Story by Susan Fuchs, Volunteer, Phoenix, Arizona
Virtually all humans – regardless of wealth, culture, power or poverty – will sooner or later experience a decisive moment that shapes the way the rest of their lives will be lived.
Almost always, such seminal occasions come with tragedy or terror, and the resulting life altering decisions understandably are shaped by anger or a bitter wish for vengeance.
But some whose tribulations are equally traumatic experience a moment of grace, an instant when they consciously resolve they will never be like those who inflicted their ordeal. Instead, they choose to devote their lives to making the world a better place.
Such a person is Red Cross volunteer Nejra Sumic.
When she was still a small child, powerful men came and took her father from their small Bosnian village of Ljubija to a series of hidden concentration camps. Her family lost their home, and they were hunted, starved and left to die.
Their unconscionable crime? Their faith was different from that of those in political power.
But after a year of terror and tribulation, a miracle happened. Nejra’s family was saved and reunited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who got her father out of the camps and provided food, clothing, shelter, safety and, most of all, a path for rebuilding their lives.
“That’s when I decided if I ever got the chance, I would do all I could to help the Red Cross continue to make the world better,” Nejra said.
Now a lovely and vibrant 28-year-old who earned her Master’s degree in Public Administration, Nejra has the poise and serene maturity of someone decades older.
Perhaps that’s because – not by choice – she has packed away more life experience than most of her new American countrymen who are several decades older. As they say, it’s not the minutes that make a person, it’s the miles.
Although there are always exceptions, the vast majority of Americans with their terror-free lives in unbombed suburban neighborhoods cannot imagine what Nejra has lived.
Today, even for Nejra, it seems far away. But she cannot forget.
“I remember it well,” she says quietly. I was only five, but I was very aware. We would hear the bombing. We could see explosions like lightning at night.”
Her father’s arrest wasn’t related to political activism, Nejra said. Far from being a rebel, her father was an Electrician who quietly designed construction blueprints for electric systems in the area’s rich iron ore mines.
But he and his family were devout Muslims in an area that was being overtaken by Orthodox Christian Serbians. His arrest was part of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing that forced the eviction of tens of thousands of indigenous Muslims from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.
The time of her father’s arrest, June 17th, 1992, was seven months into the Bosnian War and just five months prior to the notorious Srebrenica massacre, the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys by Serbian army units. Deemed genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, the massacre reinforced the ethnic cleansing campaign.
It was a cold morning, almost winter, when men with rifles came to the door looking for my father, Nejra remembers. “I knew they were dangerous.”
“My grandmother opened the door and the men took my father away in a van. My mother told us he would not be coming back, and he never did come back to our house,” she said. “He was taken to a series of concentration camps where he was beaten, starved and tortured. At one time he was held prisoner by men who had worked in his own office.
“We knew we had to get out of there,” Nejra says. “My brave and courageous mother wanted to save us. And so we fled from Bosnia to get to Croatia.”
Soldiers were stopping fleeing families and confiscating their belongings. “So we left with our money sewn into our overall straps.
“My mother sent my cousin and me to the bus station and said she would meet us there,” Nejra says. “But I got separated from the family. I was so scared. When my mom finally found me, I felt such relief and that I never wanted to leave her arms.”
Together, they got on to “big semi-trucks with cloth side flaps,” she remembers. “It seemed like we were on the semi-truck for weeks, but we finally got to Croatia.”
There they lived in refugee barracks, 20 to 30 to a room. “I come from a clean family,” Nejra says. “The conditions were disgusting, even to a little girl.” To support the family, Nejra’s mom, a hairstylist, would cut hair for food.
Then a British journalist wrote a story about the Serbian concentration camps, describing how prisoners had been taken to secret locations where they could be hidden.
“The Red Cross responded to the British news story, Nejra says, and they opened a dialogue with the Serbs so they could bring food and clothing to the prisoners.
“It was snowy and temperatures were below zero. Prisoners who hadn’t already been tortured and killed were just skin and bones,” she says. “The Red Cross got them more meals and started bringing warm clothes. In addition, the Red Cross opened communication lines between prisoners and their families by being able to send letters to each other.”
Finally, the Red Cross brokered an agreement between the prisoners and their Serbian captors: If the prisoners agreed to give up all property and citizenship rights, they could be released to their families outside of Serbia.
Eventually, through the Red Cross, refugees began to get word about prisoners who’d been released. “We’d go every night to the Red Cross headquarters to get news.”
Then one night, just before midnight, six and half months after her father’s abduction, buses started coming to the refugee camp with hundreds of people aboard. “I saw my dad in a Red Cross jacket,” Nejra said. He had lost 60 pounds.
But Croatia was no longer a safe haven. The war had spilled over its borders.
“The Red Cross gave us a list of countries we could go to,” Nejra said. “First they sent us on a Navy ship across the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas to southern Spain. We stayed in a refugee camp there for almost a year.
“Then a family in the city of Hellin took us in and my dad worked for a construction company. My aunt and cousin joined us and we lived there for three years, and we all learned to speak Spanish.”
Spain’s economy was tanking, however, and there was barely enough income to support the family. “We applied through the United Nations to go to the United States, and with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we were brought to Arizona in August 1995,” she says.
Nejra was eight years old and in elementary school. It was time to learn yet another language. “We learned English,” she says. By 2002, her parents had become U.S. citizens and Nejra, then a teenager, was automatically grandfathered in as an American.
Now 28 and a 2009 Arizona State University psychology graduate who’s earned her Master’s degree in Public Administration, Nejra is an enthusiastic Red Cross volunteer.
“If it weren’t for the Red Cross,” she says simply, “I would not be here. And neither would my family. My father probably wouldn’t be alive and my family could have starved. We wouldn’t be together in a safe place with a future full of hope.”
But it’s not just because she feels she owes the Red Cross for her life, her family’s lives, their collective safety and hopeful future that she wants to work with the international aid agency.
Nejra is absolutely sure of one thing: “I never want anyone else to experience what we went through. I would do anything to prevent that from happening. And I want other refugees who are currently living through similar circumstances to know that there is hope and they can create new lives for themselves.
“We should not allow the bad things in our lives define us and overshadow the goodness of humanity. In order to have peace and harmony in the world, we can no longer afford to react with hate and violence. But by touching every human being with kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and love. And the Red Cross is a representation of that.” Nejra says. “By working with the Red Cross, I can help transform the world.”