The day I left Bosnia, my friend Tanja came looking for me. We were separated during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Tanja went to live in Italy. I stayed, watching people pour into my hometown, fleeing from surrounding villages. I delivered clothes and food to them. They spoke with different accents, much like someone from Boston finding themselves in Nashville, and we turned our schools into shelters for them. We called them refugees. Full story.
Soon, I found myself with no choice but to join them in their flight. I caught the ‘last bus’ to America, and watched familiar people fade in the distance. My grandma, my friends. And once you flee your home, you always go back, whether it still exists or not.
When I returned to Bosnia for the first time in 2001, I reunited with Tanja, and while on a train ride with her, the traces of the war I survived, my new life in the US, all culminated into one moment when I watched her gentle face reflect in the window. Who am I? Who have I become? A Muslim—my father’s side of family, or Catholic, my Mom’s side. Is religion what will define me? I knew that I did not want to be defined by this word: refugee.
Refugee was that old mattress I slept on my first year in the United States. Refugee was the basement I hid in while planes dropped bombs on my town. Refugee was as dirty as my school where refugees slept and, nearly 20 years later, it is as dirty as camp Opatovac in Croatia where I recently witnessed the world’s most recent refugee migration.
On September 19, 2015, I watched Middle-Eastern refugees and migrants being dropped off by bus at the Hungarian-Croatian border. Reporters lined up, waiting for the doors to open.
I thought about how many times these people faced border crossings. I distanced myself. I looked at faces through the window, wanting to find that one person I could connect with, that would trust me and not be annoyed by my camera. I saw two girls and a baby. When they stepped off, they ran up to me, hugging me.
It was a quiet night. You could only hear the rustle of bags being picked up; almost no one talked. I wrote my e-mail for the girls on a piece of paper, hoping the scrap would survive their journey and one day they would write me. I did this with a few people I felt a deep connection with. The girls got further away from me, and just when I was about to leave, someone yelled:
“What is your name?”
I turned around, shouted my name, and her response echoed across the border as she walked to the other side, “Lilian.”
For a moment I felt as if I’ve known her all of my life. And I did. I was that same Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi kid on the train, bus or boat. Croatia was a stop on my journey as well, and peace was the best fairytale of my time.
I never wanted to be defined as a refugee, but it forever shaped me into the woman I became: a photojournalist able to connect and share the most intimate stories of those I’ve met for the first time.And for people I documented it didn’t matter to them what religion I was. All that mattered was that I wished them well, that I felt their journey and accepted them for who they are beneath their refugee clothes.
Few weeks later, I returned to Bosnia when an e-mail arrived. Two girls and a baby had arrived in Sweden, their brother wrote me.