Life’s Unexpected Journey

Michael Pfeifer, Greater St. Louis Region, International Services Volunteer
Nermana Huskic, Greater St. Louis Region, International Services Intern

One of the first things we learn as children is that we don’t always get what we want. A child believes, for a time, in a world where desires are always met, but as adults we learn that things don’t always turn out the way we planned.

Children also believe that they are protected from all of the world’s injuries. Perhaps we have to believe this in order to explore the world and grow. But at some point we also learn that our environment and human beings have the capacity for unexplainable evil and cruelty, as well as unexplainable kindness and compassion.

The mission of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links (RFL) program is to help people who have been exposed to unexplainable evil and horror recover the essential family connections that make us human. Sometimes that connection is a reunion. Or a message. Or closure concerning the fate of a loved one and an opportunity to honor them with respect and dignity. Or, sometimes, simply to bear witness. In some sense, the Red Cross promises to try to tie the loose ends of life however we can.

Too often that first hard lesson, that we do not always get or achieve what we want, asserts itself. Too often that illusion of a peaceful world is shattered, as it was shattered for Merima in Bosnia.

In 1995, Merima and her family were thrust into the maw of genocide committed by Serbs against Bosnian neighbors and fellow human beings. The unimaginable deeds done, inexplicably, by human beings -- a story repeated throughout our history.

In the chaos Merima was separated from her husband, Salih, and her son, Ado. The killing squads swept up Salih and Ado. In Bosnia, she reached out to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1996 for help in finding her husband and son. She hoped they would be found safe, that they had escaped and hidden somewhere. She feared that she would only discover the truth of their death and be given the opportunity to honor them.

In time, Merima made her way from a refugee camp to the United States. Like many Bosnians she ended up in St. Louis.  Red Cross RFL in St. Louis contacted her to let her know that the search continued and to keep her informed of any progress.

As a volunteer with RFL, you learn that patience is a great virtue. Answers require time. The more unimaginable and inexplicable the circumstances, the more time required. It is almost a universal law.

The Red Cross contacted Merima periodically as the search for the truth wore on. Usually the news was, “No word, but we we’ll continue to search. We haven’t forgotten. You are not forgotten.” The intervals between contacts with Merima grew, but the Red Cross kept faith with the search. Fifteen years passed.

One day in 2011, news came that the remains of Merima’s son had been found. The Red Cross would be able to close the loop of sorrow for Merima. She could know the truth and honor her son. As often happens, phones are disconnected. People move. Now it was Merima who seemed lost, but someone - a volunteer, a staff member – kept looking for her.

Finally, Merima’s own truth was discovered. Unfortunately, Merima had died two years before news of her son arrived. She never knew his truth. No family remained from Bosnia to whom the truth could be told. The ending was not what the Red Cross or any of the many people who worked on Merima’s behalf wanted. Their goal was not achieved. But there is another lesson. Perseverance. And, in perseverance, to bear witness and honor people.

The truth is that Merima is not her real name. I have disguised it to protect her private sorrow. The truth is that I am telling the story on behalf of many others to honor her and her memory.