Hasan’s Story: Escaping the Bosnian-Serbian War 1994

by Storyteller Sue O’Halloran

 

Story Summary:

 When former Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, war broke out across the region. Hasan, a Muslim, was a college student in 1992 when the siege against his city, Sarajevo, began. He joined the Army of Bosnia but would do anything to escape and live in peace and freedom. A few of his many adventures are detailed in this excerpt as well as his victory in studying Islam and rediscovering his identity when he came to the United States.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Hasans-Story-Escaping-the-Bosnian-Serbian-War-1994

Discussion Questions:

  1. What led to the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s?
  2. What would you do to escape a war? Could you leave your friends and family?
  3. What kept Hasan’s and his friend’s hopes alive?
  4. How has hardship helped you define who you are?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • European Americans/Whites
  • Immigration
  • Interfaith
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Sue O’Halloran. I’m going to tell you a story that’s an excerpt of a longer story. A story about the war that broke out in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. This is a story of my neighbor, Hasan. Now I’m going to say it as if Hassan were speaking to you in the first person. I do not do a Bosnian accent, believe me, but I want to get a little flavor of Hassan’s speech and most of all the spirit of my dear neighbor. So here’s a little bit of Hasan’s story.

I remember first day of siege. I was in college back then, 21 year old. It is March 4, 1992 and I wake up and I hear my father’s voice out in the living room. “What is going on?” I have to tell you, my father is the type, never late for work, never miss a day of work. He never call in to say he’s sick. I walk out to living room, sleepy and this is how my father greet me. “The whole city is blacked out. People are running around with machine gun. You can’t go anywhere.”

I sit down. I watch TV. We watch TV together. We watch our neighbors absolutely flipping out. Jus-just the night before, my friend, Christian, he was at our house. We are school friends, right. We are hanging out. And next morning he is in Serbian army whose job is to annihilate us Muslims. We listen to TV anchorperson say now our country, Bosnia, it is part of Greater Serbia and Greater Serbia must be cleansed of Muslims and Croats enemies. What, yesterday we are citizens, coworkers, neighbors, and today we are enemies? What has happened? What has changed? We still look the same. We have same skin, it is white. We have two eyes, we have mouth, we have legs, we have arms. What is different? What has changed?

Well, the shelling, it continued all day long. By us is a hospital for babies and one moment it is a hospital of dead babies. Who could do that? The children, of course, they don’t understand; to them, ah, it is day of school off, right? By us, across the street from our apartment, is a hill. The children are sledding on the hill and we hear screams. And we run to the window and there on our street is…is seven dead children in our street. The shelling, the sniper bullets could come out of nowhere. You’re standing line. Now there are lines for everything! Line to buy water, line to get some food, line to get some wood.  And all of sudden shelling or, or, or bullets come out of nowhere and suddenly the 20 people in front of you are dead. You are next in line but you, you are standing there spared, somehow. You understand, we cannot make sense of this.

It took us a while to understand what was going on. We thought it couldn’t happen to us. Finally, I join army of Bosnia. For three long winters, army of Bosnia, we, we hold our city, Sarajevo. Is mystery to me, how we hold that city. We are exhausted. We are, we are no food. We are, we are, we are hungry. We are, we are just tired.

In other unit, a story circulate. We hear a story of an unbelievable suicide. This other unit, they’re holding strategic mountain by Sarajevo. They, like us, no food, no water for days. They’re trudging up snowy mountain, getting up high in mountain. They’re covering, they’re carrying the little packs of things they have left. When a pack horse walks to the edge of the cliff and jumps. The soldiers stood there stunned. And finally, one of them say, “Even the horses can’t take it anymore.”

This is how I feel. This is what I try to tell my parents one Sunday night. I am 24 years old and I tell them my grand scheme. I am leaving. They have one comment for me. “You are out of your mind! How will you get out of here?” they say. “The whole region is at war and our own people could shoot you for deserting the army!”  “I don’t care,” I say. “I do not care. I have got to get rid of these pictures that are in my mind. These pictures that are driving me crazy. I have to leave!”

