Final Thoughts: Transitions

I’m writing this final blog post from the comforts of my apartment in Denver. It’s been a week since I arrived back in the states and I will say that it has been a whirlwind adjusting to the American lifestyle. My journey back to the United States wasn’t exactly the smoothest sailing. My flight from Istanbul to Chicago was delayed by 4 hours, which meant that I would be missing my connecting flight in Chicago to Denver. As I was surrounded by dozens of my fellow passengers who were angry about the predicament that we were in, I was strangely very calm and relaxed. Albeit, after a whole summer of being abroad, I wanted to be home in my own bed as soon as possible, but the easy-going Bosnian lifestyle definitely rubbed off on me. I knew that it doesn’t help my situation if I were to respond angrily towards the people working at the airline transfer desk. So instead, I did what I imagined most Bosnians would’ve done – found the nearest café, ordered a cappuccino, and waited.  

I never would’ve imagined how much of an impact Sarajevo (as well as the rest of Bosnia) would have on me in such a short period of time. I remember telling a friend on my last day that I couldn’t clearly remember what life was like before living in Sarajevo. I grew used to the simplicity of being able to walk or take public transportation to my internship and to most other places. Since being back in Denver, I’ve had to drive to complete all my errands as no stores are in walking distance and taking public transportation isn’t feasible. I grew to love the frequent cups of Bosnian coffee and I was dismayed when I came to realize that the American coffee was not as delicious as I remembered it to be. I miss seeing the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables at various stands and the mesmerizing smells of the numerous pekaras (bakeries) that I would pass on my way to my internship. I miss my daily walks past the nearby cathedral and through Bašcaršija. 

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, my time in Sarajevo and Bosnia in general has been both life-changing and eye-opening. Before this year, I barely even knew anything about Bosnia aside that it was a part of the former Yugoslavia and that Sarajevo was the site of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. As I learned more about the war and the genocide that took place, I also learned how strong and resilient the people of Bosnia are. What amazes me the most is the non-aggressive manner in which the survivors spoke of their ordeals. I feel that if I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t know if I would be able to reach a point where I can recall my trauma in the same calm and collected state. What has stuck with me the most is when one of the survivors I met mentioned that there has not been a reported incident of revenge. Instead, countless survivors disclosed that their children and grandchildren have been their ultimate revenge because it is a visual demonstration of their continued existence and the furtherance of future generations.  

As a side project for this summer, I interviewed individuals at my internship about something they are proud of. My idea behind this was to highlight the positives because in my own opinion, most of my peers and the people I have met along my travels are only aware of the war and genocide in Bosnia. They don’t know much else about Bosnia. But after spending two months living in Sarajevo, I know that there is so much more to Bosnia than just the pain, tragedy, and violence. As a result, I believe that the least I could do to pay back the generosity that I have received is to show the rest of the world the Bosnia that I had the privilege of seeing.  

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I will be completely honest and say that I had no idea of what to expect from my internship placement at the Centers for Healthy Aging. I do remember asking my professor if I could be placed at a site that had the most in-person and direct contact with the community. Before this summer, I didn’t know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina, aside from there being a war, but I knew that if opportunities arose, I would learn more about the impacts of the war from interacting with actual human beings rather than reading a history textbook.  

What I also didn’t anticipate was having the opportunity to make such good friends in the short time I would be in Sarajevo. I always felt safe and comfortable with the staff members of the Centers. Even if there was a language barrier and some of the staff members felt that their English wasn’t great, (in actuality, their English was great. I can’t even speak Bosnian so who am I to judge?) they always asked if I wanted coffee or if I was hungry. Even if I didn’t want coffee initially, I would always end up having a cup of coffee anyways because someone would genuinely be confused and ask why not? Too much caffeine can give me headaches, but what I’ve grown to realize is that a coffee break is less about consuming coffee and more about spending quality time together without distractions. Often, the Centers can be so overwhelming with the hustle and bustle of various activities and members coming and going that we might not all have a chance to sit down together. And that was the second instance where I felt such unbelievable hospitality. I was always included in activities; whether it was asking if I wanted to take a quick walk outside or translating conversations with members, so I would feel included. What I loved most was that I was immediately introduced to the sarcastic and dark sense of humor that I have grown to learn that most Bosnians have. I interpreted it as having the privilege of being a part of their inner circle because I was treated as one of them, rather than just a random intern from the United States.  

