I came to the United States as a refugee, fleeing the war in Bosnia in 1995. I was pregnant with my second child and accompanied by my husband and 4-year-old daughter. Nationalist leaders had come to power, fomented fear and splintered what had been a tolerant society along religious lines. We all looked the same. We spoke the same language. We ate the same food. But it was not enough. Suddenly, hatred of another’s faith became an excuse to take land, property — even lives. To gun us down in our streets. To force us to live without electricity, water or food for months. To rape us. To send us to concentration camps. To slaughter us and bury us in mass graves.
The war’s horrors forced us to leave everything we knew and loved. America offered us refuge.
Starting a new life in a foreign place terrified us in a different way. There were no shells falling here, no snipers watching and picking the targets, no screams and bloody streets, but we were deeply scared. How would we connect with people and make a life here? There were times, if we could have afforded the airplane tickets, we might have jumped back on the plane and returned to what was frightening, but known.
The reason that we endured and still live in the United States is because Americans, regardless of our unfamiliar accent, foreign cuisine and Muslim religion, welcomed us.
A network of Stanford students and families in California helped us transition into a new life. They rented and furnished an apartment for us and helped us find jobs. We felt a genuine connection with these strangers who saw us as a part of their human family.
They wanted to get to know us and welcomed us into their lives. With that, our fear diminished. To this day, we are proud to call each other friends and grateful to call this amazing country our home. We worked hard, paid taxes, raised our children, bought a house and became citizens.
Sixteen years after our arrival, we moved to a town in Indiana to be closer to relatives. Here, people are a little more wary of outsiders. I hear myself referred to as “that foreign woman,” and colleagues sometimes tease me at work — mocking my accent, pointing out how delicious pork is and re-enacting diversity jokes from The Office.
In the campaign for the 2016 election, as Donald Trump began espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric, politics began seeping into regular conversations with neighbors and co-workers. Trump/Pence lawn signs popped up on the front yards in my subdivision. In the office parking lot, cars were adorned with campaign stickers. Support for Trump was overwhelming. The jokes, if they ever were funny, began to feel like clear, hurtful messages barely wrapped in humor.
I was always open about my religion because it was never an issue. But with the new President and his heartless statements on Islam and immigration, I wonder: Will people use it against me? Where does their support for Trump start or end? How far will he push and how far will people follow? Since November 9, I’ve felt not only shock and sadness, but also déjà vu.
The majority of Bosnians could not see the war coming. We could not believe — or refused to believe — that our neighbors, co-workers and people we grew up with or married, whom we shared meals with the night before, could become our enemies.
I realize that this feels like a very dramatic comparison. But the shock of the election results brought up these forgotten emotions. Is my religion going to be my detriment again? Even Trump’s flirtation with Russia chills me, as that country supported the forces that committed genocide in mine.
What I want to explain to my neighbors, my fellow Americans and President Trump is that immigrants who are fleeing conflicts and trying to start a new life in a new country are not plotting to harm people who are opening doors to them. We have bigger problems to solve. We need to learn the language, learn the customs, learn the bus system, raise our children, find jobs.
Many of us feel that America gave us a second chance at life. We go out of our way to blend in and be accepted. Most of the time, it works — but only if the community can see past our religion, our accents, our dress code and view us as human beings seeking only acceptance.
So vet us, check us, process us. Do all the due diligence you have to in order to let us enter the country. But do not deny us the chance to save our lives, our families, escape the horrors and start over again. We probably did not want to leave our first home. But we will, given the chance, make a home here.