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Volume 48, Number 1January/February 1997

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From Meeting Us, I Hope...

Written by Barbara Nimri Aziz
Photographed by Torsten Kjellstrand

Before noon, Irena Sliskovič breezed through her second exam of the day, a final in American history, correctly listing the 42 US presidents in order. After lunch, she joined the other seniors of Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Kentucky, to rehearse the next day's graduation ceremony. After an hour, she cut the rehearsal short to travel to an admissions interview at Cincinnati State College, which she was considering attending in the fall. Eileen Messer, her "host mother" for the past nine months, drove her there.

The day before, in an assembly in which Notre Dame's 143 seniors bid farewell to the school, Irena had listened as classmate Selma Morankič read a message on behalf of the 10 Bosnian students who had attended the school that year.

"By the end of the year, we finally figured out your ways," Selma had said, "and now it all seems normal: dressing up as ghosts for Halloween, eating Thanksgiving foods, getting tons of cards at Christmas, going on retreats. Sometimes it was really hard for us, but by now, it all seems normal.

"From meeting us, I hope, you will now feel a little closer to what is going on in the world, and hopefully, someday, you will be able to see Bosnia."

Over the past three years, in New Hampshire, Colorado, Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Virginia and Massachusetts, more than 80 American families, their neighbors and countless high-school classmates have indeed come closer to war-ravaged Bosnia by opening their homes and their hearts to 83 Bosnian students. They have done so through an informal people-to-people program that, despite obvious success and widespread support, has remained so grassroots that it still has not been formally named.

The Bosnian students came to the us not as refugees but on education visas that require them to return to their country at the end of their studies. Nearly all arrived as high school juniors or seniors. Some have already returned, others have gone on to US colleges and universities, and still others continue at us high schools.

This is, however, no ordinary international studies program. These 83 are a select few out of tens of thousands of young people who spent years in cities under siege: Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Vukovar and others. All arrived before the November 1995 Dayton accord, last year's cease-fire and the Bosnian elections; none knows whether Bosnia's present state of tense calm will continue, or shatter again into war. During their US sojourns they have all been, at times, unwitting celebrities, informal diplomats and lunchroom educators; they have also been, at other times, confused, angry and homesick kids, badly in need of friends to help them rebuild their shaken trust in the world.

Ten months before her graduation, Irena was at home, in the Iliža district of Sarajevo, enduring the fourth year of a siege that would lift some months after her departure for the US.

"We had a class party [before I left] in the basement of a friend's house, but...it was too dangerous for many of my classmates to leave their homes," she says. Like many Sarajevo basements, she adds, that one served as a bomb shelter.

In those days, the mortal danger of everyday life kept her largely confined to the house, along with her mother, Razija, and her older brother, Zlatan. A walk to school was a calculated risk. Like every other family, hers too had buried friends and neighbors who had been killed by snipers' bullets and shells. She had watched as other classmates slipped out of the city with their families, in search of refuge in the growing Bosnian Muslim diaspora across Europe. (Germany alone sheltered 320,000 Bosnians.)

Like many young Bosnians, Irena, who had grown up expecting to go to college, began to feel that she had no future. Few professors remained in Sarajevo; Bosnian universities were closed; the future of the country itself was in question.

In April 1995, her father died of a kidney condition in the German hospital where the family had sent him to receive treatment unavailable in Sarajevo. "They tried to stop my screams and tears," Irena wrote later at Notre Dame Academy. It was then "I stopped believing in love and luck." A poem she wrote in one of her classes read:

If you want to meet me,

Come by the path of disappointment

And I will be in the grass,

Crushed by human feet,

And if the rain starts, I will not revive.

Two months after her father's death, during a lull in the shelling when telephone service temporarily resumed, Irena's cousin Halida called from her home in Zagreb, Croatia. She told Irena that she had learned of a program under which Bosnian Muslim students could, if accepted, spend a year in the United States. The deadline was only a few weeks off.

With her mother's help, Irena set about gathering documents. "She did not seem to realize I would be leaving her," says Irena of her mother. "She only thought about saving me."

Together, they managed to fax what seemed like "hundreds of papers"—English-language test scores, school records, health certificates, a passport, photographs, a Croatian visa, a Bosnian government exit permit and more—to the office in Zagreb of which Halida had spoken. Though Irena was missing several documents, including an essential army-issued exit permit, she was accepted by the program, and then there was no time to do anything but find a way to get to Zagreb.