39077942_10212274494198635_2163305830777094144_nIn addition to allowing me to make such amazing friends, the Centers have also given me multiple pseudo-grandparents. I grew up without any living grandparents, so my only awareness around what the dynamics of a grandparent/grandchild relationship was from movies and TV shows. But interning at the Centers have given me a taste of all the grandparent clichés. I consistently have plates of food pushed towards me, while simultaneously having the occasional comment to be cautious of my weight. I have my cheeks pinched quite frequently and there are fervent requests to be in photos. Personally, I don’t mind any of this. I know that it might be different if this was happening on a more regular basis with my actual grandparents, but with these members, I often find myself wondering if they lost a child and the reason why they are so excited to talk to me is that I remind them of their children. If not their children, I wonder if I remind them of an innocence that has not encountered life during a siege. My interactions with the members have been the most humbling and memorable experiences as language barriers have led me to numerous occasions of impromptu charades and vigorous hand gestures, but it taught me that I can still build meaningful relationships without needing to rely on spoken language. Up until today, I have always wondered what the members thought of me – the strange American who looks like the people who teach their tai chi classes and who smiles too much as a way to over-compensate for not being able to hold a conversation. Today during the Bosnian-American party, I received my answer in the funniest and most unusual way possible. I had won a round of musical chairs and it felt like the whole crowd of members were cheering for me as I was met with several hugs and handshakes. It doesn’t sound like much but try having several Bosnian men and women trying to congratulate you all at once. It’s overwhelming, but oh so amazing to be a part of such a welcoming circle.  

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Reflecting on my privilege as an American

For the past several weeks, I have had the immense privilege of being able to travel to various cities and countries. According to the U.S. Department of State, as of 2018, individuals with a valid United States passport are able to travel to 177 countries without a visa. This number is increased to 186 countries if we include destinations that provide visas upon arrival. Considering that there are only 38 countries that are eligible to visit the U.S. visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program, we cannot deny the privilege of having a U.S. passport in our hands. Furthermore, with the current political climate back home surrounding immigration, I recognize the sheer luck I’ve had in holding U.S. citizenship and being able to travel freely without any qualms. And I say luck because I’m no different from the individuals who I have had the greatest fortune of meeting this summer in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I am a child of Vietnam War refugees who received asylum in the United States more than 30 years ago. They too survived a war and were forced to become refugees in their own country. Like most of the younger generations of Bosnians, they made the difficult decision to leave behind their beloved home with all its familiarities, memories, and heartaches in exchange for a better life for themselves and their children. My identity as an American was granted to me on the sole premise that I was born within U.S. borders. I didn’t do anything special to earn this identity; I don’t hold a degree in engineering or medicine, I haven’t won a Nobel Peace prize, I don’t have the IQ level of a genius. But yet, I hold American citizenship. I have had access to top American universities. I have visited world famous destinations.

It has been more than 20 years after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but despite the peace that the Dayton Agreement has brought to this region, there continues to be so many obstacles that prevent true healing. There is the concept of the “two schools under one roof” where Bosniak and Croat children attend school in the same buildings but are physically segregated and taught different curriculum. From a first-hand experience, I have met so many people either my age or a few years older who are having trouble finding employment due to nepotism and the lack of available jobs. Additionally, many Bosnians have expressed how difficult it has been for them to apply for visas to enter the United States and visit their families. I find the American immigration system to be completely biased, if not egregious. I have had multiple Bosnian friends tell me that they have made numerous attempts at applying for visas, but there are just too many hoops to jump through and obstacles to cross. I remember that when my mother was sponsoring my uncle and his family’s immigration to the United States, the entire process took 11 years. I understand the need to screen individuals who are entering a country’s borders, but I am outraged by the disparities in immigration and visa protocols based on a person’s country of residence. Why does the narrative of the “illegal immigrant” only apply to brown bodies primarily from Central America? Why does a Bosnian have more obstacles than a German or Dutch person in terms of visa requirements?

