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Monitor Board of Contributors: When war-weary Bosnians needed help, New Hampshire reached out

 Azzi

Azzi

‘I was sitting in a cold dark room with my grandmother when we heard a noise like a dog howling: Sh, sh, sh, sh, sh, sh, sh . . . and an explosion followed by ground thunder and short light. I had always thought that someday after all these shells our ground would break into pieces and swallow us. Ten minutes after the explosion our building was still shaking. I had a feeling that, ‘This is it; it’s going down.’ But it didn’t. It just scared me to death, and in a few moments I found myself on the ground in my grandmother’s arms. If this woman hadn’t been there for me I would never have survived that war.”

– Vedrana, while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, describing a 1995 massacre that killed 70 young people in Tuzla, Bosnia, and Herzegovina.

On April 22, 1993, my daughter and I were watching television as President Clinton dedicated America’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. I remember vividly the moment when, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel was speaking, my 8-year-old daughter turned and asked, “Daddy, will there be a Holocaust Museum for the Muslims of Bosnia someday?”

Her question, from concern, from innocence, became a challenge – an imperative to act.

Her question, searing and relevant, reflected our awareness, along with millions of others around the world, of the terrible fighting raging across the former Yugoslavia.

While the history of all that transpired in the former Yugoslavia is too complex to recount in this space, suffice to say that Bosnia and Herzegovina, after a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia (in which 63 percent of the electorate voted, of which 99.7 percent voted affirmatively), declared its independence on March 3, 1992. On April 6, 12 European Community foreign ministers announced that their countries would recognize the independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The United States announced its intent April 7.

Within weeks, Bosnia was under siege.

“Once I had a home, once my life was good

Once my mother sang to me and held me

Then the fire came, falling from the sky

There is no one left who can protect me . . .

“But when I close my eyes

I dream of peace

I dream of flowers on the hill

I dream I see my mother smiling

When I close my eyes

I dream of peace . . .”

– Judy Collins, “Song for Sarajevo”

I had a friend who worked with the Zagreb-based Women’s Association of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We met that summer when she came to Exeter to place her son in summer school, and she agreed to help identify teens who’d qualify for American educational visas.

Frankly, I wasn’t interested in just helping any teenagers – there were plenty of European refugee organizations that could help them more effectively and efficiently than I. I wanted to help smart, motivated young kids already proficient in English, with spirits not yet crushed by the horrors of war, who wanted to continue their education – educations that eventually could help them return to Bosnia-Herzegovina and help rebuild that country.

Thus, on a blustery November day 20 years ago, eight war-weary Bosnians arrived in Exeter, just in time for Thanksgiving. Over the following two years, more than 70 more Bosnians would arrive to continue their education in America.

Our efforts were helped when we received national attention in a CBS Sunday Morning segment produced by a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy. Not only did the show help us expand out efforts nationally, but it also induced Phillips Exeter, which generally did not give aid to foreign students, to provide full scholarships for three of our Bosnians.

Local support was immediate and generous. Many of the host families had never even met a Muslim, yet we were offered more families than we had students arriving. Families rich and of modest means, independents, Democrats, Republicans, religious, nonreligious – a wonderful range of people offered to help. There were no financial inducements – it was a genuinely humanitarian response to an immediate need.

Thus, in 1993, eight young students, ripped from homes and families, arrived for Thanksgiving, started school, stuck around for Christmas and bonded with families who offered shelter, safety and love, and while they worried about loved ones who remained home in Sarajevo, Mostar and Tuzla, they were free to safely dream.

A Catholic family loved the most conservative of Muslim girls. A Unitarian family embraced a young woman now living in Finland. A divorced couple united to provide love and education to a young woman now one of Bosnia’s leading scholars. A young man from Sarajevo, who arrived with little more than his pride, a backpack and newspaper lining the soles of his sneakers, was comforted and healed by his host family.

Thus, by 1995, more than 80 students were sheltered here. Of the 12 students who eventually came to live in Exeter, all graduated from college, many with advanced degrees. Three still live in America; most of the others have returned to Bosnia where they have restarted their lives, have families and are working to rebuild and educate their country.

Last week, the day after Thanksgiving, I received a message from one of the first Exeter eight, “Dear Robert, I have completed my professional doctorate program and . . . I will be working as a researcher on a European-American project dealing with open accessibility tools for users with distinct disabilities.”

Working to rebuild and educate.

Vedrana ended her meditation, “From that day on, many of us left the country, and many just left Tuzla, but wherever we are, the little hill of our town will keep us together. Our hands will never get separated even though they are thousands of miles apart. Today on the hill there is a big stone put in by the UN that says, ‘Here lies Youth of all Youths; even shells couldn’t separate them and never will.’ ”

When The Other cried out, “There is no one left who can protect me,” New Hampshire residents responded to their cries and protected them, and for that I remain thankful.

(Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He may be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. Azzi will be speaking on issues of Identity, Islam and the Middle East at the Unitarian-Universalist South Church, in Portsmouth on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public.)

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