A childhood friend of Irena's, Arnela Smajlovič, was accepted, too. On August 14, just after dark, Irena and Arnela, accompanied by Irena's brother Zlatan, walked with their suitcases to a truck waiting at the bottom of the hill in their Sarajevo neighborhood.

"People came out of their homes to watch us pass, as if we had been chosen to be released from our communal prison. I don't know if they were happy for us, or envious," says Irena.

The two young women climbed in and the truck set out, headlights off, to join dozens of other vehicles, all filled with people fleeing the city. But Serb gunners were shelling the Mt. Ijman road to Mostar, and they had to wait until four in the morning to move.

"The road was made of stones," Irena wrote later. "They were not shooting at us; we had good luck. The trip lasted four hours to Mostar [60 kilometers/37 miles away], where the border has three parts: Bosnia border, both Bosnia and Croatia, and only Croatia border. We came to the crossing and they told us to get out of the truck, that our trip was over, and we should take the next car or truck back to Sarajevo. They took our passports and visas. We were only five minutes from freedom."

All morning Irena and Arnela searched for help throughout Mostar, in the offices of the mayor and, later, the military commander. It seemed hopeless. Finally they found a young man who said he knew a secret road across the border. By one o'clock in the afternoon, they were safely on the Croatian side. Success had come as capriciously as failure.

From there, a bus carried them to Split and then, crowded with still more refugees, took them on through their second sleepless night into Zagreb.

Far away in Pleasant Valley, a north-Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati, Eileen and Jerry Messer lived with their 15-year-old daughter Bridget. Their two older sons were away at college. Like most families in the United States, the Messers had no connection to the war in Bosnia beyond sharing the painful litany of the evening news. But one day in July, about the time Irena was frantically faxing papers to Zagreb, a different kind of story appeared in the local Kentucky Post. A group calling itself "Project Shelter," an offshoot of another group in Exeter, New Hampshire, was forming in their area. Its coordinator, Rick Deerwester, lived nearby.

Eileen says she and her husband were deeply moved by the idea of individual families opening their homes to promising young Bosnians to allow them to finish their educations in safety. With their boys in college, she says, they had the room. "We asked ourselves, 'What else could we do personally?', given how hopeless the political situation in Bosnia seemed."

With Bridget's endorsement, the Messers attended an orientation workshop and agreed to be "host parents." Alternating between confidence and anxiety, they prepared to welcome a stranger about whom they knew virtually nothing: They only learned Irena's name days before she arrived. Through Deerwester's efforts, Notre Dame Academy had agreed to accept Irena and nine other young women on special scholarships, just as other local schools, private and public, had come forward in each of the other states to assure a place to each of the arriving students.

In Zagreb, Irena and Arnela found a women's shelter where they slept for a few hours. Later in the day, they searched out the program's organizers in the office of a city women's committee for youth. The room was filled with other nervous, tired young men and women, all strangers, all leaving their families, all facing life in a foreign country they knew little of.

Over the next few weeks, as the organizers prepared papers and obtained American visas, a special bond began to form among the Bosnian students. Finally, the group flew to Frankfurt and—barely an hour away from the war that had taught them never to provide a target by assembling in public—they spent an evening frolicking in a hotel swimming pool. The next day, they took off for the United States on tickets donated by Continental Airlines.

At Newark Airport, near New York, the new friends split up: Some caught flights to Durango, Colorado; some to New Hampshire; others to Virginia. Irena, Arnela and eight others went to Dayton, Ohio.

"Which family is mine?" Irena recalls asking herself as she deplaned at an arrival gate filled with cheers, balloons, camera flashes and a flurry of "Welcome Home" signs. "How bewildering," she thought, "to look into a crowd of strangers and wonder, 'Who are my new American parents?'"

In the next few days, Irena and the others were swept into a flurry of welcome parties, press conferences and school orientations. It quickly became apparent, says Deerwester, that transporting youngsters out of a war zone into everyday middle-class life in an American suburb was no simple task.

"These were boys and girls who had left home reluctantly and entered an unknown culture, torn from the very people—their families—whom they most cherished," he explains. "In addition to their scholarships and supplementary English classes, these kids needed caring teachers and loving families."