Long story, my friend, Dino, who is also in army, he leaves with me. We sneak out of tunnel. We get out of city, which is blocked. No way in, no way out. We find way out through tunnel and when we emerge from that tunnel, there before us like big, dark, black wall in the night is Mount Trebević, where just six years before Olympic athletes are skiing, the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. Oh, so much joy on Mount Trebević! So much, much pride we have! The whole world is watching us host the Olympics and now Mount Trebević is surrounded by death.

Later, long in story, I tell you many more adventures. Almost caught, almost turned in, lying, hiding, cheating, whatever we can do to escape. And finally, we are crossing border.  Finally, months later, out of Bosnia into Croatia. We are trying to get to town of Split on the sea side. Maybe we can get out of area from there. We are going there at nightfall. And as we approached the city at nightfall, we see…lights…lights. We are without lights for over three years. We are without electricity. So, so, so long.  How I tell you? Speechless. Is like night stars fallen to the ground. Light exist. Light exist. I keep saying to myself, light exist. You see, it is like we are living in a cage in Sarajevo and you cannot believe. All existence has stopped outside that cage. You cannot think to yourself that out there somebody is going to eat normally in a restaurant or slept in beds or are going to the office or having a picnic in the park. But if light exists, see to me, that means if light exists that means life exists.

But the magic it start to fade, a bit. We get into Split and there are written on the buildings as graffiti, “Kill Muslims. Death to Muslims.” We are not at war anymore with Croatia but it’s still not a very safe place for us to be. But good luck. We find out that Dino, my friend, his cousin lived in Split.

We are able, long story again, to find our way to his apartment. We get there. It is covered with people. Wall to wall refugees, men, women, children. I do not care. I find a little piece of floor; I fall on it. I am going to sleep for days if I can. When this woman come next to me asked me where we been. I do not want to tell her whole story, months of escape, right? So I mumble a few words and then she asked me where we think we’re going. I don’t know where we’re going. Every step of the way, I didn’t know what comes next. I didn’t know where we were going but I say to her, “We go to United States.” Just to get rid of her, you know, so I could go to sleep. She said, “Oh, well that’s what I manage.” And I’m half asleep, now I’m thinking, what this woman manager store or something why is she telling me this? Why won’t she leave me alone? I want to sleep. And then she say, “I manage the office that sends Bosnian refugees to the United States.”

I am awake now. This is first person I meet in Split? The person who can get me legally to the United States?  And that’s how it worked. A Jewish organization sponsor me and Dino to come to America. You know, Jews and Muslims, we have had long history together. Like in 1400’s both of us pushed out of Spain. Well, during this war when the Serbian army set fire to libraries and other buildings, it is Muslims who run into the synagogue to save the sacred and priceless Jewish text. And now it is a Jewish organization sending me and Dino to America.

When I look back on it all now, over three years fighting a war, over three months escaping, I can’t say that good did not come out of it. I am here. My family is safe. We are in America and we are safe. And strangely enough, it is the haters who made me realize who I am. In Bosnia, I, I don’t know much about my village. I’m not that interested. But as the war and coming to the U.S. I start to get curious about my background. Why people hate me? Who are we anyway? And in U.S. I study Islam. And I find a mosque where I can study with other people, which is a good thing because Islam, I tell you, it is a religion of much discipline. It helps to help other people teaching, you practice with. And our mosque, our mosque join with Christian church and Jewish synagogue and we meet every week, six years now, to understand each other. We are becoming friends. And I can tell you it is better to live your life in community.

I…I am one of the lucky ones.