It’s time for Americans to take a hard look at the privilege we hold for simply being born within the border of the United States. We have benefited from fortunate circumstances and different periods of time that have allowed for more free-flowing migration. It’s crucial to reflect on the fact that many individuals would not need to enter the United States if there weren’t conditions (that were out of their control) that led to forced displacement and separation of family members.

Photo Reflection

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The day before participating in the Peace March was the first time I visited the battery factory where the old Dutchbat base was located during the war. At the time, I could feel how unsettling and morose it was to be inside the old factory because I knew of all the heartbreak and hardships that thousands of families endured as they were forced apart. However, this feeling of uneasiness and melancholy continued to grow within me during the Peace March because not only did I have the privilege of meeting the survivors, but almost everyone I interacted with knew someone who was in the original Death March.  

I may have had challenges throughout my life, but I have never known the loss and agony that have so abrasively plagued this community. Visiting the battery factory, the second time, was more difficult for me because I also brought the emotional weight of my experience with the Peace March along. I remember the first pull on my heartstrings was when we were walking towards the battery factory from Srebrenica and Ann had stopped us at a fork in the road. She recounted to us how this was where families were forced to split up as the men and boys were unsure if they would be safe at the Dutchbat base or if they should try their luck by trekking through the woods to reach the free territory of Tuzla. I immediately began to think about what I would do if I was forced into this same situation. Do I say goodbye to my boyfriend, brother, uncle, and other male family members? How do I say goodbye? Do I attempt the journey as well? It’s easy to say that I would do this or that because I have the privilege of speaking in the hypotheticals, but in reality, there were real individuals who had no choice but to say goodbye to their family members. Those who didn’t say goodbye at the fork in the road were forced to at the old battery factory. In a video about survivors of the siege on Srebrenica, there were women who courageously spoke about their last moments with their loved ones. I clearly remember one woman tearfully recalling how her husband would put his hand on her shoulder and comforted her by saying “everything will be okay.” When her husband was forcibly separated from her and prevented from boarding the busses deporting women and children to Tuzla, she spoke of her regrets about not putting up more of a fight. The part that stuck with me the most was when she said that sometimes she can still feel her husband’s hand on her shoulder.  

Truthfully, I had a difficult time that weekend visiting Tuzla and Sbrebrenica again because I hold a lot of my emotions and thoughts inside since I don’t really like to share with people I don’t know very well. It can also get really complex trying to explain how I’m feeling with my boyfriend and friends back home because they’re not here and having to provide all the context is often a hindrance for me in wanting to share how I’m feeling. But I’ve thought a lot about whether I would have the strength to say goodbye to my boyfriend or a family member because I know that would allow for their best chance at survival. I thought about how I would handle finding out that they were killed and how I would be able to pick myself up and start over. I say this now because I have never been forced to learn how strong or courageous I could be. I have never faced the possibility of losing everything. But if I learned anything from the amazing people I have met so far in Bosnia, it is that if the time comes where I need to be strong and courageous, I can be because these people here have survived so much more than most people will ever come close to experiencing in their lifetime.  

