Amra Sabic-El-Rayess: How to Empower and ‘Un-other’ Yourself?

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Amra Sabic-El-Rayess: How to Empower and ‘Un-other’ Yourself?

Welcome to Teachers College for the Inaugural Charo Uceda Women’s Empowerment Lecture I first wish to acknowledge a dedicated Teachers College alumna, whose own life and work embody the notion of empowerment, both for herself and others She is an innovative educator as well as the visionary entrepreneur who co-founded the Ucera English Institute A network of schools that help students from all over the world learn English as a second language She has given generously to TC over the years, especially to support Masters students undergoing financial hardship and it was her generosity and vision that made this lecture series possible Charo Uceda, would you please rise so that we can all properly thank you Now, Teachers College is a fitting venue for a lecture series on women’s empowerment The college was founded by the extraordinary reformer and philanthropist Grace Dodge, in large part to advance her mission to help immigrant families assimilate to American life Grace Dodge recognized the pivotal role that women would play in their family’s health and economic security She also saw a direct link between the professional training of expert teachers, psychologist and other health professionals and the empowerment of women That was Grace Dodge’s genius and her vision Alumni and faculty of Teachers College ever since have blazed trails for the advancement of empowering knowledge in education, health and psychology Mary Swartz Rose and Adelaide Nutting were pioneers in the field of nutrition education Ann Gentile revolutionized the field of movement science Mar�a Torres-Guzm�n fought for social justice, especially for ethniolinguiaistally marginalized groups And it was 50 years ago that TC alumna Shirley Chisholm, who became the first black woman elected to Congress the previous year, under the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed”, lead the way to establishing the landmark Women, Infants, Children nutrition program And of course, she made history in 1972 by becoming the first black candidate to run for the nomination of a major party for President of the United States We’ve seen considerable progress towards reaching gender equity and empowerment of women and girls and TC faculty and alumni are in the vanguard of that movement But society still has a long way to go towards ensuring equal rights for women in health, education, employment and leadership and in the irradiation of gender based discrimination and violence Still, there are reason to be optimistic We have entered a new era in which women, in ever greater numbers, are exercising agency in their own empowerment and that brings me to our speaker for this evening Professor Amra Sabic-El-Rayess wears many titles, all of them with authenticity and distinction Amra is an immigrant who has thrived in her adopted country and done her part to make our democracy stronger She is a proud alumna from our doctoral program in Comparative and International Eduction and an accomplished scholar who is internationally recognized for her work on tribalism in government, on corruption in higher education systems and on the foundations of social transformations and religious extremism She is an educator and mentor whose students treasure her kindness, her patience and empathy and excellent counsel And also she’s been my colleague in the Economics of Education program for several years and I have to say our enrollments have gone up and I think a lot of it has to do with Amra’s excellent work So especially as President, I appreciate that She is an activist who has fought on behalf of oppressed and marginalized people everywhere through her work with the International Rescue Committee, Women’s March Global, Women’s World Banking and International Center for Transitional Justice She is an authority on rebuilding societies and civic institutions whose advice is sought by U.S. policy makers and the U.S. Department of State in her capacity of an educational diplomacy expert as well as by leaders of NGOs in foreign governments Amra is a brave and eloquent witness to the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia

As a Bosnian Muslim, she survived bombings, starvation and psychological torture and will tell her story to the world next year in a memoir written for both young adults and adults The title of that book, published by Bloomsbury Worldwide, is The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of War, Love and Survival Teachers College is fortunate to have Amra on our faulty We are fortunate to have her share her story of war, survival and redemption with us this evening Now, after Amra’s talk, she will be joined onstage for a conversation with Jane Eisner, currently the Director of Academic Affairs at the Columbia Journalism School and formally Vice President of the National Constitution Center, the editorial page editor and nationally syndicated columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and more recently the editor of The Forward Following their conversation, there will be a brief question and answer period Members of the audience are asked to submit their questions for Amra via Twitter, using hashtag Uceda Lecture Hope you all get that Now, without further adieu, please give a warm welcome to Professor Amra Sabic-El-Rayess Good evening friends, colleagues, students and distinguished guests Thank you all for being here tonight and thank you Tom for your kind words and introduction It is a distinct honor to have been selected to deliver the Inaugural Charo Uceda Lecture on Women’s Empowerment and share with you my story of survival during the Bosnian War At the end of the lecture, a portion of this evening, I will also read a segment from my upcoming book, published worldwide by Bloomsbury next fall But first, I want to express my gratitude to both Teachers College and Charo, an inspirational philanthropist, educator and self made businesswomen, for creating this space for women to speak of their experiences to both self empower and empower others I have to admit, tonight is not an easy evening for me I will take you back with me to some of the more difficult moments of my life They remain vivid in my memory and they inspire scholarly commitment to the study of radicalization, corruption, social transformation and exclusion But as anyone who has lived through trauma knows, we tend to internalize tragic experiences rather than place them on a public display I’m here to share with you how I have learned to cope with discrimination, war and loss But I’m also here for the following three reasons First, I feel responsibility to speak on behalf of my friends, classmates and relatives who have been raped, killed and tortured simply for who they are They will never have their chance to speak before an audience like this Secondly, a Bosnian story of ethnic persecution of a young Muslim woman may seem distant and perhaps not relatable to many of you But the violence and exclusion we’re witnessing today in the United States mirror my own story Whether one is targeted because of the color of their skin, because of the God they choose to pray to, because of who they want to love, because of their ethnic origin, their immigrant background, their poverty, their physical disability or mental illness Their exclusion echoes my own And the third reason why I stand before you is that I know there’s both empathy and intellectual power in this room tonight and both are needed to bring our communities closer together and compel us to collective action, both professionally and personally I will begin by sharing a bit of background on the Bosnian war, especially for those of you now familiar with the reasons behind the war I grew up in a small town of Biha?, in the former Yugoslavia, in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina At the time, Yugoslavia consisted of six Republics and two autonomous regions But the Republic of Serbia was really the dominant player and in control of the nations politics, economy and military As the communism came to an end in early 1990s, this cobbled together nation of Yugoslavia started to fall apart and individual Republics sought their independence Instead of independence and equal rights for all, Serbia wanted to turn Yugoslavia into an ethnically cleansed and imagined nation called Greater Serbia