A Father’s Gift

 

Story Summary:

 In 1965, there was a war between India and Pakistan and Bilal wanted to know “Why is there all this hate?” This is the true story of a special gift Dr. Bilal Ahmed, a Pakistani Muslim, received from his father when he was thirteen. He offered his story as a gift to storyteller, Noa Baum, to shape and retell and, now, having told it to you, she hopes you will pass it on.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Father’s-Gift

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How important was the father’s gift to his 13-year old son? How many years before the son really understood the conversation?
  2. The child did not want to go into the dim, old-smelling room. As a metaphor, the room can stand for how difficult is it to tackle issues of social justice and bring them into the light. How important is it to talk about difficult subjects? What are the risks? What are the rewards?
  3. How important is it for each person to demonstrate leadership in the social action arena? What keeps us from acting?

Resource:

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Noa Baum. I grew up in Israel. I grew up surrounded by conflict and war, always longing for peace. Today I use storytelling to build bridges for peace. And I often lead interfaith workshops between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. At one of these workshops in Rochester, New York, a Muslim man from Pakistan, Dr. Bilal Ahmed, told me this story about a gift he received from his father. He gave me the story to shape and retell and I offer it here to you.

Bilal grew up in Lahore and Pakistan. When he was a little boy, there was a war between Pakistan and India.  And he asked his father, “Why is there all this hate between Muslims and Hindus?” His father said, “When you’re older, I’ll tell you.”

A few years later, Bilal turned 13. They went to visit his uncle’s house in the north. Bilal loved those visits. He loved his uncle’s house. It was… there was this great, big fountain right in the middle and all the doors opened to that fountain, and they would eat there on little stools around the fountain. There was a kitchen on one side, there were the stairway leading to the second story on the other. And the most wonderful thing about that house was the great banyan tree in the back of the house, where he would climb with his cousins. He was just about to run off to climb on the tree, when his father said, “Come, Bilal. It’s time to answer your question.” What question? But instead of answering, his father took him by the hand and led him up the stairs, along the open balcony corridor overlooking the courtyard below. And he stopped at the very last room below. Bilal couldn’t believe it. It was the attic room. It was the only room in the house that was ever locked. It was the ghost room.

“Aaah, Baba, I want to go play.”

“You’ll play later. There’s something I need to show you.” And so his father let him in. And the room was musty and dark, only a few rays of sunlight filtered in through the slits of the wooden shutters. Everything was covered with dust. Old furniture, his grandfather’s helmet and musket from the World War, and a humongous trunk not far from the window, which his father now opened and took out a big, leather bound book. “Come Bilal. Look at this. This is our Bahi, the book of our family history. It is passed on through the generations, from the oldest son to the oldest son. That is why it is here. In your grandfath… in, in your uncle’s house. He is my oldest brother. I want you to open it and look at it.”

Bilal had never seen anything so old in his life. It had hundreds of pages. He opened it. There on one of the very first pages, he saw his name. Bilal Ahmed Sahai, next to his brother Jamal and his sister Sarah! His mother, Naeema Cheema Sahi.  His father, Ghulam Sahi. “Hey that’s us!”

“Yes, that’s us. That’s our family. Keep looking.” And so, he turned the pages. Every page had about 10 names. Uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, people that he knew, people that he heard about. And he kept turning the pages, turning the page… and there was a name, “Singh Gurmeet Singh Sahi. That’s not a Muslim name.”

“No, that is a Sikh name.

“Sikh?”

“Yes, they are your family too. Keep looking.” And so he kept turning the pages. Soon the paper was so old it was almost disintegrating in his hands.

And then, “Anil? What kind of name is that?”

His father said, “That’s the Hindu name.”

“Hindu?!”

“Yes, they are your family too.  Keep looking.”

And so, he kept turning the pages and soon it was no longer paper but parchment. And after a while, he couldn’t even recognize the letters or the language. He looked up at his father, “I don’t understand what does this mean?”

His father said, “You asked about the hate, remember? And I wanted you to see this. I wanted you to see that God lives in everything. And I don’t want you ever to let anyone tell you to hate another. Because you can see they are all here. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Jews. They’re all your family.”