Since they were neither refugees nor immigrants, their health care, as well as their education, became a private, local endeavor. "Not only were some nervous, edgy and suffering from insomnia, but many were also malnourished and weak," says Deerwester. "Their teeth were bad, and they were pale because they had spent so much time in basement shelters."

Two host families with connections to Cincinnati-area hospitals secured commitments for the Bosnians' health care. Several dentists who served host families agreed to see the new arrivals at no charge, and several other doctors approached Deerwester of their own accord.

Across the country in Durango, Colorado, population 15,000, the story was much the same. Mary Wilson, a teacher at Riverview Elementary School who coordinated the placement of 11 Bosnian students, generated similar local support after she, like Deerwester, learned of Project Shelter on "CBS Sunday Morning."

"This was a way ordinary citizens could do something and have a one-to-one impact on someone's life," says Wilson. "I thought if Exeter could do it, perhaps my town could too. Because I taught here, I knew many people, and I went directly to them. An ophthalmologist agreed to donate his services for the entire group. A friend went to our community dentists' association and the dentists signed up right there, each one accepting to care for one of the children. Then a board member of the school where I teach went to the local hospital and won their commitment."

Back in Bosnia, it was not long before parents in Tuzla, Mostar and Sarajevo heard their children's voices over the phone and knew they were safe among people who would care for them. And for the new arrivals, outwardly indistinguishable from their American classmates, it was time to begin adjusting to new surroundings.

Nearly all moved ahead rapidly in their studies: They had, after all, been accepted on the basis of strong academic records at home achieved despite the profound disruptions of war. Their English, already good, improved further, and many excelled in math and world history, thanks to the strong emphasis on these subjects in Bosnian schools. Some joined theater clubs. Others took up photography or ceramics; others stayed after school for sports. They dressed up for holiday dances. They tried to fit in. As time passed, their host parents noticed that color was returning to their faces, and that many were sleeping longer and more peacefully.

The war that continued in Bosnia was hard for them to talk about. The young Bosnians didn't want to relive any of it for a moment, but neither could they forget. Their trauma showed in small, often unexpected ways: a gasp when the sound of a revolving door recalled the whoosh of a rocket; a passion for news from home; a craving for fresh fruit; a young man's call to his mother announcing that he'd gained 20 pounds (9 kg.); another's quiet comment that his mother had traded her car for a load of flour to feed the rest of her family.

Only gradually did some begin to speak from their hearts. Even then, it was often not in conversation but in English composition assignments that they began to touch the depths of what they had endured. Ajla Hadžimehmedovič recalled her last summer in Bosnia in one poetry assignment:

Everything was late and happiness

was startled; it ran away somewhere

far away; I will never find it.

Summer '95; lips shook, eyes cried.

Rain sorrowed.

In an essay, Vedrana Ponjavič wrote:

The war broke my beliefs and my imaginary world.

My belief that good rises and wins above evil, died.

It's just a shadow of my past. My realizations still hurt.

In the Messer home, says host mother Eileen, Irena too spoke little of the war at first. "I think she feels safe enough now," she says. "If she wants to share it, she can." Meanwhile, outwardly, Irena was energetic, always welcoming, checking her e-mail several times a day and talking rapidly in near-perfect English. Her friends, Americans and Bosnians, drop by or call, and they laugh together.

In a quiet moment, Irena reaches for a picture postcard she keeps on her bedroom mirror. It is of the town called Briest. "This is where my father is buried," she says softly. "I passed Briest on my bus trip to Zagreb, but I could not stop and visit Papa's grave."

In time, political developments helped many of the Bosnian students. After the signing of the Dayton accord, says Wilson, "the knowledge that the shelling had stopped, that their parents and brothers and sisters were out of immediate danger, was an immense relief."

These were young people, it turned out, who had much to say. As they learned about their host country, they also realized that they had an opportunity—an obligation, some of them felt—to educate their peers and hosts and correct misconceptions that surprised them. "People knew nothing about Bosnia," says Irena. "People thought we were uncivilized, or like fanatics.... They assumed we did not know what was a microwave or a VCR! This really made us mad."

Arnela, who traveled with Irena from Sarajevo, found reporters addling. "'What does it feel like? What does it feel like?' they kept asking us," she says. "[Television crews] seemed to want to make us cry for their cameras," says Ajdin Dropič. "That was upsetting to us."

