I was a refugee

When you think of the word “refugee,” many images come up. We can blame the media for this, as well as our society’s general assumption that refugees and migrants look and think a certain way, and that their values and traditions couldn’t possibly match our own. This way of thinking is simply false.

Although I don’t look like one from first glance, I am a child of war. I was born in Sarajevo during the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, during which around eleven thousand people were killed and many more injured — most of them children.

I am lucky to be alive, but even luckier to have no recollection of death, and no deep-rooted trauma that eats away at my subconscious. I know that I played around rusty abandoned cars and begged for bread at the market where people would get their rations, but most of those memories are foggy at best. I was three when we left.

I know that my parents decided to leave Sarajevo because they knew I had no future there. Ethnic tensions were at an all-time high, and with my father technically being a Serb and my mother technically being a Croat (both of my parents are ethnically mixed), they knew I wouldn’t exactly have a comfortable childhood. In any case, the Sarajevo they had known didn’t exist anymore. Their beautiful city had been reduced to rubble, and the cafes and parks they once enjoyed as teenagers were destroyed or vandalized.

Where Bosnia was once a multi-cultural haven, it was then a horror-show of people poisoning and ratting out their former neighbours and looting each other’s homes. We lost most of our belongings during this time — we saved some clothing, my mother’s vintage skis, and some of my father’s vinyls — all evidence of a life that only survives in memory.

My mother and I left Sarajevo in the back of an army convoy in the dead of the night. We went to Croatia, where my father joined us, and then to Germany.  My parents taught me how to read in Frankfurt — not because I was especially bright but because they were bored and anxious of their future and I was their only light. In 1996, we were sponsored to come to Canada thanks to an Edmonton-based couple who had met my mother 10 years earlier in Germany, while they were all AISEC students.

We did not come to Canada instantly — it took a year of interviews, medical tests, and proof of identity before our journey could even begin, but our arrival in Edmonton was the luckiest break in my family’s history. Although traumatized and already in debt to the Canadian government, we were finally home. And finally at peace.

Those who share anti-refugee sentiment lack an understanding of how horrific the process of escaping a war-zone truly is to everyday people. Like many Sarajevans, my parents didn’t think the war would actually happen. They believed their city to be cosmopolitan and cultured, so when rumours became reality, it was as if their entire universe had been turned upside down.

At the end of the day, my parents are simply people who did everything they could to save themselves and their only daughter from a miserable and uncertain life. When I think about it, I could have easily been one of the slain children memorialized in a little red chair, but again, I was lucky.

With a lack of understanding comes xenophobia, and with that, now more frequently than ever, islamophobia. Although my family is not Muslim, we are unequivocally Bosnian, and Bosnia has deep and beautiful ties with Ottoman Islamic traditions. My father describes the call the prayer as the sound of his childhood, and my mother remembers celebrating both Eid and Christmas with her friends while growing up. It is this unique culture which raised me, and I will always be proud of it.

Yes, it is easy to be frightened, or even angry at times of global terror, but I urge you to extend a hand to the refugees and migrants arriving from the Middle East to Canada. Think of them as you would think of me, a wide eyed little girl who cried tears of joy when her third grade teacher baked her a cake the day she officially became a Canadian citizen. We are one and the same.

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