-remembered-as-selfless.html

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/2/13/arson-eyed-in-houston-area-mosque-torching.html

And if you can, please visit Deah Barakat’s Go Fund Me page where he was collecting funds to provide much needed dental care to Syrian refugees in Turkey. These refugees have been on the run for four years because of the war in Syria and have no money or proper access to dental care. Let’s continue this great humanitarian effort in Deah’s honor:

http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/syrian-dental-relief/206249

Hatred

It was cold February 1995. I tried to call my sister but the phone had no sound.  I checked the phone cord and the plugs at both ends.  Everything seemed fine, but the phone was dead. “The telephone worked last night,” I mumbled to myself. “So, what is wrong this morning? This cold weather we are having must have damaged the wires.”

I walked over to the window and looked at the early morning sky, pale blue, almost white, that mirrored in our icy garden. The sun seemed frozen, and its light was weak in the winter cold. A few people were walking down with their clouds of white breath coming out from their hidden faces. What are they doing in this cold? Are they fixing the wires for our phones?

I dressed warmly to go to work hoping that the phone problem would be repaired by the time I returned home. I met my neighbor, Mrs. Fetah confused, as if she was looking for guidance in a chaotic world.  “Is your telephone disconnected? I met Serbs who are disconnecting Muslim’s phones,” she whispered.

“Disconnecting?” I couldn’t comprehend it. “Oh, I thought they were fixing them” I paused. “Yes, my telephone is dead. I checked everything but couldn’t seem to figure out why it wasn’t working.”

“We are cut off from the world, completely vulnerable and unable to call for help,” she whispered. Fear and anger covered her face.

The anger and cold had squeezed my skin tight against my bones, and my eyes bulged like ping-pong balls. “My husband and daughter call me every week from the United States. I cannot afford to call them! What should I do now?”

“Maybe people in Merhamet can help you out,” said Mrs. Fetah softly.

When I got to Merhamet, my co-workers’ first question was, “Is your telephone disconnected?”

I realized that our entire work force was cut off. Everyone in the office was obviously worried.  We had all lost hope that this terrible war would end any time soon.

Sanela tapped my shoulder and said, “You must know somebody in the Government Building, your ex-students or ex- co-workers. Go there and question, protest, do something! They could help us and connect our phones.”

“I know Ratko Micanovic, the former teacher from our high school. I am surprised that he holds a position in the ministry in the Serb government. He was aloof, almost antisocial in the school.” I shook my head. “I will go and talk to him, but I am not optimistic.”

Mr. Bacic turned his head and said, “In this defective society people do not fit their position personally, nor professionally. As Muslims we don’t have any legal way to fight for our rights and justice.”

I walked to the Government Building recalling my pain when I fought to save my wheat crop and when I attempted to travel to see my daughter. My stomach churned and my heart raced the entire way.

As I entered Mr. Micanovic’s office, the stale air stank of cigarette smoke and liquor made me uneasy to breath. My former colleague sat rigid behind his desk, furrowing his brow as he attempted to manufacture an artificial smile. An antique wooden clock on the wall behind him ticked away the seconds.

He frowned fiercely, when I mentioned the disconnected phones. “Have a seat, Mrs. Softic,” he said. “All my life I have had listen to the disgusting stories of how the Turk-Muslims treated Serbs. They took Serbs’ kids from their mothers and raised them as Muslims. Mehmed Pasha Sokolovich was one of those kids. Can you imagine how Serbs react to the memory of those brutalities?” His eyes revealed hatred, and his voice found courage as he spoke. “I swore to God and myself that I’d take revenge, that I will do the same to Muslims as they did to Serbs hundreds of years ago.” He kept on talking, but I was no longer able to listen to his words. My mind was spinning, caught in the tornado of his blind hatred.

I felt a shiver in my legs, and I stood up. I realized that there was no way we were going to be able to have a useful discussion. I came to him with a specific problem, and he purposely avoided it by immediately launching himself into a hate-filled discussion of an injustice that took place long before either of us was born. Why should I pay in 1995 the price for what happened hundreds of years ago?

“My mother-in-law is very sick,” I said. “I am not sure how long she will last. We…”

“I cannot help you,” he interrupted. “My mother-in-law is Catholic. Her telephone has been disconnected also. Can you imagine how my wife feels?” For a few seconds he moved his lips in a wild, shrieking laugh. “But I can’t change anything. I have to follow Serbian policies uncompromisingly.” He frowned and shouted in a gruff, mannish voice. “I cannot treat you as a former colleague. I think of you as my enemy from hundreds of years ago.”