Well, Bilal was 13 years old. All he could think about was getting up and playing on the tree with his cousins.  And the years passed, Bilal left Pakistan. He became a doctor. He settled in Rochester, New York with his wife and three children. And about two years after his father passed away, he heard about the National Geographic’s genome project. Where they, they can map the travels and migrations of your family through the generations, across the world, according to your DNA. And they can also tell you who in the world is most closely, genetically, related to you. There are specific markers to specific population groups and if your markers matched those of someone else, then you are most closely genetically related to that person and they give them your email.

Bilal wanted to honor his father’s memory. He knew his father was always interested in genealogy. And so he sent in a little swab from the inside of his cheek in a little glass vial, with a number on it. No name, no name at all. And after a while the results arrived and there was a map of the entire world mapping the travels of his family. Like each and every human on this planet, they too began in Africa. And after thousands of years, migrated north, to the north part of Ukraine, Denmark, Poland. About 5000 years ago to the northern part of India and about a thousand years ago settled in what today is called Pakistan.

And then the emails began to arrive from his genetic relations. He got an email from somebody called David Barry Baum, someone called L. Frieburg, Clayton Schultz, Maurice Krasnow, Ed Leviten. It appears that according to the DNA results, the closest genetic relations of Dr. Bilal Ahmed, the Pakistani Muslim, are Jews from a small village in Poland. And it was then that he remembered. He turned to his 13-year-old daughter and he said, “You know, when I was about your age, my father took me to my uncle’s house. And he showed me our Bahi, the book of our family history.” He’s been telling the story ever since. Bilal has been telling the story, because he doesn’t want his children ever to forget his father’s words. “Don’t you ever let anyone tell you to hate another because you can see they’re all here. They are all your family.”

WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

By Storyteller Arif Choudhury

 

Story Summary:

 Bangladeshi-American Muslim storyteller, Arif Choudhury, shares stories about growing up as the only “brown-skinned boy” in the neighborhood and how 9-11 changed how others might perceive him and his family.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Where-Are-You-From

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What’s the difference between an interrogation and a conversation? How do we be curious about one another but not pressure someone to represent their whole group or feel that they’re being examined and objectified?
  2. Did you ever wonder about your own identity? How did you resolve your questions and confusion?
  3. Has your understanding or behavior towards Muslims changed over the years? In what ways?

Resources:

Themes:

  • Asian American/Asians
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims

Full Transcript:

History leaves us all with prejudices. For 2000 years, the Jews have been chased from country to country. They’ve always been the “other.”

“Well, my family, they fled Russia about a hundred years ago. The Czar of Russia had encouraged his subjects and his soldiers to kill Jews. One day, the Cossacks, the Czar’s horsemen, were riding into my little village the Zubkova.

My cousin heard the horse’s hooves in the street, and she ran out to get the children inside. But she wasn’t quick enough. There was the Cossack, sword drawn, coming down the street. She threw herself on the baby, and the sharp blade came down, right across her back.

And that night, my grandmother said, “Enough! We’re going to America!”

And so, we came to America, where we could be safe, where we could live with other Jews. But memories like that, they don’t go away. They’re in our culture. They’re inside our genes.

One day, when I was about five years old, I was sitting on the steps. My sister and my cousin were with me. We were playing, when suddenly I saw them. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I, I knew that they were dangerous. I knew it, in my DNA.

They were big, and they were black. And they seemed to be flying down the street, with big white wings that came out of their head. My sister, my cousin, they saw the look on my face. And then they looked, and then we three were all frozen in fear, as the monsters came, closer and closer.

“Where they going to kidnap us? Or maybe even worse?”

They reached us. They started to reach out their hands towards us.

“Good morning, children.”

Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah! And we ran inside. Escaping from the nuns.

SEEING THE OTHER

by Storyteller Arif Choudhury

Story Summary:

One day, 5-year old Arif learns how to play with a dreidel and learns about the differences between Christians and Jews.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Seeing-the-Other

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did Arif come to realize that there were “different kinds of white people”?
  2. Why weren’t the students also studying Arif’s religion?
  3. Growing up, what did you learn about Islam? Was Islam presented as one of the world’s major religions or as “an other”?