This lead to multiple wars First, Serbia attacked Slovenia, then occupied a portion of Croatia boarding Bosnia near my hometown Bosnia was more ethnically diverse than any other Republic in the former Yugoslavia So once Serbia attacked Bosnia and received support from the local Bosnian Serbs, the bloodshed was particularly gruesome Bosnian Muslims stood in the way of ethnically clean Greater Serbia So one of Serbia’s key military and political goals became the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims I was one of those Muslims I remember growing up in the former Yugoslavia as a young girl feeling marginalized in our educational system I fantasized about encountering Amra as the main character in one of my school readings, perhaps depicted as an excellent student or a funny girl or a good friend But Muslim girls with names like Amra were invisible to our educational system We were not present in our school readings We only lived in the popular culture In jokes that ridiculed Bosnian Muslims as stupid and worthless I knew I was being educated into seeing myself as a lesser Though I was a young girl then, I desperately wanted to belong and experience respect in my own community I thought the only way to un-other myself was to distance myself from my Muslim identity I never once prayed I never talked about my Muslim identity I stayed away from Islam as if it were a plague Instead, I focused on winning every academic competition I could win and studied until I would master each subject to perfection, to show I was worthy of acceptance and respect Education was my savior and my only outlet for action But neither my silence nor my academic efforts changed how that world saw me I realized that in June of 1992 when Serbs besieged my city Serb artillery was placed on the hills around Biha? and we no longer had access to food, electricity, phones or the outside world Serbs got to frame the Bosnia’s narrative to the world They were bombing and killing us daily Under the military siege, for longer than the infamous siege of Leningrad lasted in the World War II Of everything I had to eat to survive those years, I had the hardest time eating cow’s utter Even when cooked for hours, it still felt as if I was eating a piece of tire On the other days, my brother and I would be feeling sick and starved and unable to get out of bed Several times, on my way to school and once to see my father who was hospitalized, I had passed out in the street Death defined the next four years of my life and that of most Bosnian Muslims Here I would like to share with you a few photos from Bosnia, to give you a sense of the extent and nature of violence against Bosnian Muslims The first photo is from one of Srebrenica genocide’s mass graves, where over 8,000 Muslims were killed in two days in July of 1995 The second photo is of a Muslim begging for his life Third speaks for itself It’s a concentration camp Serbs ran for Bosnian Muslims and Croats The next photo is the most memorable photo for me, of a doll found on a mass grave And the last photograph is of a mother who survived Srebrenica’s genocide, standing in front of Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam During those years, everyday someone I loved, I played with or I knew died It felt as if I stood in a quickly moving line for execution, waiting for my turn And it was only a question of how and when I would die I was certain that survival was not in my cards I will share one particular moment with you that I think carries an important lesson for all of us in this room We were often running out of food and at one time my mother wanted to use our last money