Ajdin and Alen Causevič were among the Bosnian visitors who took these difficulties as a challenge. "I know people do not see me, Ajdin, as one person. They see Bosnia, a nation, when I speak. So I take the opportunity to speak with journalists. This is one of the reasons I came here. I want to show people first-hand how things were there, and I feel Americans have a role to play in Bosnia." Ajdin's quiet manner and calm voice seem appropriate to his plans for a career in diplomacy.

"We change the face of Bosnia in the minds of students and people we meet," he continues. He recalls a confrontation with another student on a television show when he was asked, "My brother is in the US Army. Why should he die in Bosnia?" Ajdin says he replied at once, "What about my brother?" After the show, he says, "the girl came up to me and thanked me, saying that I had made her change her mind."

Like Ajdin, Alen too has given countless interviews. "Here, people just want to see who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. Too many of them thought this war was only about religion. I explain to them it is about territory, and power." Despite occasional impatience with reporters and peers, he perseveres. "With Americans, you have to go slowly, and roundabout, and get under their skin. You can't confront them."

But many of the Bosnians had to learn to go slowly, too, says Thomas Smith, who teaches humanities in Exeter, New Hampshire. "When they arrived, they saw things in black and white. They saw only their side." With time, Smith says, he observed a gradual broadening of perspective. "Whereas some were resistant to arguments from the other side, many began to see that compromise was the only way to avoid further war." He was particularly delighted when, toward the end of the year, Irma Ramusovič, one of his favorite students, said in a leadership class that "people must cooperate if they want to live together, even if they don't completely agree."

This growth won respect for the Bosnians. "We could see the specialness of the Bosnian experience in their poems and essays," says Sister Mary Rita Geoppinger of Notre Dame Academy. John Horton, a world history teacher in Kentucky, observes, "The Bosnians are leaders in their classes. They will tell the American kids if they don't agree.... It was good for the other pupils."

The temporary rescue of promising young people whose educations—and lives—were jeopardized by war began nearly four years ago with a young girl's poignant question to her father. Robert Azzi, who has photographed around the world for major magazines (including for Aramco World), often recounts how his daughter Iman, then nine, turned to him as they watched television coverage of the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and asked, "So, are they going to build a museum for the Muslims in Bosnia, too?" Azzi had the vision and determination to answer her with action.

"Bosnia has a great heritage in its culture, education, sports, religion," he says with the conviction that persuaded and inspired many host families, school principals and business people. "The country had a great deal to be proud of. I feel it is important—and possible—to keep these institutions going. And the best way to ensure this," he says, "is through training of youth. And the best way to do that is to keep the effort on a personal scale, with no elaborate infrastructure—just ordinary people helping ordinary people."

Azzi lives this approach: He picks up and sends courier packages to Zagreb himself; meets flights—for which he has nearly always solicited donated tickets; consults with high-school counselors; and makes sure to get to know every student and every host family, and to visit many of them personally. In the past year he's overseen the design of a site for the Bosnians on the World Wide Web. In 1995, when Irena's us visa was delayed, her phone call to Azzi from Zagreb brought a fast fix. When one young man needed to find new host parents, Azzi took care of that, too.

"These are not refugees," he says emphatically. "Take Tarik—he's a computer genius. He was Bosnia's math champion in the 1995 international competition in Toronto. When he saw something about our project on the Internet in Bosnia, he got more information, then he contacted me. Affan, now in Colorado, was an Olympic skier for the Bosnian team. He lives and breathes skiing, and should continue. Jasminka is a math genius. Irma joined the rowing team her first semester of university here. Alen was a member of his school's decathlon team. Alma Muharamajič" won an award from the American Chemical Society. Once they graduate and go back to Bosnia, they will be resourceful enough to find their own way and make their own mark." His tone bespeaks a contagious confidence.

"We have to be more than just average," says Ajdin. "'Azzi makes us feel special because he did this for us and he didn't even meet us personally. I have this chance, and I am going to use it."

Azzi, like other host parents, understands that these youngsters need emotional support and moral guidance beyond the classroom, too. "Without their parents and grandparents, there is no one to offer advice. So I do it—I have to. I make it clear what I expect from them. I tell them repeatedly, 'How you behave as an individual focuses attention on our program and on Bosnia.'"

