Reflections on the life of a war refugee

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Major shifts in politics have led to forced migration throughout the world, bringing the issue of war refugees to public attention. I would like to share some of my past and my thoughts on this subject with you.

My time in France has been nothing but rewarding, my interests being mainly for art and culture, but recently my attention was caught by a particular incident in Paris.

I have first-hand experience of those tents recently mentioned in the media, behind the Gare Du Nord, the ones that have been recognized as a refugees’ temporary (and probably illegal) settlement. Unfortunately, due to the numerous conflicts and raging wars not far from Europe, I believe this is not just an isolated incident and there will be many more.

I don’t want to dwell on politics and the roots of conflicts – there are many and each one is far too complex, too important to be simplified and presented without analyzing in detail – but I would like to share my experience of life as war refugee, and to present some facts that I find extremely important.

Firstly, we should all understand what being a war refugee means: it is neither voluntary, nor planned. There is nothing that you or any European government can do to “encourage” or “discourage” such behavior, because it is not a behavior. War refugees are people literally running to save their lives. They have no one to protect them in their country of origin. They will use any transportation, pay any amount of money, just to get away from certain death, imprisonment and/or torture. I am not being overdramatic, that is how it is. It might be difficult to fully understand the position of a civilian in war conflict, especially for those in privileged parts of Europe (such as Paris), for those who are not professionally or emotionally involved (if you don’t have a family yourself, or you are not working for the UN or a similar organization). Often mistaken or treated as illegal immigrants, war refugees are discriminated against, isolated and treated in the most absurd and violent ways. But they don’t have a choice: they can’t go anywhere else. They can’t turn back home. They cannot travel…

My life as a war refugee started with the war that took Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and divided it into several states. I was sixteen, I had just started high school and I came from what was identified as a “mixed marriage”, my parents were from different parts of what was then Yugoslavia. They were considered a sort of abomination by many national extremists. As the bombing of Sarajevo, my home town, became more frequent and more aggressive, my parents became quite worried, and decided to send me away to cousins in safer parts of the country. I was thrown in a bus with many other children, and taken to Croatia.

We drove through the war zones, passing many barricades, paying our way through to every military-like group that we had encountered. Payment was in the then popular German Marks or in some form of gold that the driver asked us for, even though there were no more than five adults – all mothers – in the bus. I still remember that trip very vividly. Though we made it through without any consequences, there were signs that things could have got much worse. On one of those barricade stops a man in uniform tried to pull one of the women from the bus. There was a commotion, but they eventually let us go.

I was supposed to stay with my relatives, family on my mother’s side, and I did at the beginning; but as it turned out, after just a few months, I, and others like me, were rejected by our original hosts, our family, and placed in the care of social services. From that moment I became part of a tragic and nameless mass of people who ended up in Croatia with the status of war refugees, and without any hope for the future.

Families fall apart in wars, and because of lack of affection or loyalty, everything becomes a simple question of finances and micro-economy. I came from a large, catholic family, with all the stereotypes you would expect: gatherings for holy days, numerous children running around, hand-down clothes and toys, but also a tight bond between family members. War destroyed it all, leaving nothing but the bond between the mothers and their children. Strong as they were, the others were scattered all over, searching for a solution. None of my family was ready to take on a sixteen-year-old in care, not for more than a couple of months, and I certainly wasn’t going to find a job. It wasn’t just a lack of skill or education, I was a war refugee and therefore not allowed to work.

With numerous apologies and false optimism, my cousins left me in social care, convincing themselves that I would be better off there – very much like my parents were convincing themselves that I would be better off with my cousins than in war-zoned Sarajevo.

The life of a war refugee is not only marked by severe war trauma; there is also the loss of a home, often even a family member, a life that was more or less comfortable and/or safe, and – as in my case – the loss of country, and therefore identity.

We all expect that after being victimized by the destruction of war, we will have some hope once we get past the country’s borders. As I discovered, that is far from the truth. Segregation, discrimination, lack of medical care, or availability of only ambulant medical treatments, false incrimination, violence of all kinds, and complete absence of any professional development or integration, were all part of our refugee lives. It felt like we were being punished for being victims of a war, the one we had no control over.

The life of a war refugee is a half-life. You are cast away, often in an extremely violent way, and while still in shock from very visible and obvious war destruction and trauma, we were submitted to different, silent forms of violence. From my own experience and from what I have witnessed in the lives of others, I can only conclude that the system and measures that are accepted by most countries are arranged in such a way to keep us refugees in care with dependence on social services and charities long after we have escaped the war itself.

Mentioning a past as a war refugee is almost like admitting to a criminal record or time spent in prison. It instantly results in lack of trust and often ends in no further contact. If you ever look at photos of war refugees, you will notice they are barely comparable to the image we have of people we identify with – they look ethnical, in rags, their faces smudged and they are mostly women (with covered hair) and children.

In spite of the authenticity of those images, they do not really represent the appearance of most of us. I and the other children in my situation were no different from other children of our age. We dressed the same; we followed the same trends, listened to the same music, and shared the same expectations… It was just boundaries and discrimination towards war refugees, applied because of some vague rules and expectations, which separated us from the rest of the population. Most of my war refugee friends never made it further than high school. They were denied further education. They were forced to leave, regardless of where they went or how. Their lives were destroyed not only by war, but by the lack of possibilities. It seems that once you become a war refugee you are destined to depend on some sort of charity or institution. It was as if we couldn’t, or weren’t allowed to go beyond the tragedy that affected us at such a young age. We are being punished, once again, for a war we weren’t responsible for and over which we had no influence.

We are not worthless people. We don’t want to live off charity or to burden anyone. You might think that we were careless or inconsiderate to find ourselves in such a situation. That is not a lack of wisdom, but simply the inability of most people to believe that war could happen to them. My parents couldn’t believe that the war in its full horror would happen. Most people are so attached to their home that they would stay until the final hour, until the threat to their lives becomes not only real, but certain.

War refugees are not voluntary immigrants searching for better jobs or better lives. They are simply people without options, trying to survive, hoping to live.

In the present situation, where the huge and uncontrollable flow of refugees is once again an issue, it is important to remember and to be fully aware that those people crossing the Mediterranean are not a threat to this society. They just have misfortunate and precious lives that should be given a chance.

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