You were one of our first Visas 93 beneficiaries we processed in Sarajevo. The Embassy was still new and the Bosnians were unaccustomed to coming to their own capital for tourist visas, much less the Refugee Follow-to-Join Program. When I told the first family we processed that they were case number one, instead of pride they expressed concern that we would bungle it and requested to be transferred to the Embassy in Zagreb. Our consular section was located in the former parking garage. Tucked under the Embassy with its separate entrance, the offices stretched back from what few glass windows the layout allowed. The crush of visa applicants on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays begged and pleaded their cases with a full audience on both sides of the glass, passing their documents through slots under the windows.
We processed specialty visas on Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment, but that didnít reduce the impersonality of the transaction. Sometimes the applicants and beneficiaries reached a few fingers through the slot, longing for human contact. I would touch fingertips to fingers, wishing I could give them what they wanted but knowing it was impossible. You didnít reach out to me. Perhaps I was the only one who could see you holding back.
You didnít talk much, only presented your papers and politely responded to my routine questions. Later, I would chat confidently with the refugee family members I interviewed and tease them a bit about not learning English during their long wait for the paperwork to go through. The first few months I just listened with patience as they complained about their months and years alone while a spouse, a parent, even a whole family lived fast-paced lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. You didnít complain; you stood at my window smiling but your eyes were sad. I confess I donít remember your name after all this time, but the sadness you carried with you haunts me.
Your case wasnít unique. You were left behind to complete high school while your family went through the Refugee Program in Split, Croatia, and were resettled in the Midwest somewhere. It was your choice to stay behind with friends, and as a consolation we expedited your case.
You stood before me that winterís day and answered questions briefly, hesitantly. You signed the papers, swore to whatever oath I administered and accepted whatever I told you with a slight nod. The medical work came back from the doctor within a week. The affidavit of support was quickly signed off by your parents and processed through the Refugee Sponsor Agency. When your flight was scheduled you came to pick up the travel packet without emotion. Later this was all handled by the International Organization for Migration; those first few cases were all ours. I wondered at your lack of enthusiasm, but I also understood how difficult it is to leave home, and how hard it is to explain that feeling. To your friends, it mustíve seemed like a lucky break to immigrate to the Land of Milk and Honey where the streets are paved with gold, especially when jobs are scarce at home and the streets are scarred by mortar and shellfire. You couldnít tell anyone about your reluctance to leave and so you went through with it. You stuffed your pain into the same kitbag where you carried the grief of losing friends to senseless violence, the experience of being shot at by Serb snipers as you went about your daily routine, the memory of cold and hungry years. You got on that plane with your invisible baggage and you left.
There were so many other similar cases after yours. It became routine for us. One day, my staff showed me a newspaper article about your death in Sarajevo. There were your sad eyes looking at me once more, this time in pixels and smudged ink. Unable to adjust to life in the United States, within a few months you abandoned any claim to status and returned to Bosnia. You stayed with friends who couldnít understand why youíd thrown it all away. You deadened the pain with drugs for awhile. Then you chose to end your life in the Sarajevan way, by jumping off the roof of a ruined apartment building.
I admit, I puzzled over the article and wondered whether there was anything I couldíve done. My impact on your life was minor at best; I was just one more domino falling in line. Still, it led to your self-destruction and for that I ask your forgiveness. With paperwork completed what could I have said that wouldíve made a difference? After your death, I began to ask the beneficiaries of Visa 93 petitions how they felt about moving far away from homeland, friends, parents, to start a new life in an alien land. Most were dumbfounded. Only a few took my question to heart and began to cry. Only a handful confessed to mixed feelings. Oddly, these were the ones I felt most confident about. At least they understood what they were doing, making a choice and leaving the Old World behind. Alas but I fear that you did not. You tried to hold on to both and lost it all.
Years later, Iím haunted by your last moments. I picture you on that rooftop, the moon a silver orb low on the horizon, the stars so near you felt you could reach them. The city of Sarajevo cradled between mountains, glittering with a fairy-glamour only the night can give, velvet darkness cloaking the grim reminders of war. Did you get a good running start and hurl yourself off before you could change your mind? Did you hesitate at the edge, and then passively let go? Or did you swan dive off the precipice, and embrace the void at last?
Tessa Johnstone has lived in Copenhagen, Washington DC and Sarajevo, but she always returns home to Minneapolis. She currently resides in Podgorica, the capital of the newly independent Montenegro. When not tutoring conversational English or copyediting economic reports, she hangs out in Kafe Karver and writes. This is her first acceptance.
Photo of Sarajevo by Tessa Johnstone.
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Fiction and Photo Copyright © 2007 Tessa Johnstone. All rights reserved.