Resiliency as a Quiet Strength

This past weekend, my peers and I had the opportunity to return to Srebrenica as well as visit nearby Tuzla. The first person we met was Nura Begović, who is the Vice President of the Association of Women in Srebrenica and Tuzla. Her office is covered from wall to wall and ceiling to floor of photos of the missing and deceased men and boys from the genocide. She spoke to us about the hardships of losing loved ones, but also of encountering people who continue to deny the genocide and rejoice in the extreme nationalism that was responsible for the ethnic cleansing. We also met Dr. Fatima Klempić Dautbašić, who had only finished medical school a year and a half prior to becoming one of only six doctors at the Srebenica hospital during the three-year siege on the town. From her understandably emotional disclosure, what stood out to me most was when she said that she made the difficult choice to join the column from Srebrenica to Tuzla because she wanted to at least have control over her own death. She knew that if she were to go to the battery factory where the Dutchbat base was, her life would be in the hands of others and there was no guarantee to her safety. In the short time that we’ve met with her, I already greatly admired Dr. Fatima Klempić for her strength and courage to make such an impossible decision as the risk of rape was incredibly daunting for women. Additionally, I can’t imagine the pressure she must have experienced as thousands of people looked to her for safety and survival; and yet, she remained so humble about her services.

The next day, we were in Srebrenica and we were able to tour the memorial, located on the grounds of the old battery factory, that was dedicated to demonstrating both the development of and the aftermath of the genocide as well as its victims. After our visit, we met with Nedžad Avdić, who miraculously and thankfully survived the Petkovci Dam execution site. What I first noticed about Nedžad was how soft-spoken he was and how he never spoke with anger when telling us his story. The part of his story that stuck with me the most was when he solemnly said that he was terrified that his mother will never know where he ended up. I’m typically a quiet, “background” person, but I was very much moved by Nedžad’s quiet strength that towards the end of our meeting, I wanted to ask him what he was most proud of. This question was important to me because I often felt like the narrative around Bosnia amongst my friends and family back home is mainly defined by the war and tragedies that took place. Nedžad’s answer was that he was proud that he is still alive and of the three daughters that he now has.

We met many other inspiring and incredible individuals who have experienced such tragedy and adversity but continued to hold onto their lightheartedness, humor, and generosity. Hasan Hasanović, the curator and interpreter for Srebrenica-Potočari Genocide Memorial and Cemetery as well as Death March survivor, poignantly stated that there has not been a single reported incident of revenge from the Bosniaks. Instead of revenge, I have met many Bosniaks who continue to have the courage to love and welcome strangers into their lives with open arms. For example, my interactions with Nura Mustafić and Mafija Hadzibulić, the two women who I had the honor of walking with during the Peace March, have always been so full of positivity and kindness. There are no words to describe how honored I felt to have them refer to us as their family and to hear them speak about the impact we had on their lives because if anyone’s life has been changed, it is mine. I only hope to be able to love another individual as much as they do for their sons and to be able to keep loving others despite the tragedies that they have experienced. In my opinion, this quiet strength is the most impactful resistance. Saliha Osmanović is another amazing individual who embodies this quiet strength. She continues to live in her family home because it is the last place where her entire family was all happily together. Her sons’ bedrooms are left as they were as evidence of their existence. From our discussion and anecdotes about her time meeting with high-profile politicians, it is apparent that she is unapologetically herself.

In all truthfulness, I have had reoccurring nightmares ever since I completed the Peace March. In these nightmares, I am actually a part of the original column and the nightmares always abruptly end when I am killed at an execution site. I recognize the physical and emotional toll the Peace March had on me as I didn’t allow myself much rest afterward, but I’m now also aware of the slowly accumulated weight from the stories and videos that I have seen and heard about the genocide. What I didn’t realize was how much my own personal trauma would emerge. On a far less degree, I am also a survivor of violence. In 2014, I survived a school shooting at my university and while I am lucky to be alive and to not personally know those who were killed, I continue to be impacted by loud noises that resemble gunshots or become incredibly anxious when someone comes up behind me. My own close call with death was consistently brought up when I read the bios of victims at the Memorial and realized that there were some victims that were only a few years younger than me. This past weekend I kept asking myself how other human beings could inflict such violence and pain upon one another. But what I do know from this weekend is that it is possible to carry on and heal. Slowly, but surely.