to cross the enemy line, where we knew others have gone to trade with the Serb soldiers We could not afford the prices in the black market By that time in the war, my mom was already deaf from a bomb that hit our home So I insisted to go with her The two of us had hoped to buy cooking oil, flour or salt One day, we crossed into no man’s land between the Serb and Bosnian soldiers We knew some of those who dared to walk through that area before us had lost their limbs because of mines For Serb soldiers, we were just vermin Free for them to shoot at, to capture, theirs to use But when they could make money off of our desperation, they did not mind When my mom and I got to them, they laughed at us and our audacity to stand in front of their bunkers and artillery We asked if they had any food they could sell to us Within minutes, one of the drunken soldiers grabbed me and as my mother struggled to pull me away, a Muslim solider fired a shot to help us escape Shooting ensued and before too long, my mother and I were back to running and crawling through the minefield I didn’t even think about being blown up Anything was better than being raped by those leering, cruel men I cried on our way back home, realizing that my life was miserable I was disgusted at life, at us, at our desperation of the world, at everything around us All of humanity was infected with hate and all of this was happening to me because I’m a Muslim A Muslim who never prayed, just a Muslim by birth and blood For that, I was marked I share this story not to have you feel sorry for what I had lived through But in hope that when you next see an image of a toddler drown next to his father on the U.S. border with Mexico, or when you see a Syrian boy washed off the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, that you remember my story and the risks one is willing to take to survive I hope in those images you will no longer see Mexican migrants or Muslim refugees, but human beings with courage and resilience I hope you will see what they could have been In another of the crisis moments in the war, when Serbs were approaching our home, my father said to me, “Amra, I may no longer be able to protect you I may be executed before your eyes You may be raped and killed But if you survive all this, do know that your education is one thing that no solider can ever take away from you.” What my father said changed the way I thought about education It was no longer about being a top physics or math student in the country or proving myself to those above me that I was good enough Education was now about survival Despite my acceptance that death is likely in my destiny, I decided to self empower and self educate, make my days meaningful You may wonder how can one really change anything in the midst of the bloodiest war Europe had seen since World War II I first turned to learning as a way to escape my misery I read every book that came my way, whether it was my uncle’s physics textbook from 1960s or Gone With the Wind But then I realized that the true empowerment can only come from engaging with others I turned to teaching kids Some parents started to pay me with a cup of cheese or milk for a lesson Soon thereafter, I was asked to teach in an elementary school and then high school I never got paid for that work and it never earned me any credentials But what I earned in that practice is a sense of purpose that would define me as a young Muslim woman who actively resisted and responded to violence That work gave me a voice I never had No matter how many muzzles were pointed at me from that point on, I was now determined to self empower and empower those around me

This year marks 25 years since I first walked into a classroom as a teenager, yet a teacher A few weeks ago, I received a thank you note from a young man who heard about my lecture tonight and whom I taught during the war when he was in fifth grade He’s now a biomedical engineer here in the United States He said I helped him get where he is today But it was really he who helped me get where I am today Genuine activism is both self empowering and empowering It helped me transition from a silenced and marginalized individual into a young woman driven by engagement and education, which still today remain my responses to violence and hatred Aside from teaching during the war, I started working with international NGOs coming to Bosnia I wrote letters on behalf of young Muslim women calling on the international actors to act and end mass rapes and ethnic cleansing With local nurses and doctors, I organized vaccination of children, even when it required that I put my life on the line I memorialized and processed morbid levels of fear, loss and pain by writing poetry and teaching myself English As the war nearer its end, many part of me were and are still broken I cannot undo what has been done Years of my life and people I loved were stolen from me But other elements of who I had become grew stronger, more resilient and determined I know exactly who I had become and I know I will spend the rest of my life resisting and challenging any and all forms of othering In doing so, I have empowered and thus un-othered myself That new and empowered voice gave me strength to leave Bosnia after the war ended and immigrant into the United States in January of 1996 with $20 in my pocket If the current political narrative dictated policies at that time, I would have been banned from entering the United States coming from a war-torn Bosnia I would have been seen and defined as a radicalization threat I recall the moment I approached the U.S Immigration Officer and how much I feared seeing a man in uniform He was taking a very long time to examine my paperwork and passport while I trembled But then, he reached out with his hand and slightly touched my fingertips as I was holding onto the counter of his window He said, “Ma’am, welcome to the United States of America You are safe now.” With those words, he revived my belief in humanity and he embodied my hope for America I wish for nothing more but for my story to serve as a reminder that each and every one of us deserves to feel equally safe and welcome in the United States of America Now I would like to end the lecture portion of the evening by reading the opening to my upcoming book, The Cat I Never Named: The True Story of War, Love and Survival This particular section depicts a moment several months before the war started when I found myself traveling alone on the train from Serbia back to Bosnia Part one Everything changes The war didn’t spring on me all at once Instead, like a cat It stalked me quietly There might have been a rustle of leaves, a glint of golden eye But like a mouse, I didn’t believe it was there until it pounced 1992, chapter one Math, puzzles, logics, syphers, my brain is still whirling from the battery of tests as I ride the train from Belgrade, Serbia back home to Biha?, Bosnia The tracks push westward, the setting sun gilding the hillsides Families, mothers, children patter and laugh, scald and squeal in a comfortable cacophony that lets me almost doze off I’m sleepy from a long day of tests and I’ll be lucky to get home by 1:00 a.m

