Forgotten by the World

Coming to the US at the age of 9, I never really felt at home in this country. I heard stories from my grandparents and other relatives of how the Nakba (1948 war) forcibly removed them and millions of others from our ancestral homes; about a great-grandparent dying at the hand of an Israeli soldier playfully waving his rifle at an innocent prisoner; about my grandmother’s treasure chest of yellowing deeds and large dungeon-like keys that were once her prided home in Jaffa. Everyone in Palestine, and even those beyond, feels a continuous connection to the place we once and still do call home. The connection is fueled by heart-wrenching stories, painful memories, and that look of despair and hopelessness in someone’s eyes.

Walking into the Community Mosque of Winston-Salem, I did not expect to find this connection any more than I did living in the US for the past 10 years. Moreover, I would have expected it to be with a fellow Gazan, Palestinian, or Arab who lived in such a tumultuous region. Instead, it was with a Bosnian family who expressed their emotion in one of the most heart-felt stories that I have ever heard. Merdin, son of Saddat, translated to our group the struggles his family faced as Muslims in the Bosnian War. During the war, Saddat and his brother, also addressing us through Merdin, were captives in the most horrible years of their lives. There was no safety for Muslims anywhere in the country; they would be captured and beaten. Even hospitals were not a safe abode because people were killed there. For the pair, it was a shocking and eternally-disturbing scene. Worse yet, the crimes committed by the Serbs went into greater length. Merdin, at this point, warned us of the graphic nature of the next part of the experience. The brothers’ mother was raped in her own house during the war. The uncle and brother started crying while Merdin nerve-wrenchingly said this. After the two were imprisoned, they were beaten until they could not get up off the ground. After one guard would beat a prisoner senseless, he would leave the room and another guard would walk in. If the prisoner was still on the ground, he would instantly be shot to death. The uncle told us, pointing to his arm, that he was once beaten up so badly that his whole arms was blue and he could not move it, yet he saved his brother who was unconscious on the ground.

Saddat (Left), Merdin (Center), Uncle (Right)

Cutting the detail of prison life to a minimum because of its graphic and emotional nature, Merdin then told us the story of post-prison life for the brothers. They were traded a year later to Croatians because they were “not real Bosnians and did not matter.” They were released to Germany for treatment, which took more than half a year because of the extent of injury. Following treatment, the brothers tried to go back to their home in Bosnia. When arriving, they met their mother at their home. She believed her sons were dead and told these two strangers to go away. It is unfathomable to me how the extent of trauma from a war led a mother to forget her own children.

Throughout this detailed and very emotional storytelling by Merdin, he kept repeating what his father and uncle were saying: “Americans do not understand.” They do not understand the horrors the family had to go through and still go through in their everyday lives. Saddat used to be a firefighter before the war, a person that serves their community and country. The uncle used to be a glass windshield maker for a company in Bosnia. After the war, they tried to go back to their country but they could not. Their mother, government, and own people all forgot about them. What did they turn to? From Germany, they went to the place with “streets paved with gold” looking for the American dream in the late 1990s. Saddat said “America is where you survive.” Although Merdin and his father and uncle were agitated by these recollections and could not emotionally contain themselves, you could still see the flicker of hope about moving to a new world, one where everyone would be equals.

That is not what they found. Their first home here was a small place beside Serbian neighbors, who treated them very badly. Their first job was for a Serbian employer, who fired them not too long afterwards. These people were the same ethnicity, only divided by their religious beliefs. After 9/11, the father said that he faced continuous harassment in and out of the workplace. At many points, they lived in a car. Describing the situation, Merdin stated how hard it was, especially in the summer. His father would be asked how many people he killed as a dictator, comparing his name to Saddam. Once, “in Manhattan, he was asked how many 1000s [of people] he killed.” When the family was in Miami, the father worked at a restaurant that was miles away from home. Biking back from work one night, a police officer stopped Saddat and “slammed him violently to the hood of the car, not just put him there.” He also searched Saddat and found a small Quran that was given to him by his mother, his last item to remember her by. The police jailed him for a month and the Quran was never seen again. The police also exclaimed many times with joy, “ I caught a terrorist.” For a month, Merdin did not know where his father was; he thought he had died. When they were rejoined, Merdin kept blaming himself for not being there to explain or defend his dad. His father and uncle could not speak English well enough, which put them in very unfortunate situations. One of these situations was when Merdin’s uncle had his license suspended. He had studied for weeks, locking himself in his room to obtain his license. A few months after obtaining his license, he was stopped and ticketed for no reason. When a lawyer promised to take care of the tickets and did not fulfill that promise, he lost his license for 3 years.

I have to commend Merdin on his outstanding character as both a storyteller and supporter of his family. Knowing very fluent English, he relayed all of the thoughts of his father and uncle to us. At many points, he inadvertenly blamed himself for his father and uncle’s troubles in the US. He kept saying that if he was there to help, it would not have been so bad. Until he grew up, they lived in a very difficult situation, but he has taken it upon himself to relieve them of that. Saddat actually hid from his son many of these stories until Merdin grew up. He wanted him to feel normal, and to prosper here in the US. It was hard for Merdin to do this, however, because his family kept moving to look for new jobs. His father could not hold a job because of his nationality and religion. Merdin was told he was smart by his teachers, but that he would keep failing unless he stayed in one school. In his stories Merdin mentioned New York, Jacksonville, and other cities, indicating their very turbulent life style. He did not feel regret though, saying that “we needed to move to get enough money to eat.” Merdin also kept making clear that he does not and will never feel the pain of his relatives’ experiences. Hopefully he can use those emotions for good, however.

Our very inspirational session ended with a question of the present physical and emotional situation of the family. When the uncle was asked this question, he said, “I would rather be dead than alive.” He relayed stories once again of mass graves and brutal beatings during the war. When the father was asked the same question, he stated, “We just want to stay here and live like everyone else.” The son responded by saying that he is ignoring the past and looking toward the future. The only positive responses were that of their Muslim community here in Winston-Salem and wherever they landed. Merdin said, in a very heart-warming response, that people gave them everything, including a home, a car, and a job. Even people who were financially struggling themselves tried their hardest to give a couple of dollars to the family. The three started crying out of gratitude during this statement. Before this community help, they lived in a car. Although they had no trust in people and authority here, the Muslim community had accommodated them like family. They are cared and loved for in the fittingly-named Community Mosque of Winston-Salem. Describing them, Imam Khalid of the mosque said they are some of the most humble people he knows. When they are not at work, they attend every prayer at the mosque.

Although the hope of the community they found has given the father and uncle a new glow, they still could not let go of this feeling of hopelessness. The motivation and drive that gives a person of that history to continue living every day is courageous and inspiring. Their connection to family, Islam, and themselves are stronger than ever. I have been blessed with an opportunity in my life here in the US and especially my education at Duke University, but I kept thinking “what if my life was that of Merdin?” The connection I made with them helped me understand their pain and that of my own people. Being forgotten by the world can be painful in many ways, especially when you are also forgotten by family and your own people, but it can be an opportunity to use the past as an impetus for a future of rediscovered hope and inspired justice.