I tried to think to bring light to his darkness. I was ready to tell him that angry people attempt to harm one another and that anger is not healthy, but his telephone rang. He ignored it and finished his ominous lecture. “We don’t trust Muslims.” He smiled a little bit. But that shadow of a smile disappeared and his voice became stern.  “We have to finish our job. Our Republic must be cleansed of Muslims. Because of international pressure we will have to keep two to three percent of the Muslim senior population, but they will die of natural causes in a few years, and then we will be completely clean.” There was pride in his voice as he finished.

“What are you talking about,” I asked sharply. “We have to break that cycle. If we continue to plant seeds of hatred, we will continue to harvest the murder and war we see around us now!”  I stood up. “Put yourself in my shoes if you want to see my feelings. Hatred is destroying our human personality, pushing us back to middle age and to this terrible war. All of us must help each other to end this awful war and build bridges of love and humanity. We need to create Bosnia as a country of ‘one nation, under God, invisible, for liberty and justice for all.’”  I closed his door.

My First Job in America

Happy Monday! To freshen things up a bit, I decided to post one of my excerpts from life after the war and adjusting to life in the United States. Before coming here I didn’t know the language, didn’t have a job, and was still adjusting to the place where I was living. It was extremely hard as any refugee will tell you and finding a job was difficult, stressful, and intimidating because of all of those factors. There was a lot of pressure to find a job fast because I still had to support my family, so this along with learning the ropes of a new job was just too much. This story is about when I accepted a job as a school bus driver and ultimately quit. Read on, and as always comments, shares, likes are always appreciated!

The School Bus Driver

I came to the United State from war-torn Bosnia – a refugee who had lived in fear of my life. My family and I were trying to start a new life and I needed a job desperately. But how could I find one, fill out an application, and go to an interview when I knew almost no English? I was fluent in Bosnian and Russian, and had studied Latin, but my wealth of language skills was of no more use to me than the house and the gardens I had left behind when I fled my homeland.

I enrolled in a language school to learn English. After a few months the teacher assigned us an essay about work we wanted to do as Americans, the contribution we wanted to make to our new country. I thought about the topic, looked at the blank paper in front of me, and recalled my days as a teacher in Bosnia. Suddenly the memories flooded my mind. I pictured my classrooms, my students, their smiles, my lessons, the graduation trips and ceremonies. My students were gone, and with them all the joy and sense of accomplishment that teaching had given me.  It was all part of the past – gone forever. My future was bleak and blank as the sheet of white paper in front of me.  Tears, my only friends, dripped onto the paper.

The teacher noticed and asked me softly, “Aisa, do you have any skills?”

I didn’t know enough English to tell her that I had been a teacher, and that my heart was still in my classrooms in my old country. I simple answered, “I was teacher.”

“Do you know how to do something with your hands?” she stirred her hands as if she was moving a steering wheel.

“I drive car,” I said in broken English, moving both of my hands as she had.

She looked at my hands, blinked her eyes and asked, “Can you drive a school bus?”

“Oh, school bus, yes, yes.” My face cleared like the sky after a spring shower and I felt my heart lighten. It was a great idea. I could be with students again; a bus could be my classroom. I found a dry place on my paper and wrote, “I drive school bus.”

My teacher helped me to enroll in a school for bus drivers. The first day I hid behind the other students. I didn’t know the meaning of words like “curves,” “intersections,” “engine,” “windshield,” and “wipers.” I knew the meaning of the word “break,” as in “lunch break” and “work break,” but I couldn’t connect the word with a bus. Why does a bus driver need a lunch break or a work break while transporting children? I asked the teacher to give me a book to take home. With help of a dictionary, the words eventually clicked. I even saw pictures of a bus’s brakes. After one month of studying, I passed the written tests for professional drivers and rest of the summer I spent as much time as possible behind the wheel of a school bus practicing.

By the beginning of the new school year I had a job as bus driver, transporting the students with special needs. The bus was huge, making driving difficult on Cincinnati’s narrow, hilly streets. On the first day I drove very carefully, slowly, like a turtle. The box above my head made a buzzing sound that distracted me. I tried to ignore it, but the buzzing just went on and on.

“Hey driver, answer the radio. It is buzzing for you,” said my co-worker.

“I am busy driving the bus. I don’t have time.” I could hardly take one hand off the steering wheel to wipe the sweat off my forehead.