A few stops later, the families get off, soldiers get on and I realize with a sinking feeling of terror that I will be lucky to get home at all I lower my eyes at once as the rough men stomp down the aisles I don’t have to look, I know what they look like Dressed in black with weird, tall hats They all have beards, wild hair like savages They all have hate in their eyes for anything that is not Serb They’re Chetniks, worst of the worst Serbian nationalists I saw them all off the streets of Belgrade spouting their slogans of hate “Aren’t you afraid?” I’d ask my cousin [inaudible 00:25:44], “It’s not a big deal,” she’d replied with an indifferent shrug People feel like they can just say anything these days But when these soldiers invade my train, I feared that they will have far more than words for this lone, teenage Muslim girl Within seconds, the stench of them fills the train car It’s aggressively masculine, rank as wild dogs, sweat, liquor, grease and gunpowder They jangle like martyrs in a macabre parade as their belts and bandoliers, full of ammunition, clank “Did you hear the way he begged for his life,” one barks “The Croatians, they’re not real men,” their commander says “But their women,” the first one leers, “Black eyed angels.” “Nothing to compare with [inaudible 00:26:36] women though,” a solider says [inaudible 00:26:40] is an insulting word for Muslims “I’ve heard they are like rabbits, eager and soft” The commander cuffs him on the head and he reels drunkenly, “You don’t fall in love with them you idiot You put Serb seed in their bellies,” he grabs the solider by the collar “You wipe them out generation by generation You delude their unclean blood You honor them with half Serb babies and one day they will be gone from this earth and only Serbs will remain.” Another Chetnik chuckles menacingly I don’t think the realize they’re being honored One, I had screamed so loud Their conversation is lost as they head to the back of the train I tuck up my knees, crawling myself as small as possible as I fix my eyes out the window I want to run off this train, but would that be any better? I’m still in a Serb controlled region At least now I’m heading home I can’t decide and then it’s too late, the train is moving again My parents are such fools, I rage invertly Anger feels better than the stark terror that is my only alternative But I can’t keep it up My parents are na�ve, good, hopeful, innocent They fervently believe that humankind is fundamentally good To them, wars are mistakes, violence just a blimp on the road to universal humanity Sure, it has happened before But they believe in their inmost hearts that any day now the world will come to its senses and be the peaceful, philosophical, intelligent place it was meant to be They’re assured that the world can come for their children They believe that education is the key to creating that utopia To that end, I recently took a bunch of test in my hometown, math, logic, world puzzles, general knowledge The results surprised even me I have a friend whose mother works in the Bureau of Statistics “Who is this Amra girl,” the mother asked her “She got 100% on some of these tests No one has done that in her generation.” I was proud but my parents were giddy “You can do anything Amra,” they told me, “Just follow through, never give up on your education, no matter what happens It’s the most important thing.” That’s why they put me on a train to Belgrade in the heart of Serbia It was the only place to take the next and highest level of tests It was also in a place where the majority of citizens would hate me if only they knew what I was Already, the Serbs are in outright war with Croatians, Croatians want independence, Serbs want control and land I don’t find the Serbs actually hate the Croatians Soon, the Serbs will be coming for Bosnia and there’s no doubt at all how the Serbs feel about Bosnian Muslims They hate us They think we’re subhuman If these soldiers have done such horrific things in Croatia, what will they do in Bosnia? Once a dictator kept the country together, now Yugoslavia is falling apart Trapped on this train with state sponsored murderers and rapists who are boasting of their crimes, I truly realize for the first time that I can be hated by a stranger simply

