The Trip Preparations

Hope everyone is having a great week! This week’s entry is about the difficult beginning of the journey towards safety, towards America. It is very emotional for me to recount the difficulties in this journey and leaving the people that I love and have known all my life behind. Imagine leaving your home, friends, and family for a country where you don’t know the language, people, or culture…it’s starting all over. But, I believe that God makes everything happen for a reason, and one of them just might be so that I am alive to tell this story today!

The Trip Preparations

On Saturday morning we left from our new refuge, Habiba’s house, before dawn and returned home. Dervisha followed me, quiet as an early morning breeze.  Her tired eyes told me that she had had a sleepless night.

“The couple from Belgrade, Branko and Dara, came to my home last night,” Dervisha said. “They are returning to Belgrade tomorrow morning, and you and Samir need to be ready. Pack your suitcases and; when no one is paying attention, hide them in the garage.  Be extremely careful with this trip.”

“I can’t just disappear from here without saying goodbye to my friends,” I protested.

“You have to be smart and think of the journey ahead,” said Dervisha as we entered my room. “What would happen if the people in the house or your next door neighbor discover your plan?  Do you remember what happened to Mina and Nijaz when they left their home? Your risk is many times worse.” Dervisha dried her sweaty forehead as she spoke. “You are 45 years old, but you behave like a child, and I am beginning to think that you will never mature.”

“I think that I never was a child,” I replied.  “I watched our father die of a heart attack when I was only five. While the other kids played under our oak tree, I pulled weeds from cornfields and measured how much milk our cows produced.” I became quiet for a moment. “At age six I took care of my three year-old brother Alija. I wanted to be a good girl, because I was terrified that our mother could die. She was our anchor, our protection, and our shield from storms, and I did not know how we would survive if she died. ” That old memory bubbled up like clear spring water from a hillside.

“One day my brother and I broke the window. Mother came home exhausted, but she immediately noticed the missing window pane. My heart was pounding, but I managed not to blink as she walked across the room to where I was standing. But rather than punish me as I feared, she encircled me with her arms, embracing me tightly and told me in a gentle voice that one day everything would be fine.”

Dervisha hugged me as my mother had when I was a child, and our sobs filled the room.

“I am afraid now,” I said, “afraid that we will not make it across the border. I have already tried twice and failed both times.”

“I have the feeling that you will make it this time,” Dervisha said, drying her eyes. “Believe me, I have a good feeling, but please be extremely careful.”

As Dervisha left, I took my newest brown purse and walked to Yelena’s house. The walk was one of ecstasy and agony. My mind first presented me with the image of Samir and myself successfully crossing the border and walking hand in hand on the far side of the Drina River. But that joyous picture lasted only long enough to make its dark twin that much more terrible. In the second image we were caught at the border, and the police roughly pulled both of us from the car and threw us in jail. Our dream was gone and our lives in peril.

“Oh dear God,” I prayed under my breath, “Protect us on our trip!”

Yelena opened the door. Her eyes were tired and worried, the lines of strain on her forehead were deeper, and there were strands of grey in her hair that I had not noticed before.

The words that were on the tip of my tongue rushed out. “We decided to leave.  Sunday morning. Do you still feel giving me your I.D. card?”

“Oh Aisa, yes! If I were able to share even my soul with you, I would do it this instant.” Her eyes filled with tears, and we embraced.  She walked to her bedroom and came back holding the I.D. card. Our arms brought us together in a second bittersweet embrace, and even the walls of the room seemed to cry with us.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said. “God will reward you for your courage and your generous spirit. Please keep this brown purse as a remembrance of this moment.” I paused. “If I get into any trouble, I will lie that I stole your I.D. card from this brown purse. Remember it.

“I hope you’ll be fine. I don’t want to think about anything else.”

We walked together to the end of Yelena’s street where we finally hugged each other one last time. I began to walk quickly away, but after about 50 meters I heard Yelena’s voice again, “Aisa, wait!” She was almost running toward me, and my stomach immediately knotted.  Has she changed her mind? Does she want her I.D. card back?

“I want to walk with you a little farther,” she said when she had caught up with me. “I don’t know when or where we will have a chance to walk together again.”

“Thank you, dear Yelena, but I think I’m under surveillance these days. I don’t want to create any problems for you.”

“I don’t care.” She put her vest across her shoulders. “Many people look at war as an opportunity to become rich. They bring back trucks, cars, furniture, and even clothes, things they looted from the people they fought against. I don’t know why they would need all of those things. Greed I suppose.” She paused. “The way you fought and survived here was an incredible feat of courage. Something inside me says that you will cross the border without any difficulty.”