 

Coffee and Chess

For those who know me very well, I have a fairly Type-A personality and like to have things in a certain way because a sense of order and familiarity is calming for me. Of course, this had led to occasional contentions with my significant other because not having things put away in places where they “belong” flusters me. In a sharp contrast, Bosnia moves on a slower and less precise manner. Many questions about logistics are often met with “it depends” or “we’ll find out later.” Coffee breaks are a frequent and valued fixture of daily life. As expected with my Type-A personality, it was rather difficult to adjust to such a laidback lifestyle at first because I’m the kind of person that likes to have all the answers and details in order to organize every aspect of my life. But adjusting to the laidback culture here has proven to be a much-needed intervention for me.  

During the school year, I often found myself stressed out and exhausted, which led to a compromised immune system and frequently being sick, due to a hectic school schedule, internship, and part-time job while also trying to balance a social life. Here I can feel how much my internship supervisor and colleagues care about me. At the slightest bit of a yawn, they immediately offer to make me some coffee. I’m frequently asked if I’m hungry or told that to just relax a little bit. Even when I was sick with a fever and stomach bug, my supervisor checked-in on me at least once a day and consistently asked if there was anything that she could get for me. What I appreciate most is how much Bosnians are willing to share, whether it is extra food or personal details about their lives. Their approach to interactions is so incredibly warm and authentic. Furthermore, the most amazing change for me is not having to feel that my self-worth is solely based on my productivity. Although there are projects and tasks here and there, our days are mostly unstructured as we are encouraged to build relationships with colleagues and the members that frequent the Centers for Healthy Aging. I feel that open communication and relationship building is often the best way to learn about a community because you can witness a person’s life and how it has been shaped by certain factors and events in their lives. 

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Lately, my new favorite activity has been playing chess with the male members. I’m not very good and I often try to preface that before beginning a new game, but I like how it is something that I can do to bond with the members as there is no specific need to know the same language. Regardless of one’s grasp of English or Bosnian, the game of chess remains the same. I have not won a single game since starting my internship, but I find a sense of peace when watching a game of chess because it is something that I can understand amongst all the confusion of being in a foreign country where I don’t know the language. I also tend to be a bit shy when surrounded by a lot of people I don’t know, especially if I feel embarrassed about not being able to speak their language. Chess has been an effective way for me to bridge the language barrier because I can often use context clues. Usually, I can figure out what they’re saying when they shake their heads or laugh at a certain move I made. Our games typically end up with me receiving help from my opponents as they either take pity on me or want the game to last longer. Although I may not be very good at chess, I’m grateful for there being a universal activity that I can engage in with the members as otherwise, I would only be able to interact with them through a translator, which may feel less authentic. Of course, my goal is to get better at chess, but if I still have zero wins at the end of the summer, but amazing memories with the members and my colleagues, I think I still found a way to win.   

In someone else’s shoes

On July 15, 1995, Bosnian Serb armies infiltrated the UN declared safe haven of Srebrenica. Approximately 15,000 Bosniak men made the brave and dangerous decision to flee on foot to the free territory of Tuzla. Having to march in a single-file line because of landmines, these men were largely unarmed and ill-equipped for the treacherous journey. Of the 15,000 men who started out, only about 3,500 men survived. This tragedy has become known as the Death March.

 

I had the privilege and honor of participating in this year’s Peace March, a three-day 60-mile annual walking campaign, that raises awareness about the genocide that took place, how the international community failed Bosnia, and to honor the lives that were lost. This was the hardest thing that I have ever done, but at the end of the day, I was safe. I didn’t have to fear for my life or worry that we were going to be ambushed. When things got tough or I needed help, there was always someone willing to provide a hand. As we marched through various towns, we were met with families handing out food and drinks that they had saved up all year for the march. On the second day of the march, I had an extremely difficult time because my Nikes did not have as much traction as I thought they would and I was unable to climb the mountains due to the rain and muddy trails. I was having such a tough time that I even contemplated calling it a day and asking for a ride to camp at the next Red Cross tent. But right when I stumbled for the hundredth time, a man reached out to grab my elbow and steadied me. He didn’t speak any English, but this man was the sole reason why I was able to finish that day’s hike. Without any complaints, he had helped/pulled me up a mountain for at least 5 miles. Afterwards, we met up with one of his friends who did speak English and I was expressing my immense gratitude for all the help that I had received that day. The man simply told me “that’s the Bosnian way, we lend help when we see that it is needed.” I must have said thank you and hvala a million times that day because my new friends ended up telling me to stop saying thank you so much as “thank you isn’t needed when helping someone in trouble.” I am completely in awe of the strength, resiliency, and generosity of Bosnians even in the face of such adversity.