for who I am, for the way I was born My only protection now is that these Chetniks don’t know I’m Muslim They roared drunkenly behind me, even their songs are violent Now their singing about their hero, Dragoljub Mihailovi?, who gleefully slaughtered Muslims in the World War II They sing it without shame They’re proud of the mass slaughter they contemplate I sneak a look behind me, these beasts are part of our army The official Yugoslavia national army that’s suppose to protect all of our multiethnic nation, Muslims, Serbs and Croats alike But these men are all Serbs Some still wear the official YNA uniform But most of them have switched to Chetnik dress and insignia They have officially declared that they are the army of the Serbs not the army of Yugoslavia Henceforth, Yugoslavia will be only for their kind I stare too long and one of them catches my eye Instantly, I spin frontward, looking hard at the seat back, hoping against hope that a train official or ticket taker will come into our car now But even they don’t want to deal with drunken soldiers I’m utterly alone as one of them rises and steadily to his feet, takes a swig from an amber bottle and staggers my way When he leans over my seat, I smelled the alcoholic and washed stench of him His long beard is matted and greasy with his strange clothes and hat, his bloodshot eyes He looks like the scariest character out of a children’s book, and ogre who snatches unwary children and drags them to his lair “Hello young [inaudible 00:31:44],” he says, young Serb woman A tiny part of me relaxes He uses a friendly, familiar greeting He thinks I’m Serb like him And how could he tell? Muslim women here don’t wear hijabs, we don’t speak Arabic or recite the Quran We’re Muslims of birth, of ethnicity, not religion really I have brown hair, fair skin, brown eyes I probably do look like this Chetnik’s sister What if I pointed that out to him? If I said, “If you can’t tell the difference, maybe there is no difference Maybe we’re all just people,” would he change? Would he go home and preach that change to his family? Of course I don’t dare Of course he would just say I’m a sneaky, lying Muslim bitch out to trick him and steal his country And once he knew I wasn’t one of his own people, he would consider my body his to do with as he chose He and the other soldiers would feel free to beat me, to rape me and they would never feel a spark of remorse about it I tried to look polite and shy instead of quaking and terrified A well brought up Serb girl wouldn’t speak to a solider alone on a train “Want a drink sweetheart? It’s a chilly night?” He tossed the bottle at me, some of it splashes on my tie It’s acrid smell crawls in my nostrils I put on as much of a Belgrade accent as I can and say, “No thank you.” I even tried to smile “You shouldn’t travel alone you know,” he says, looking honestly concerned “The country’s a mess There are dangerous men around But don’t worry, you have the Chetniks to protect you.” He sways down the aisle back to his seat and I hear them talking about how easy it will be to drive the Croats from their homes “Where there’s one Serb, there it is Serbia,” they shout, “Serbia to Tokyo Serbia to Tokyo.” That phrase had innocent origins when the Serbs won a big soccer match in Tokyo But they’ve come to use it as a nationalist slogan, proclaiming the desire to dominate the world They’re traveling my route They will pass through my hometown but they will not stop there My home is near the Bosnian Croatian border These soldiers will travel on just across the border, where they will kill and maim and rape any non Serb they can catch And tonight, they sing about it They celebrate the slaughter that is to come My city has been saved so far If I can just get to the Biha? station, I will be fine My city’s cosmopolitan, peaceful Muslims, Croats and Serbs have lived in harmony there for generations Home is safe That is what every child knows in their bones, right? Even a 16 year old child like me “Just get home,” I chant to myself, “Just get out at your stop and this will all be over If I miss my stop, the next one is in Croatia

If I miss my stop, I am in a war.” Thank you Oh Amra, it is such an honor to be here with you and it’s very difficult even just to collect ourselves from this harrowing tale But your story, as harrowing as it was, also contains so much of what’s good in humanity and I’m wondering if you can share with all of us how you got to United States Who helped you and what that meant to you, what did you learn from it? Thank you for asking that question Unfortunately it’s hard in half an hour to put four years of war and then a life that subsequently followed But I’m really glad you asked that question because there are a number of people that I think of when I think of being lucky enough to have survived and to be here As I mentioned in my speech, I worked in the last year of the war with doctors and nurses in Bosnia, trying to organize immunization of children And during that time, we were under the siege So the only time immunization will happen is if UNICEF truck with vaccines would be let through through the siege by Serbs On those days, on those occasions, we would travel around the, what we called my hometown and the area around Biha? pocket, the only area that was not controlled by Serbs in that part of the country I worked out of a clinic, local clinic, with these doctors and nurses And one day two child psychologists showed up knocking at our door Their first names were Wayne and Drew, I don’t know their last names They worked for IRC, International Rescue Committee, and they asked me to help them, show them schools around and they wanted to understand what was the state of children in Bosnia during that time and the state of education So I took them to my elementary school, to my high school and Bosnia’s a small place and particularly that town, in which I grew up, was a small town So everybody was familiar with my academic record and being a real physics and math nerd So one of the heads of schools suggested to them and said, “Well, you can’t save all of us We’re all going to die But at least save this kid that came with you.” So when they left Biha? after 48 hours or so, they said, “Amra, would you like to give us your transcripts? Would you like to come and study in American?” To me, this was still in the midst of the war, under the siege That sounded like someone saying, “Would you like to go to the moon.” And I said, “Of course I would.” I gave them my birth certificate, my transcripts, all of my diplomas and awards I thought it doesn’t really matter if they lose those documents, I will never need them again Months went by, the war ended and in the very same clinic, while still working with doctors and nurses, I receive a phone call And by the way, we still had no phone lines There was a satellite phone in this clinic, this huge thing that I was afraid to even touch unless it rings I pick up the phone line and someone on the other line from World University Service in Zagreb, Croatia says, “Amra, we’re glad we found you, that you’re alive You have a benefactor who wants you to come and study in the United States and they’re going to fund your scholarship,” and I hung up I just thought it was evil for someone to pull a prank of that kind on me This woman, whose name is Davorka, she calls back and she says, “Please don’t hang up This is real We’ve been looking for you for the last six months and I’m so glad you’re alive You need to get to Croatia on one of the first buses that will let to go through after the siege You really need to be here You are late by a semester to go to Chestnut Hill College that has given you a full scholarship thanks to several people.” I had no idea how this all came about But I showed up in Croatia, got my visa and flew to the United States And it’s only once I got here that I understood the other side of the story So Wayne and Drew, two psychologists that I saw for a few days in Bosnia during the war, whose last names I don’t know, took my papers