“I certainly hope so,” I said softly. “My richness is the good people around me, especially you, my dear friend. I am thankful to God that He sent you to offer me your I.D. card. Without your help this trip would be impossible. Thank you for your enormous help. I admire you.”

“No goodbyes today,” Yelena said. “I hope that we will see each other again someday.” Yelena turned and walked fast to her home. I didn’t look back. I only listened to her quick steps until they completely mixed with the faint sound of the spring breeze.

The Birth Certificate

Hope everyone had a great weekend! This weeks post is about the power of helping someone in need, and having friends that are willing to sacrifice for you in order to save your life. Powerful story, and an even more powerful lesson. As always, I appreciate your comments, suggestions, shares. Thank you!

The Birth Certificate

My dear friend Yelena promised to give me her I.D. card to travel to Serbia. I thought, It is true that real friends are like a four-leaf clover: hard to find, lucky to have. I needed a birth certificate for my son Samir, one with a Serbian name. Milan Rozic, one of Samir’s school friends, lived in our neighborhood. I decided to go to Milan’s home and ask his mother for a favor, but realizing full well that if she granted my request she would be putting herself in danger. After the sleepless night, with the first rooster calls I finally decided to go to the government office and ask for Milan’s birth certificate without his or his parents’ knowledge.

I arrived at the office feeling very nervous as if I were walking into a bank to rob it. When I recognized a former student Maria working there, I felt better.

“Hi, Mrs. Softic,” she greeted me politely. “How can I help you?”

“I need a copy of my neighbor Milan Rozic’s birth certificate. His mom asked me to do her a favor and get a copy of it for her while I was in town.” It was a lie, of course.

“Do you know the date of his birth?” She looked at my hands, and I squeezed them to keep them from trembling. But my hands betrayed my true state of mind and kept shaking. So I put them into my pockets.

“Yes, yes. Milan was born on September 26, 1979, six months after my son.” When I mentioned my son, Maria was quiet for a while, as if she had discovered my intention.

“Why didn’t Mrs. Rozic come for the certificate herself?” She now looked at me suspiciously. A tinge of fire spread across my face, and I hid my eyes like a child caught stealing a cookie.

“And why does she need it?” Maria’s body language and facial expression signaled that she was uncomfortable.

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask her,” I blurted.

“Do you want to call her and ask her?” Maria pushed the telephone towards me.

Oh my God, what should I do now? I thought. “Oh no, that’s okay.  She is working now, and I don’t know her work number.” I looked at the floor.

“Where does she work? I can find the number in the telephone book,” Maria said. She walked towards the shelf. “Besides, her sister works in this building.”

Another pang of fear stabbed my soul. This wasn’t as easy as I had imagined it would be. “I don’t want to disturb her at work.” I paused. “If it’s really a problem to get it now, I can tell Mrs. Rozic to come by another day.” I sat making myself smaller and wanted to disappear from the room and from the world where my son and I could not travel as Muslims.

Maria was quiet for a moment. The seconds ticked by like hours, and finally I turned and grabbed the doorknob.

“Come here, Mrs. Softic.”

I turned my head.

“You are my dear high school teacher and my principal. I like and respect you because you emphasized the importance of good character, and you were always ready to help your students. I still remember your sentence: ‘Do good deeds, and do not regret doing them.’”

She removed a huge book from the shelf and sifted through the pages until she got to Milan’s name. The hope of getting the document was slowly returning to my heart. I blinked several times in thankfulness that I had become a teacher, and that I had helped my students to build strong characters, stronger than the stupid rules of war.

“Mrs. Softic, please sit and relax for a moment. I’ll get it ready for you now.”

“I don’t want to cause any problems for you.” My mouth was tight and bitter as I forced the words out. She moved swiftly, her eyes glittered, and her fingers played on the keyboard like a skilled musician playing the piano. I sat on a chair and looked at the brave young lady who was putting her own job at risk to help me. She knew. It was clear enough that she had the courage, when she saw an unjust rule, to break it.

After about five minutes Maria gave me the birth certificate, and I saw the same brightness in her eyes that I saw on her graduation day when I handed her the diploma she had earned. I sighed. I couldn’t say “thank you” to her, but my tears could.

Our Lives at Risk

Later post this week, but here it is nonetheless. This story is difficult to read as there were many threats made against me- to have my house and family taken away, physical harm, emotional abuse…I thank God each day that I was saved from this day because as you’ll read in the story- it was a close call. I had to escape, and make a journey away from everything I knew. To save myself and my family. Read on.