“Our boss is asking why we are late. Parents are nervous,” said the co-worker as she finished radio conversation.

Safety first, I want to bring the children home alive. The parents don’t know how difficult the bus is to handle on unknown streets, I thought silently in my Bosnian.

It took me three to five minutes to get a student in a wheelchair out the bus, and all the while I had the bus stop sign and red lights on, completely blocking all traffic in both directions, tense rush- hour drivers leaning on their horns in frustration. It sounded like Bosnian’s wedding. Hey guys, I am a new bus driver. Wait a minute!

I lasted only two weeks. One dark morning with rain pouring down, I was too scared to drive, admitted my weakness, and quit. Time moves. Driving school bus guided me were my heart wants to be. I am now an American citizen in classroom again teaching the students I used to drive. I still have a professional driver’s license, a memory of my short bus-driving career.

The Car

Happy Monday! This week’s post is continuing on in my memoir with the next visit from Serbian soldiers resulting in them taking away my car. Read on, and as always comments, shares, likes are appreciated! 🙂

The Car

The knock on my door froze blood in my veins. While I glanced through the curtains, two men were standing at my front door. A tall slender man with long oily hair in civilian clothes and no visible weapons was banging the door with his fist. He was accompanied by a short, wide-shouldered man with clean black hair. I couldn’t see their faces very well. As the tall man increased frequency and volume of his banging, I sensed trouble, and opened the door.

The short man turned his almost rectangular face with deep, dark owl’s eyes toward me. He tried to move the corners of his thin lips into a smile and mumbled, “We are looking for Mrs. Softic. Oh, oh, I recognize you. You are Mrs. Softic.”

The tall man climbed one front house step biting his lower lip. A beard partially covered the yellow skin stretched tight across the bones of his face.  I was shifting my glance from one face to the other in the hope of figuring out who they were and why they had come to my house.

“Mrs. Softic, I don’t know how to explain the reason for our visit. It isn’t easy to explain, but you are a smart woman, and you’ll understand.” The short man paused, and his lips danced into a smile. “You know the war is going on. You can imagine soldiers’ lives. We are safe here with our families while they are defending us in a war zone.” He paused. “Our soldiers need cars to come home to visit their families. The army has ordered us to take your car for their needs.  Is your car in the garage?”

I thought of a Petar Kocic, a Bosnian satirist who wrote about the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia. In the play, David Shtrbac, the police came several times to collect excessive taxes from David, a poor farmer. Because David could not pay each time the police came, they took one of David’s animals, beginning with his valuable cow. Each time David thanked the “merciful emperor” for relieving him of the burden of caring for the animals. Now I was about to lose my car, and suddenly I felt like David, but I wisely held my tongue.

“Give us the key. We will write a document stating that we took your car,” said the tall man.

“I’ll give you the key, but I’ll need to keep the car battery. We connect the battery to our radio so that we can hear the news. Bring another battery and take the car,” I said politely.

“What are you saying? Are you joking with us? Do you want me to destroy your entire house and show you how we make jokes?” The tall man screamed crazily, violating my personal space. “Your husband is fighting Serbs in Sarajevo or Zenica, and you are joking with us, with our army?”

I took a few steps back, and the short man came between us. “Wait, wait, both of you wait!” He faced his friend and said, “Mrs. Softic didn’t mean to keep the battery.  We cannot drive the car without the battery. She knows that.”

Suddenly he returned to me and said, “Mrs. Softic, my friend came from the war zone last night. He wanted to come alone to take your car. He is tired, and he cannot control himself. That is why I came with him. I don’t want to see anything bad happen here. We don’t need that. You understand the situation here.”

“Let me show her,” the tall man roared. “She is like a turkey gobbling in a big house. My parents are in the basement. She is playing games with the battery. She must get off Serb territory! She must go where other balijas (very rude name for Muslims) are!” The tall man shouted.

“Mrs. Softic, give us the key and the battery, I don’t know how long I will be able to restrain this man. I told you…” he said, making the sign for a crazy man and tilting his head and eyes at his tall companion.

I went to the house, grabbed the key and the battery, and handed them over. The tall man moved a cigarette from his shaking hand to his thick lips and grabbed the battery. The short man took the key. I opened the garage door and waited outside. I heard their voices for a few minutes, and then the sound of the engine starting. The car slowly backed out of the garage, turned onto the street, and disappeared.

My heart tightened as I looked into the empty garage. It seemed horrible with all the holes in the door, a gigantic hole in the wall, and empty darkness inside.