When they went back to a board meeting of IRC here in New York City They were presenting statistics and trends and showing pictures of the horrors And one of the board members, his name is David Pincus, got up and said, “Forget the numbers I want to save a person Who can I save? Give me one individual I can save.” And they said, “Well, we have documents for this girl who apparently seems to be strong academically and maybe you can save her.” So David Pincus, who passed away unfortunately, was one of the most important people in my life He was a Jewish philanthropist, a successful businessman, who heard about Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world It’s deemed to be one of the more valuable books in the world today And he knew the story, if any of you Google it, the story of Sarajevo Haggadah is that Muslims over the centuries and years including World War II during Holocaust have actually saved that book from destruction So this is the book that’s used by Jews at the Passover Seder Tells the story of the exodus And this particular Sarajevo Haggadah is done with all sorts of beautiful gemstones and gold and is a beautiful, unique piece of art And it was always a Muslim that repeatedly, through history, saved it from destruction And David heard that story and he wanted to pay it forward and I was his way of paying it forward So David made sure that he involved a number of other people who helped me in different ways and I’m just going to name a few of them Professor Michael Sells, who was a Professor of Islamic Literature at the [inaudible 00:41:54] College at the time, now he’s at University of Chicago, who in his own ancestry had some Serb blood and he didn’t feel good about what Serbs were doing to Bosnian Muslims and he wanted to change that So he organized Community of Bosnia, which was a small organization which made it its mission to bring people like me further study to the U.S He also worked with Deborah Cooper, a social worker who was Quaker by background, who involved Philadelphia Quakers and later when I went to Brown and transferred to Brown, Quakers in Providence who helped me and others get over some of the worst moments that we had when we initially came to United States And last but not least, I want to also recognize Chestnut Hill College and Catholic Sisters, who run Chestnut Hill College, who took me in, who gave me the first scholarship And I would go around to all of my classes with TDK tapes, for those of you who are younger, you don’t know what that means You can Google it I would go around with this recorder that Sister [inaudible 00:43:07] gave me and record all my professors because I didn’t really speak English, or not well enough to be able to do academic work at the time So I just want to give that as an example of really this genuine activism Where people from very different religious backgrounds came together to save me and really introduced me to what America should be about It’s so important, it’s so important that we hear these kinds of stories because I think we can lose sight of the way our humanity can transcend stereotypes and religious and ethnic differences I also just want to ask you now about being a Muslim in America at this time You said in your excerpt that you didn’t look like a classic Muslim, or what we think of stereotypically And yet here you are, ethnically from your family, and I wonder if you have encountered stereotypes and discrimination here and what you think we need to know about the experience of Muslims in America and how that relates more broadly to other people who, as you said, are oftentimes named as others That’s a complicated question that we try to address in my course that I teach this semester, Islam Education Radicalization and I think some of my students are here Islamophobia is, as you all know, a real thing It’s not news to any of you, that it is difficult to be a Muslim in America today

I received comment that I don’t look like a Muslim, I don’t sound like a Muslim many, many times And I think that’s a reflection of how profound the stereotype is In some ways, it was easier to be Muslim when I initially came from Bosnia after the war because people knew from the media that there was this ethnic cleansing and Muslims were the victims of it and people empathized with what I had gone through And then came September 11th, that really changed this perception of what Muslims look like, how they speak, what they do and it really became equated to being a terrorist And it’s something that I have struggled, sort of this label, that has been attached to me over and over and over again and having to fight it back does get tiring But I’m an optimist and I think that if we stop talking, if we stop speaking to each other and trying to counter these narratives, that we will be in a very bad place in this country and globally So one way in which I try to address that negative energy that sometimes may be directed at me or the group that I’m obviously constantly associated with by my ethnic background, I try to be constructive through my work Whether it’s doing research on issues of exclusion, marginalization, cultural isolation or it’s work on radicalization It’s a complicated issue One of the statistics that’s well known is that vast majority of Americans are afraid of Muslims committing a violent crime in the name of Islam But also one of the other statistics is that more victims of terrorism in the world are Muslims To be in both places at the same time is not an easy place to be but we have responsibility to fight those stereotypes Especially I want to really recognize Teachers College for being forward looking and giving me that space and room to create course like Islam Education and Radicalization because, to my knowledge, it is the only course with that content at a school of education in the United States Some of you may think that perhaps it’s Muslim students who sign up for this class because it relates to them personally It’s actually a very diverse course, each semester that I teach it and I’ll just give you examples I’ve had in that class students who are teachers in predominately immigrant schools in Austria who are working with Chechen Muslim population and who wanted to gain some tools in understanding how to prevent radicalization I have had students who are from Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore who are administrators in schools and who want to understand radicalization a little bit better I’ve also had students who are teachers in public schools in New Jersey and New York City, who are working with immigrant populations and want to have skillset to address all of the contemporary, political, social, economic issues that may relate to radicalization So I really do thank Teachers College for giving me that, being forward looking and giving me that space and room to grow and educate others on these issues And as you go through this process, has it changed your sense of yourself? Your connection to being a Muslim and to Islam? Being in America liberated me For the very first time, I could say I was a Muslim Growing up as a kid my father, who was a prominent economist in Bosnia, said to me once when we were going to have lunch for Eid, which is a big Muslim holiday, to my aunt’s house He was a big guy, very tall He leaned down and said, “Please make sure you never tell anybody we’re doing this.” It was this big secret mission that we were on just to recognize who we were A lot of my identity is a fluid thing Many layers of my identity have evolved since I’ve come to the U.S. with the freedom that comes with being able to voice your opinion and speak up I want to ask you a little bit about your book

