Joe and I had invited the four Bosnian boys that beautiful autumn weekend in 2003 for a pizza and slumber party at our modest apartment in Pacifica, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. We figured their mother Esma needed a break. Our place, cheaply furnished and cramped, had a gorgeous feature – the living room window faced the Pacific Ocean and it was possible to see dolphins and whales with the naked eye. When the second youngest, Sanel, saw the unobstructed view, the first time he had ever seen this sea, or any other for that matter, he exclaimed,
“The Pacific Ocean – it’s beautiful!”
It was a scene I never wanted to forget, the four boys we were tutoring, all sitting in a row on our second-hand couch, goofy grins spreading across their faces. The oldest, Daniel, sat with his feet planted in a bath that bubbled warm water about his toes while his three brothers – Salih, Sanel and Mehmed – jabbed one another with their elbows and snickered while I searched for my camera. When I finally found it and snapped their photo, Daniel had passed the bath to Sanel and the four of them had settled down to watch a movie we had rented from Blockbuster. They had none of the self-conscious “this is for girls” bias that American boys would have had. They all wanted their turn to relax and treat themselves to a sudsy tub of water. And they deserved it.
Esma and her boys had arrived from Bosnia in 1999 as refugees. Mohammed, Esma’s husband and the boys’ father, had died in the war in Bosnia and by all accounts was a well-respected man in his small village. One of the case workers for the family told me he was “really something.” Though we never knew exactly how he died, what we did know was this – Esma was a stranger to the United States, she was 29 years old, and she had four boys who needed to learn English, go to school, and acclimate to Oakland. For Esma’s part, she needed to fill out endless paperwork, obtain health care and above all, earn enough money for rent and groceries. It seemed impossible. Refugee Transitions, a nonprofit serving the Bay Area’s refugees with critical and pragmatic adjustment services, matched the boys with Joe and me and then we embarked on weekly sessions to teach them English. Soon we were including them in our own lives. After a while they became like family, so much so that our friends and parents would ask us, “How are your Bosnian boys?” I believed they would be safer and would have more opportunity in the United States. We dedicated ourselves to ensuring that would be the case.
Now, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica (today’s New York Times published a moving opinion piece by Seema Jilani; 60 Minutes and Bob Simon’s report from 1999 is heart-wrenching), where more than 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian forces in the countryside, I am still trying to reconcile if we failed Esma and her boys. Or indeed, how much we failed.
The boys learned English within their first six months and by the conclusion of their first year in the U.S. were not all that hard to distinguish from California-raised kids, what with their blond hair, blue eyes and gangsta swagger and rap lyric knowledge that helped them fit in and find protection in the Oakland public school system.
Esma’s progress learning English was understandably slower, but she communicated the essentials with us very well, even finding the courage to call us on the telephone when she needed help.
Eventually we stopped teaching them English and transitioned to on-call consultations for a variety of tasks that are difficult even for U.S. citizens, let alone refugees. For example, I negotiated a low-interest loan and sales price on a sporty red Honda Civic on Esma’s behalf, which, if you know me, is not exactly my strength – a salesman can typically walk all over me. But in this instance, the two used car men mistook my frequent departure from the sales trailer as disgust with their initial offer. In truth, I was calling Joe to see if he thought it was a good idea for me to buy the car on our credit card and have Esma pay me back; Joe talked me out of it, and boy do I appreciate his more level head. Joe said that it was important for Esma to establish her own line of credit. Every time I returned to the trailer the salesmen lowered the price, the interest rate, or both.
Joe took the boys to buy shoes, filled out the required forms for the family’s green cards, welfare checks, then the welfare-to-work program, and many other official documents that Esma could not read. I got Sanel into the San Francisco Zoo’s summer camp, Joe got Daniel into an outdoor education camp and we picked up the boys from time to time to expose them to places outside their school and city. Esma had met someone new, so we wanted to give her time alone without the kids around. We helped the boys with their homework, gave them advice about their futures and took them to baseball games. As the boys grew older, they became testy and irritable, cooped up as they were in the two bedroom apartment. Though I thought they were good-hearted children, they got into trouble often. We blamed the school – one of the roughest in the country where students formed gangs and picked on the boys until they found older boys to protect them.
Joe and I often discussed whether what we were doing was actually helping them given that they could only afford Oakland. The older boys often mused about returning to Bosnia where they remembered friends and family in their village. It was ironic, Joe and I thought, that Oakland’s violence, homicides and bullying in the schools could be worse than a country torn apart by ethnic cleansing. It seemed that Americans, who had given a limited number of slots for Bosnian refugees, weren’t doing that great of a job making sure the refugees were successful once they were on American soil. But since only the two oldest boys had any real memories of Bosnia, we figured that at least in America two of the four could create their own destiny. The other two would need to work harder to move forward.
About five years after we met the family, Joe and I moved to Boston. We drove to Oakland on our last morning to say goodbye to our Bosnian boys.
“We will never see you again,” Esma wailed. I threw my arms around her shoulders in a lame effort to console her.
“Of course you’ll see us again. We will write and call and visit you,” I said. Esma, whose face was streaked by tears she could not control, as well as the reluctant smiles of the four boys all lined up on the shaded sidewalk in front of their apartment building, remain like a dusty postcard in my memory. Esma had been right.
The family soon moved to Idaho where their cousins had found jobs amongst a small community of other Bosnians. For a few years we sent holiday cards and messages through MySpace. Then our annual cards were returned. We seemed to have lost track of them. Then one day a letter arrived, the return address a prison in Idaho. The second oldest, Salih, had beaten a man, nearly to death, and was serving a sentence for aggravated battery. He begged us to write to him. I searched for Daniel’s name and a mug shot came up, but I was not certain if it was an internet prank or something factual. I failed to find the other boys on social media. According to a legal forum website, Salih was deported by the state of Idaho in 2012 or thereabouts. Salih posted to the site: “I lived in USA ever since i was 5 and now 23…KInda confused..Deported to Bosnia. I was never told an time lenght of deportation or what i could do to re-enter. my whole family is back there. Can anyone find out for how long i was removed… please email. Thank you.”
Today the ghosts of Srebrenica raise the question of how ethnic cleansing could take place in the modern era, on a continent marking the origin of so many of our American ancestors. How did the United Nations, NATO and the United States let the carnage happen?
We failed the former Yugoslavia. And I can’t help but feeling that I failed my four Bosnian boys, too. Surely there was more I could have done to show them the best of America. But they did not die in a massacre, I remind myself. They had their chances to start again, flawed as the chances may have been.
I just hope Salih and Daniel remember the Pacific Ocean, the wilderness of the Sierra and the simple pleasures of a foot bath, their brothers laughing and tickling them, angling for their turn to soak their feet thousands and thousands of miles away from the killing fields.