Resources:

  •  No god by God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam by Reza Asian
  • A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims

Full Transcript:

When I was a kid, I saw white people in my neighborhood. I saw white people on TV. I saw white people at my school. And I, basically, thought that all white people were the same. I didn’t know any better.

But then one day in school I learned that there were two ways of being white. There were Christians and there were Jews because that day the teacher stopped the lesson plan to teach us how to play with a small top called a dreidel. And now I had played with tops when I was a kid but g… only boys played with tops with a string around it. And if you pull the string, then the top keeps spinning and spinning and spinning. But this is a little more involved. This top had four sides with strange markings on each side and would fall over and you would find out if you got to play… to win some candy, those wrapped, uh, those gold coins.

And that’s why I got excited because this game was better than a board game Candy Land. You, actually, got to win candy. And then later in music class, I learned the dreidel song, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel. I made it out of clay, And when it’s dry and ready. Oh, dreidel, I will play.”

Now the funny thing was at that time I didn’t learn that playing with the dreidel and singing the dreidel song was part of Jewish custom. I just thought it was a game for white kids, cause it… something I didn’t do at home. But then I realized my classmate Christopher didn’t know much about dreidel either. And I asked him why he didn’t.

And he said well that’s because he was Christian and not Jewish. And that was the first time I really heard those two words. And so, I started to talk to Christopher about what it meant to be Christian. And then my other friends who were Jewish and I began to learn about their different faith practices and the cultural traditions.

And I kind of felt that my Christian friends had stacked the deck in their favor because they had cooler holidays. They had candy for each and every holiday. They had candy canes and Christmas cookies for Christmas. They had marshmallow peeps and chocolate eggs for Easter. My Jewish friends didn’t have candy for all their holidays. And my Christian friends had cartoon characters and mascots for each holiday. They had Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and elves and the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. My Jewish friends didn’t have any cartoon characters or mascots. Actually, the disparity between my Christian friends’ really kid-friendly holidays and my Jewish friends’ not so friendly holidays was really apparent in the springtime when my Christian friends were coloring eggs and eating marshmallow peeps and my Jewish friends were eating unleavened bread for Passover. Santa Claus. Now during the winter, Santa Claus is everywhere.

And one year my grandmother came to live with us from Bangladesh. She’d never left a Muslim majority country and lived in America, which was mostly a Christian majority country. And so, when she saw this image of Santa Claus lit up on lawns and on billboard ads and on television, she kept seeing this robust man with a big flowing white beard and was covered in clothing from head to foot. She thought that Santa Claus was a Muslim imam because many imams on TV when you see them, they could have beards and they’re covered from head to foot. I spoke to my grandmother that, no, Santa Claus is not a Chicago imam. He’s this man who brings presents to all the kids during Christmas. And she looked at me as though I was odd, I was strange, I was confused and I realized my grandmother had never really lived in a Christian country. And she was seeing all of this through her Bengali Muslim filter. And I realized that what I was from my family was an explorer, a cultural anthropologist who would go out into the indigenous population and gather data and interpret it for my family.

Now my family came from Bangladesh, which had been part of India, which was once part of a British colony called British India. And so, they were aware of Christianity and many Christian customs. So, they knew about Easter and that that was the day when Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But when they saw Easter in practice in America and saw the Easter Bunny everywhere, they asked me, “Arif, what’s the Easter Bunny for?”

Well I didn’t know. So, I talked to my friend Christopher and said, “Hey, Christopher, what’s the Easter Bunny for?”

And he said he didn’t know but he would go home and ask his mom.

JUST NOT MUSLIM ENOUGH

by Storyteller Arif Choudhury

 

Story Summary:

Sometimes we forget about the diversity that exists within a faith and within a family. In this story, Arif is reminded of how he is different from some of the relatives in his Muslim family.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Just-Not-Muslim-Enough

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why would those within a similar group judge each other as to whether they are Muslim enough, Black enough, Manly enough and so forth?
  2. What are some of the differences within your ethnic or religious group? What is most misunderstood about your group?