Life at Risk

After a few days I began to feel as if I were running a hotel for pilgrims. So many people shifted in and out each day and it was impossible to keep track who was arriving and who was leaving. I was still fine with the women and children, but I didn’t trust the men and avoided them whenever possible. My house became tense, devoid of any peace.

Finally, I wasn’t able to handle the disorganized confusion any longer, and I went to see Yelena. As I shared all my worries, she promised to come by later in the day to assess the danger.

I just finished spinach pita, when Yelena entered with her son Sasha. She took only a few bites, left her plate, and said, “I go to the living room to see what is going on there. I’ll be back soon.” Yelena walked quietly to the room and closed the door behind her.

Sasha shared his plan of going somewhere to devote his life to God. We had just begun our conversation when Yelena came back with a worried look on her face.

“Aisa, you are not safe here. You have to go from this house as soon as possible.”

“Why? I was treating them with respect and dignity and was sharing my home and my food with them.  We were only using one room in the entire house,” I whispered.

“Even this room is no longer safe for you. Leave! Now! Do not stay here even a single night longer!” Her lips became tight.

“It is impossible. I don’t know when the bridge will reopen.”

“I’ll give you my I.D. card, and go to Serbia. It could be dangerous, but staying here is worse.  Believe me. It is worse. You have a 50 percent chance of saving your life and Samir’s. But if the two of you stay here in this house, you will almost certainly die. Think about it!” Yelena said firmly, but in a low tone. She closed her eyes and frowned. “Come to my home. Don’t sleep in your house tonight,” she said with finality and they left.

“I am going to Dubrave to get milk for us. I’ll be back before dark.” I informed Seka in the hallway.

“I’ll rest here. Ride safely.”

As I pedaled toward my sister’s home, I noticed the elementary school I had attended so many years before, and my memory floated back to the day I enrolled in the first grade. I almost heard Mother’s words again, “Follow this path, and it will lead you to the school. You cannot miss it. I know you can do it.”

“Oh my dear mother, I had indeed followed the path much farther than you and I ever expected.” The memories of those years filled my eyes with tears, and I had trouble standing on my bicycle. “I am searching for the right path now not only for me but for my son too. I love him more than I love myself.” I dried my tears and prayed: “Dear God, open a good path for my son and me and protect us. You are a great protector.”

When Dervish saw traces of tears in my eyes and heard about Yelena’s suggestions in my trembling voice, she frowned. “It is too dangerous for you to travel by bus.” She became quiet, but her eyes moved as if she were making a plan. “My daughter Esma and her husband Hamdija have friends in Belgrade, maybe they can help you. With two Serbs in the car “your” documents would be less likely to be questioned.  I’ll call Esma and see what they can do.”

My throat tightened, and I couldn’t talk. While Dervisha walked to our brother’s house to ask Serbs there to use their phone, I meandered behind her house and hid under an apple tree. The land under my feet was too hard, and the sky above me was too high. I prayed,

Dear God,  I am begging You to send good people now to help me to travel safely from this place and guide my son and me to join my husband and my daughter.

Dervisha came back smiling. “Esma’s friends are coming on Friday after work. They are returning back on Sunday. She is positive that they will help.”

I took the gallons of milk with mixed emotions; excited that that respectable response from Belgrade came so quickly, and scared of the trip with the false documents.  Even with the spring’ gorgeous flowers and renewed green grass, my village looked somehow gloomy, empty, and frightened.

My home appear in the distance, but I found myself afraid to return. When I opened the door, Seka, looking white as a sheet, grabbed my arm and pulled me into the room. Closing the door quietly behind her she faced me and, with her hand partially covering her mouth, whispered almost hysterically, “Oh my God, I heard them! The door was open, and I heard every word. One of them was yelling that he was going to stay here in your house and that he was going to ‘take care of you. Good care!’ He laughed maniacally as he mentioned your name.”

“Go ask Habiba if we can sleep at her house tonight,” I said, holding her hands.

I went to the kitchen. The women were fixing supper, and the men were sitting around. Everyone was quiet. Too quiet. I gave them a gallon of milk and took some pitas out of the fridge. I pretended that everything was fine, but my trembling hands couldn’t lie.

When the house became quiet, Samir and Seka walked on their tiptoes from our room, through the hallway, and down to the garage. I locked our room and followed them. When we reached the yard, I turned and looked at the building that was our home. The lights were on in different rooms, but their glow no longer seemed to have the warmth of home. I was too tired, cold, and I shivered.

Habiba had made a comfortable bed for me, but I couldn’t close my eyes with my mind racing with thoughts ideas about our upcoming journey.