Reuniting with my family’s Bosnian exchange student

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The last time I saw my parents’ Bosnian exchange student, we were living in our own self-absorbed worlds. I was 25, working as a sports writer at USA Today near Washington, D.C.,  and going through a bad breakup. She was 18, living in Kentucky with my parents, and homesick and traumatized by war.

I didn’t get to know her much mostly because I wasn’t around. My memories of her were from stories my parents and younger sisters told of their adventures together, circa 1995, when Sabina was attending high school at my alma mater, Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls school in Park Hills, Ky.

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At the time, I didn’t grasp what she must have been going through. She grew up in Tuzla in northern Bosnia, a city that lost more than 250,000 people as the former Yugoslavia erupted in to chaos in the early 1990s. She was a Muslim whose parents got her out of a war zone by sending her to live in the States and go to a Catholic school. My parents took her to Mass on Sundays and home to the suburbs. It must have been so surreal for her. In the pre-email era, she was cut off from communication with her friends and family, except for occasional phone calls and whatever she got in the mail.

I never actually heard the stories of her war experiences and what became of her life until a few days ago – 21 years after I last saw her – when she and her son welcomed me and my two sons for a weekend visit in Sarajevo.

Even before she learned through Facebook that my family was coming to live in nearby Croatia, she had invited us to come and stay with her. When I realized she was only a five-hour drive away, we made plans for a reunion. Even though I was only a peripheral part of her American experience, I got the sense that she wanted to give back to my family and host us.

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She warned me that Bosnia was a country without real highways. Still, I was excited to rent an automatic car for a weekend and set off for the Balkans. I didn’t realize my GPS would take me on a gravel road over the mountains to get there. My 11-year-old asked if we should turn around when we got to a narrow off-roading section near the Bosnian border. But we kept going because I didn’t know how else to get there. I only later read that there are some stretches of road considered “God said good night” (God-forsaken) areas. Luckily, we navigated them while it was still daylight.

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When we got to Sarajevo, Sabina greeted us outside her tall, Soviet-era apartment building in the residential area across the river from where she works at the American Embassy. She told me the place she lives now is similar to the building where she used to live in Tuzla during the war, where they would go to the basement during air raids and had no water or electricity and little food. She recalled a time in her teens when her friends all went out to a neighborhood gathering spot and she happened to stay home. More than 70 people were gunned down that day as the Serbs attacked the Muslims, including some of her friends. The town held a mass memorial service so neighbors could gather in safety in the dark of night.

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My weekend was an education about a war that I didn’t pay much attention to in my 20s. Ironically, I didn’t know my husband yet then. He was tuned in because he was an American soldier. When Sabina returned to Bosnia, she worked as a translator for the Army in Tuzla at the same base where my husband was working as an Army medic. It struck me how different their world experiences were from mine during that time of our lives. They were experiencing life and death when I was just out of college and felt like I was just beginning mine. I didn’t consider the world’s problems mine.

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Sabina took us to war and history museums and to the Tunnel of Hope, a wartime tunnel built to smuggle food, war supplies and humanitarian aid into the city of Sarajevo. She set me up with a Sarajevo city tour guide, Raza, who also had a personal story that struck me. Raza was 11 when the war started. Her younger brother had a learning disability, and his teachers wanted to send him to live with professors in Germany to escape the war. They sent Raza as his caretaker. She and her brother were in Germany for three years, and it changed the course of her life. She speaks German like it’s her mother tongue and English almost as well. She found strength during a time that could have broken her. And she returned to Bosnia because her mother wanted her to come back. As she told me her story, I thought of my own boys, the same age she and her brother were during the war. Could I have left my boys in Germany for three years to escape the war while my husband and I stayed behind? What horrific choices people had to make not so long ago.

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Only a couple of decades after the war, we toured a once-burned and now restored Sarajevo City Hall and a history museum filled with before and after pictures and heartbreaking items, like a bloody sweater from a young boy struck and killed by a bullet that first hit his mother.

Sabina showed us some cheerful spots, too – a festival going on in her neighborhood, a restaurant where a celebrity chef was doing the cooking, a hilltop overlook where the kids rode a roller coaster. My 10- and 11-year-old boys were enthralled with her 14-year-old son, who had his own green screen, YouTube channel and 300+ followers.

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As our boys became friends, Sabina and I reminisced about her time in America, her experiences with my family, our fondness for the late Sister Mary Reina (who encouraged us both to pursue our interests in art), and the coincidences that brought us together again.

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I wished my parents could have been on the trip to see Sabina now and have some closure on whatever became of their exchange student. They hadn’t kept in touch much in the last couple of decades. They weren’t sure what happened to the group of exchange students who came to Kentucky in 1995.

I was glad to talk to my mom last night and tell her Sabina turned out to have a good life. Her experience in America made a real difference. She learned fluent English during her year abroad, and it helped her establish a thriving career doing work for government agencies.  My parents should be proud of their contributions and being a safe haven during a time of war. I might not have been paying much attention then. But I’m glad I tuned back in to see Sabina’s happy ending.