Resources:

  • All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim by Wajahat Wali and Zahra T Suratwala
  • Muslim Communities in North America by Yvonne Hadda and Jane Idleman Smith

Themes:

  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Muslim Americans/Muslims

Full Transcript:

For many years, I was the only Muslim boy in my class. That meant I was the only boy who was studying the holy book, the Koran, after school and fasting every day for the month of Ramadan and learning how to pray five times a day as Muslim kids do. So, naturally, I felt a little different from my classmates who are Jewish and Christian but sometimes I realize, on occasion, I would feel different from other Muslims. Now, when I sat in Sunday school, I learned that there are over 40 countries around the world with a Muslim majority and then all these Muslims were very, very different from each other. The Muslim world was very diverse. There are African Muslims and Arab Muslims and East Asian Muslims and European Muslims, even Muslims Latin America and Muslims from South Asia like the country of Bangladesh where my family was from.

But I didn’t realize all this diversity when I was a young boy. I just thought that all Muslims were like me, short, skinny and brown. So, on Eid… Eid is a very major holiday for Muslims, and there are two Eids and they were very important, high holidays like Christmas and Easter for Christians or Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews. So, on Eid, my father and I would drive in his big Oldsmobile from Northbrook, the suburb of Chicago where I was growing up, all the way to downtown Chicago to McCormick Place, a very large convention center. And we were going there to congregate with other Muslims from around the Chicagoland area to pray together.

But one year, we learned that there was actually a mosque in Northbrook, just two miles away from my house. We no longer had to drive 20 miles to downtown Chicago to pray. And the reason why we didn’t realize that there was a mosque there was because it looked a lot like a municipal building, like a library or the city hall. But when they built the dome and the minaret, that tower where the call to prayer is given, it started to look like a mosque. So, one day when I was in fifth grade, that Friday for our prayer, my father and I went to go pray with the other Muslims. When I entered the building, I looked inside and I saw that everybody in the building was Caucasian. There were white. I said to my father, “I think we’re in the wrong building.”

He said, “Why do you think that?”

“Because everybody here is white.”

My father said, “Don’t be silly! There are Muslims like us. They just happen to be Caucasian because they came from Bosnia, from the former Yugoslavia. They were fleeing Communism and they came to America to study and practice Islam so they could have freedom of worship like the Pilgrims had.”

And I… that was very surprising to me. And I sat down with my father on the floor on our prayer rug and I listened to the sermon. And for a long time, I didn’t understand what was going on because the sermon was in Bosnian and I don’t speak any Bosnian. But later, when the sermon went to English and then to Arabic, I could follow along.

And that opened up my mind to how diverse the Muslim world was. But you know, even in my own family, there’s different ways of being Muslim and sometimes I feel a little out of place. Like, for example, I grew up in Chicago as a Muslim in the 70s and 80s. But my cousins from Bangladesh came to America in the 90s and they grew up going to Muslim parochial day school. Now, most of what I learned about my religion as a kid, I learned from books and my mother. But my cousin Nadia goes to a Muslim parochial day school and learned how to read the Koran and study Arabic and Islamic history along with gym and geography. So, you can say that she’s more formally practicing than I am. I think sometimes my behavior shocks her.

For example, at a family function once, she was sitting in the kitchen eating a halal shish kebab. Now, Nadia’s family follows strict Islamic dietary guidelines, which means she only eats halal meat. That’s meat that’s been slaughtered by a Muslim butcher in a prescribed manner. Now, I grew up eating fast food. So, at that function while she ate her shish kebab, I was eating a Whopper Jr. with cheese. And as I placed that Whopper Jr. with cheese into my mouth, I saw my cousin Nadia’s eyes grow wide, as big as saucers. And she looked at me and then the burger and then at me and then the burger and I wondered what she was picturing in her mind. Was she picturing me roasting in hell like her halal shish kebab? To my cousin Nadia, I just wasn’t Muslim enough.