You said that you’re writing for young adults It seems to be a pretty heavy topic for teenagers Why did you choose to tell your story to them and how did your chosen audience shape the way you tell that story? I was 16 when the war started and I thought it was, to tell the story in an authentic way, I had to be 16 in my memoir Given the nature of my experiences, we certainly considered what does that mean and how do I tell the story to be acceptable in high schools or in colleges around the country The book is really a crossover between young adult and adult audiences But I want to share one moment that really sparked my thinking and inspired me to toy around with the idea of writing my story And it was around the election in 2016 I had the privilege and honor of being invited to an event hosted, in his home, by Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City I asked the organizers if I could bring my two girls, now teenagers, 12 and 14, with me And they said of course, there will be no other children there but you’re welcome to bring them They spent about 40 minutes speaking to Mayor Bloomberg and some of the questions, it was following his speech at the Democratic National Convention and they addressed the remarks that he made during that time But they asked him several questions that were painful for me to hear One of them was, “Mayor Bloomberg, do you think that our mom will be rounded up if Donald Trump wins the election? Do you think that our parents, being the first generation immigrant, will be expelled from this country? And Mayor Bloomberg, what will this country look like if all immigrants are asked to leave, who will remain in this country? We’re all immigrants.” That really reminded me of myself, a few years before the war, in the very same way thinking about what will war do to me I had this enormous sense of urgency that I had to open up and write my story That even though, as you could sense, it’s a painful process, I had to do it for my children But I also had to do it for young adults around this country who are going through the same experiences, given their backgrounds And I’m speaking here more broadly of a variety of the first groups that composed the real fabric of the American society that’s right now being negated and denied by the predominate political narrative We have a question from the audience that’s a natural followup Did you find that writing your book was a component of healing? Or did the healing come after? Or did the writing have to come after that? I would be disingenuous if I were to say that healing is something that has an end to it When you go through the extent of you survived, the extent of violence and trauma and ethnic cleansing that I had lived through, it really never ends I don’t think I will ever be fully healed by some medical term, if there is such a thing I think it’s a gradual process I think, for me, when I came to the United States, I had a hard time talking about where I came from because Bosnia was fresh in the news and people would say, “Oh, how many family members that you had have died in the war,” and asked questions that I couldn’t respond to Then over time, I started to process those experiences personally, privately, individually And the book was the culmination of that process My book editor, who is here from Bloomsbury, knows that I’ve written way more words than will be published in the book It really became cathartic process for me and it will continue and it continues through my teaching and research work