37070646_10212049428652137_928602737195614208_o.jpgAt the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, no singular event has ever changed my life as much as the Peace March has. Before the start of the march, my classmates and I met two older Bosnian women who were marching for the sons that they had lost. One of them had started out on the original Death March with her sons before being forced into surrendering to the Bosnian Serb armies. For two women who have lost so much in their lifetime, they were so kind and welcoming to random American students that they had just met. Having the opportunity to march with them was such an invaluable experience because I learned so much more from survivors and family members of survivors from the Srebrenica genocide and the Death March than I ever could from textbooks and videos. I chose to march because my parents were refugees and survived a war as well. It is because of them that I had the luck and privilege of being born in the United States. I marched for those who were not as lucky as I was. I marched for those who had lost a father, uncle, brother, or son. I marched because there is so much more we need to do to aid in Bosnia’s healing as a country.

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Initial Impressions: First Week in Sarajevo

I have been in Sarajevo now for almost five full days and truthfully, I haven’t been out as much as I should be because of how much it has been pouring rain. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to just slow down a bit. With the abundance of free time, I have been reflecting a lot on what the next 7 weeks will look like. How do I process the events of the genocide and, more importantly, the lived experiences of the people that I will be meeting? Where do I find the best čevapi? What are the most promising ways for me to interact with individuals through my internship placement without exploiting their lived experiences?

My first day meeting with my supervisor, Sejdefa Bašić Ćadić, coincided with the seventh anniversary of the opening of the first Center for Healthy Aging. Right from the beginning of our arrival, we were already met with such genuine and warm hospitality. They even shared their lunch with the four of us! Because of the need to have things ready for the party and the arrival of (very) early guests and media, our time with Sejdefa was short, but still incredibly impactful. We learned how the center grew from a unique idea in wanting to establish a much-needed sense of community to the opening of the first center, where they were unsure if this idea would be successful. Currently, the success of the Center for Healthy Aging is demonstrated through the existence of numerous other centers throughout Sarajevo and Bosnia; this success continues to grow as Sejdefa was recently in Macedonia helping to implement their own Center for Healthy Aging!

My actual first day at the internship was met with even more Bosnian hospitality. Our first task was to help deliver some paintings for a member of the center who had just hosted his fifth art exhibition during the anniversary party. Even though they didn’t know any English, the artist and his wife were so welcoming and apologized profusely for not having any cookies or cakes to share. But they were so proud to give us a tour of their home and so excited to show us their albums of family photos. We were even gifted a copy of a painting of Sarajevo that the artist made for a collector (which is now proudly displayed in my room at the hostel). At the end of our visit, I realized that not many words were exchanged directly (Sejdefa acted as our translator), but the human interaction was so pure and authentic in that even though we were only able to communicate through smiles and gestures, I felt that we were still able to form a connection.

The rest of the day was spent exchanging personal stories and learning Bosnian words. We even had the amazing opportunity to learn how to make traditional Bosnian pies. I shared my story as a child of Vietnam War refugees and while I had the privilege of being born and raised in the United States, my parents’ experience of being refugees in their own country and subsequently being forcibly displaced was a large reason behind my desire to come to Sarajevo. It was incredibly humbling to share stories as I could not fathom the strength and resiliency it takes to live my life under siege. What I love most so far about my interactions with people have been the sheer generosity and kindness, even in our initial meetings. I have never met a community of individuals who are so willing to give and share and welcome strangers with open arms despite all that they have been through. If there is anything I hope to take away at the end of my stay here in Sarajevo, it is that I hope to be as gracious and compassionate.