The images that flash across my computer today are all too familiar. Men, women, and children, their fear-drawn faces smeared with dirt and sunken with exhaustion, fleeing. Unimaginable horror and destruction everywhere. No time to think, no real path to safety. Bombs, soldiers, cheering …. from where? Who could be cheering this nightmare? Cold-blooded executions of civilians, Facebook and Twitter farewells, a once-beautiful city reduced to rubble. Aleppo, Syria, today. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992.
Yet when I walked into the Islamic Society of Bosniaks open house last Saturday, the ethereal voices of the Bulbuli Children’s Choir greeted me, and fresh-faced young women at the door welcomed me to the mosque. Older women sat along the periphery recording the ceremony on their phones or iPads, while young people, perhaps bored by the proceedings, scrolled through Facebook feeds on their own phones. Speeches, welcomes, statements by representatives of a multitude of faiths…. Muslim, Catholic, LDS…. celebrated the new Maryam mosque, named for the mother of Jesus.Afterwards, a feast downstairs with traditional Bosnian fare: cevapi, zeljanica, ajvar, baklava, strong Bosnian coffee in small, ornate cups. Multiple generations sitting around tables. How many of the Bosnians in the room endured the same atrocities as the families in Aleppo? I learned that the president of the Islamic Society of Bosniaks arrived here as a refugee in 1996. What is his story? What are the stories of the people seated around me? How many here lost family members, or lived in a refugee camp before arriving in Salt Lake?
Those questions about the past receded when I heard the women’s joyous laughter, saw the smiling faces of children digging into gooey sweets, savored the tastes and smells of home-cooked food, and admired the beauty and simplicity of the remodeled Baptist church that now serves as the Bosniak community’s spiritual home. Everywhere I turned, I was welcomed by women serving food, asking if I need anything, thanking me for coming. All the while exuding confidence and hope.I remember wondering during the Balkan War why nobody stepped in to prevent the slaughter in Srebenica. I read Samantha Power’s powerful book on genocide, “A Problem from Hell,” and thought, well, we know better now. But Darfur, Syria, they show how we still turn away. Today, I heard Power, now U.N. Ambassador for the U.S., chastise member countries of the U.N. Security Council, saying “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebenica, and now, Aleppo.”
Whether it’s euphemistically called “ethnic cleansing” or, more accurately, “genocide,” these conflicts, and others around the world, have displaced over 65 million people according to a 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The United States admits around 85,000 refugees annually. And approximately 1,100 of those make their way to Utah each year.So what can you and I do, really? Write a check to a rescue group, talk with friends about the atrocities, contemplate the horrors in the quiet of our hearts?
We CAN do something. We can volunteer to teach English, demonstrate how to use public transit, help with job applications. Be a friend, a source of emotional support, for those far from home making their way in a strange land. Most especially, we can do something to support refugee women, because they are the heart and soul of their families. They are strong, dedicated, resilient, caring, self-sufficient, powerful. They are builders and doers. Empowering women, according to Women of the World, is the fastest way to enable financially sustainable refugee communities.
So I chose to be a doer, too, by volunteering for Women of the World. I want to make a difference, one woman, one friend at a time. It’s a small thing, but maybe the accumulation of these many small things will be enough to give a refugee woman in Salt Lake hope that one day she too will laugh, smile, and share food with others in her community like the Bosniak women did on Saturday. Because we all need hope.
Christine Osborne is a volunteer for Women of the World.