So you have spent a lot of your scholarly efforts looking at radicalization Another question from the audience was about the role of K-12 education in fighting extremism Are there any examples where that has been effective to try to deal with children and young adults who are still in school before they are launched? Unfortunately, the programs that have been instituted at the national levels to, in variety of countries, for the most part, particularly also in the west, in Western Europe and here in the united States, have not been thoughtfully designed in my view In the United States, we’ve had a pilot program, for instance, that started during the Obama Administration and then continued into the current administration, that looked at three cities and has not been well organized or really implemented in a way that creates an inclusive environment in the educational system Most of these programs that have been implement, whether in the United States and a well known program in U.K is called Prevent Program, are actually premised on the idea of surveillance So, let’s have educators watch out for someone who speaks up And if they do, or if they read a book on Islam, we should report them and we should prevent the next terrorist attack in that manner You can imagine how that may impact an immigrant kid who is seeking a sense of belonging in a new community and they are finding that they are being watched by the individuals that they should trust the most So I do think that there is a lot of room for improvement, for us as educators, to figure out the ways in which we can, I tell my students in the radicalization course, we need to create turbulence in the classroom And that really means having direct, open, difficult conversations, allowing people to voice their opinions and struggling with these complicated issues and that will create the community of people, young people willing to compromise and willing to empathize with whoever other maybe to them I think there’s a lot of room for improvement We haven’t done anything really good at the K-12 level Is there an appetite for that? Do you find, are there any places that actually would allow that intellectual chaos in the classroom? Teachers College for sure I’m also wondering what you have learned about trauma You said before that you don’t think you’ll ever actually heal This isn’t like you break a leg and the bone is set again I’m wondering if you have discovered something about yourself, in dealing with trauma, that you might feel comfortable sharing with the rest of us as a way of also sureing up our own resilience Trauma is a, in my view, a very broad, difficult term to define and what does trauma mean for me verses some of my classmates and friends in Bosnia who survived the war and then committed suicide after living through all those four years and how one really, at the personal level, digests the pain and hate directed at them in this case I would say one thing that I learned about trauma and coping with those types of experiences is that I couldn’t hate and I could not respond with hate in response to the violence I was exposed to There were certainly moments during the war when I had visceral reactions of rage and anger, when my home was bombed and my mom became deaf And I really deeply wanted to hate men on the hills who were bombing us daily But what I really learned is that it’s a destructive feeling and there’s nothing that can be achieved with hate The only outcome of that feeling would be for me to be further traumatized by becoming

exactly the same to those that were targeting me with violence And so I learned to really redirect negative energy that’s targeting me to something that’s constructive and that’s what I would give as a general advice Always look at the glass half full and see if you can redirect any negativity that you feel or pain you feel inside into something constructive in the same way that I’ve done with teaching children during the war in Bosnia Well, thank you so much I feel like I can ask you a million questions But in fact, it is my honor to give the last question to our inspiration tonight Charo Uceda, would you like to ask the last question of Amra? Thank you Amra Such insightful and yet moving way to describe a life in which she had to face the possible end of her life and the people that she loved and such a wonderful way to empower herself in order to become the person that she is now And that I would like to say that all of that was also part of America being what America is and TC being the force behind the power that she has now to move forward and bring change and empowerment to other people But my question to you was coming to my mind over and over again and I just quickly would like to ask you that while you were living all these situations in your life, were you prone to hate the people that were your tormentors and the people who were doing all these things to the people that you loved And a second question would be what would be the [inaudible 01:02:39] link that you find in order to find the road to recovery in your life That would be my question to you Thank you I will use an example to answer that question When I was a graduate student at School of International Public Affairs here at Columbia, before I did my Masters and a Doctorate at Teachers College I was a teaching assistant for some of the quantitative methods courses at SIPA and one of my faculty members approached me and asked if I was interested in doing a research project is Bosnia In fact leading it, working with International Organization for Migration And I asked her what the project was about and it was a project looking at the reintegration program that IOM implemented in Bosnia after the war, that was helping former soldiers reintegrate into the civilian life I was asked to design and conduct research with few of my other classmates and this particular faculty member And what I realized is that I was being asked to go back and speak with, interview and survey and help those that targeted me during the war It was a difficult task and I was very honest with my advisor at the time, who had asked me to participate in the project and said, “I’m not really sure if I can do it I don’t know what will happen when I’m sitting at the table interviewing a former Serb solider who may have killed members of my family and why would I be helping them.” I reserved the right to withdraw from the project if I couldn’t do it But I was curious to find out where I stood emotionally and I did go back to Bosnia and

I did interview Serb soldiers along with Bosnian Muslims and Croat soldiers During that process, I had helped one particular solider who was hoping to get a cow, a Bosnian Serb, so that he could start a little farm And he was having difficulty obtaining help through this program I went really beyond everything that was expected of me and helped him And at the end of my time in Bosnia during that project, he called me and he sobbed and he asked me why did I help him Of course, he knew I was Bosnian Muslim and knew by my name and knew that I obviously spoke the local language as a native speaker He said, “Why did you help me?” I said, “Because I didn’t want to be like people who were killing me from the hills I wanted to respond to violence not with hate but with constructive response.” He shared with me that he couldn’t sleep at night because of the people that he had killed, people that he had harmed And he said to me that it would have been harder now for him to go to bed at night knowing that someone he targeted responded in a very different way and in a way supported him through this project But I went to bed that night feeling really good about who I was and I think that’s really the moment in my life where I learned what my response is and should be to those that perpetuate violence Well, thank you so much I know that all of us here feel like we were in the presence of someone whose extraordinary gifts and humanity just shown through Thank you, it was really an honor to be here with you and I want to thank Teachers College for sponsoring something like this and especially to Charo for elevating this story and the story of so many other women who empower themselves and others So thank you Thank you