Remembering Srebrenica and Chicago

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the massacres at Srebrenica when nearly 8,000 Bosnian Moslems were killed and the international community stood by without intervening. The last couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bosnian co-workers and clients I got to know as a refugee resettlement job developer in Chicago. I think in particularly about Ramiz, as caseworker I worked with, who was originally from Srebrenica and who lost two brothers during the massacre. He told me about it one day in between discussing the clients, and he recounted many of the same things he documented for the report on Srebrenica by the United Nations High commissioner for Refugees.

One site I ran across while trying to find Ramiz’s account represents the people missing from Srebrenica in a fashion reminiscent of the Vietnam memorial–7294 names listed continuously on a black background.

The anniversary evoke strong emotions for me, not simply because of the horrific nature of this event, but of all the other stories I heard from clients as I helped them find jobs. Many of these stories came out in the process of writing resumes for clients attempting to find their first job in the US. As a 23-year-old in one of my first jobs out of college, I learned a quite a bit about the nature of work as tried to construct resumes, resumes not only to represent 20 years experience as a machinist but also to account for the three year gaps in work history created by time in a concentration camp. This was perhaps my most profound experience of collaborative writing, listening to a client’s story through a caseworker’s translation and then trying to tell that story within the generic constraints of the resume.

  • Jusuf was one of my first clients, a gentle and appreciative man in his late fifties, who was looking for his first job in the US. He had experience as a welder in Bosnia, so I took him to apply for work at Homaco, Inc. specialized in telephone jack towers. In the process of gathering information for a resume, he told me that he had been in the Trnopoli concentration camp for three months with his sons. He dropped 25 kilos and was eating grass by the end. Friends he had known for 50-years became his captors.
  • Hashim spent time in Omarska, one of the most infamous of the Serbian concentration camps. On our long bus ride to a job interview, he told described in broken English how one day his best friend appeared at his door, threw his wife and daughter out of his house, punch his wife in the face in front of him, and then took him the camp where he would spend the next two years. After coming to the U.S., his troubles continued, as his brother in Germany died of wounds received in the camp, he had problems with insurance when someone forged his signature, and his wife suffered from clinical depression. Despite all of this, he is one of the most resilient and good-natured people I met while working as a job developer.
  • Ljiljana always came to my office with her lips carefully lined, always looking polished and professional. Because she was a Serb and her husband Bosnian, her husband had to flee for his life, hiding in woods for months near a river notorious for carrying the carnage downstream. “He saw everything,” she tells me through the case worker, “Dismembered limbs, babies,…” When I met her she was applying for SSI, and she was looking a job as an adminstrative assistant.
  • Alma, another case worked, lets me know one day that Ibrahim is working as baker in the North Suburbs and would like to find a better job. Just before we finished our conversation, she informed me that during the war 18 Ibrahim’s family members were killed in one day. His daughter Jasna has just started at the University of Chicago.

These stories continue to haunt me, not only because terrible to have heard, but because I feel like I walked away from them. In stead of remaining in Chicago, in proximity to these people and their stories, I felt compelled to move half way across the country to become a professional student of literature, to immerse myself in the canonical texts of Western civilization, to consume countless critical articles, and learn to create my own critical texts. In contrast to the subject matter of literary studies, the refugee stories were highly situated, located in specific communities and place, and I was lucky enough to find myself in the midst of it for a time. But when I had the chance to stay in Chicago, to stay local, in proximity to all I had gained, I wasn’t able to make a connection between my graduate studies and the value of staying nearby.

I realized yesterday how deeply I still regret this decision, and how closely my interest in place is tied to this formative moment. When I moved to Boston, the transition was so difficult because I began to feel the loss of that deep sense of place I had gained in Chicago, in part through the people and places I encountered as job developer: the factory where airline meals were assembled; the laundry rooms and back entrances to every major hotel in downtown Chicago; the factory where women sewed fine silks; a floral shop on the west side; the factory where fire extinguishers glowed read in the sweltering air; the tannery that smelled so bad we were relieved to find out they weren’t hiring; the plastics factory in Skokie where I learned the difference between extrusion and injection molding.

In one afternoon I took the five Arkawazy brothers (Hussein, Kanan, Sabah, Mohamed, Mouiad) on four different train lines and two different buses en route to the north suburbs, O’Hare Airport, and back. Since they had no English and few job skills, our travels took us to many places in the next few months, most notably a Lava Lamp factory on the west side.

Occasionally, I found myself visiting my clients, who invited to come to visit their new apartments or see their new babies. Jusuf’s apartment on Pratt Blvd was only a short walk from my apartment on Newgard, and when I visited him one night, we ate Bosnian sausages, drank strong coffee, and chatted about their live in the US and the life they left behind. Eventually we watched a footage of their town in Bosnia, shown before the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. It portrayed the ruins of a once quiet town in 1994, then completely unoccupied and overgrown with weeds and bushes. They pointed out each bombed building: that was a nice cafe, a big factory, the restaurant of one of the war criminals, the factory where Jusuf’s son, Ahdil’s worked, the school Jusuf maintained, their street. The camera turned before reaching their destroyed house. The first war criminal convicted by the Hague was from their town. He was Ahdil’s karate instructor for eight years, and then after the war started, he became a killer. He was involved in the camps, including one where Jusuf and his sons spend three months.

When I googled Ramiz yesterday to find his Srebrenica account, it became clear how much I hoped also to find a way to contact him, to find out how he’s doing. There are many others that I wish I could catch up with and find out how their lives have progressed, what stories they have to tell now.

But for now, it’s enough just to try not to forget–both Srebrenica and people whose lives intersected with mine for a time in Chicago. The harder part is figuring out what where supposed to do in response to the stories we’ve heard.

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