There are difficulties, of course: The late teen years are a stage that is difficult in the best of circumstances. "I ask them to help me, too," says Azzi. "Occasionally I ask one of the older, more experienced students to phone someone who needs guidance."

Host parents regularly consult Azzi, and each other, to ask and offer guidance and discuss everything from house rules to the search for colleges and financial support beyond high school. "I tell [the host parents] that they have even more responsibility than the Bosnian mother and father, because they have to act on the Bosnian parents' behalf, as well as be the day-to-day parent here."

"At times it was much harder than we first expected," admits Mary Wilson of Colorado. "There's a point at which this trauma [of war] came into their lives, and they got stuck there. They arrived very angry. They had not wanted to leave their own parents. They were distrustful of us—strangers who suddenly appeared extending our hands to them.

"They ask, 'Why are you doing this for us?' and it wasn't always easy to convince them that we just wanted to help." Nor was it easy for the Bosnians to trust the host families' benevolence. Wilson found it necessary to reassure them, explaining, "We didn't bring you here to change you, but to preserve you. We don't have to know everything about a person to want to help them."

Rick Deerwester of Kentucky echoes her thoughts: "I took on this project because it gave us a way of protecting children," he says. Still, he admits, whenever Sejla Celhasič, who lived with him for one academic year, asked for advice, he had to think twice as hard. "We have a responsibility to the parents back home. I would ask, 'What do you think your mother would want you to do?' And then, generally, we found a solution," he says with pride.

Usually, overcoming difficulties strengthened the bonds between the students and their host families. Allan and Leni Rayburn of Rochester, New York found that when Alma Muharamajič chose to return home after a year with them, they were urging her to stay. She didn't, but they still keep in touch with her weekly. They have taken in another Bosnian student, and they have assured Alma that, should she choose to return to the US, a room awaits her—along with a scholarship at Allendale Columbia High School.

In addition to their relations with their host parents, the students have also needed the camaraderie and support that they could find only in each other. Their friendships with American classmates and the love that grew between them and their host families were only part of their lives.

Simply by making this journey together, they had become a community. In Durango, the Bosnians meet together on weekends even though all go to the same school and even live in the same neighborhood. In Cincinnati and Rochester, too, the groups hold weekly get-togethers. Sometimes it seems they are together at every opportunity—ask Irena.

"Forget about Sundays," she says of the Messer family's access to the telephone. "All the calls are for me." It's either Arnela or Selma in other parts of Cincinnati, or another friend—nearly always Bosnian. Her laughter and her smooth Serbo-Croatian then fill the Kentucky home.

It's different for Ajdin, who has grown deeply attached to his hosts, Rick and Jay Deerwester. He says he doesn't see much of other Bosnians in Cincinnati now that he is in college, but he's on the Internet more and more, linked with Bosnians around the world. His first connection was with his home city, Tuzla, where a friend had set up an e-mail service for the times when telephone and mail contacts were nearly impossible. That one service became a lifeline of communication for Ajdin and other students throughout the Bosnian diaspora.

"I learned this way that some of [my friends] landed in Germany, in England and in Austria, and I searched them out and found they were looking for me, too. More than half my Tuzla class of 100 is outside now," he says, and many of them keep in touch by e-mail.

"We can talk about everyday things, music and families. And some [members of the class] went into the army. I also want to hear about their life. They went to war and had a hard time, while I was here. When the fighting ended, they celebrated together, and I could not share that either."

Irena, who was accepted at three northern-Kentucky colleges, is now studying computer science and business at Thomas More College. To cover her fees, the Messers campaigned among friends and in the community to secure a combination of private support, part-time work and scholarships for her. Ajdin is attending Ohio Wesleyan University on a four-year scholarship, working for a degree in political science. Via the Internet, he and a classmate in Austria are coordinating what they hope will be a 1997 class reunion in Tuzla. "We never got a high school graduation in 1995 because of the war," he says, "but we hope to hold it at home next year."

Torsten Kjellstrand is a staff photographer at The Herald in Jasper, Indiana, and won the 1996 Photographer of the Year award from the National Press Photographers' Association.

Barbara Nimri Aziz earned a doctorate in anthropology from the University of London and, as a New York-based journalist, writes frequently about Middle Eastern and Arab-American subjects.

This article appeared on pages 24-37 of the January/February 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1997 images.