War refugee helps us rediscover the wonder of America

SUBMITTED PHOTO Isidora poses by a large poster of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol that holds powerful meaning to her.
By : 
Phil Hebrink

The first year I was involved with exchange students about 10 years ago, I worked with a girl from Bosnia named Isidora. Bosnia is one of the countries that used to be Yugoslavia, east of Italy.       

She spoke at the Cherry Grove church about some of her experiences growing up. One of the stories was how she walked several kilometers because she heard that there was a group of Christian churches from America giving away Christmas boxes. And she desperately needed some shoes. Her family had nothing, no home, no income, they were war refugees, and it was almost beyond her comprehension that there was a place where such important things were given away.

She arrived to the site too late, and all the boxes were gone. But a kind lady helped her, and took her to her office, where she somehow found a gift box for her, but she explained that there would probably not be shoes in it, because that was not the directions for filling the boxes. Isidora thanked the lady, and a couple blocks away, she opened the box, and past the doll and coloring paper, in the bottom of the box was a pair of shoes. She put them on her feet, and said, "they almost fit, a bit large, but wonderful!" and this little girl said, "I know that there is a God, and he lives in the land called America"

It was very good to hear from the recipient of some of the mission projects we do as a church.

Isidora was born in a village, south of Sarajevo, Bosnia, during a three-way civil war. This was a war I remember watching on TV in the 1990s. This was not a war about land, or money, or a system of government, it was about "ethnic cleansing." In that part of the world, you are born with a race, but also a religion. It does not matter what kind of church you go to, you have a label, and that is who you are. Your neighbor may have another label, or maybe you have settled in villages where everyone is similar.   That would be your ethnicity. Isidora said her ethnicity was Bosniac, and she asked what is mine? I said, well... I’m an American, I guess it’s Dutch, Norwegian, German, and some others. And she laughed, saying, Americans... your self-identity is so diverse, you see yourself as many, and yet as one.

As a young child, Isidora remembers exploring, and playing around empty villages. They were told not to, of course, but children will follow their curiosity, and also, it was said these places where haunted. Who could resist? Every house and building would be vacant, with dishes still on the tables, clothes still in the closets. These were the places, when, one day, during the war, soldiers from a different ethnicity, would arrive, move from house to house, herding all the people to get on buses, drive them to the forest, and they would never come back. These were her playgrounds.

Now, as Isidora grew up, she was taught in her school that it was always other people who were the bad guys, the other side committed atrocities, and there were complicated reasons why the actions of her people were always correct and justified. And Isidora spent a lot of effort learning just how her people were right. During her year in America she would learn that no one else believed, or cared about the complex reasons, and the war was an absolute tragedy, with no winners, everyone lost. She had to be outside of her country to see it clearly.

Time went by.

Isidora learned that she could apply for the exchange student program and possibly be sent to the United States if she had good grades, learned English and had good communicative skills. This scholarship is provided by our government, with the idea of bringing people from other countries, here, to learn from our schools, and get to know Americans, with the thinking, if we know each other, we won’t hate each other.

She became the top of her class, then the top of her region. The time came to apply for the scholarship that would make her an exchange student. Six would be chosen out of more than 5,000 applicants.

The day she found out she was chosen, she said she felt like she had won the lottery. A family was found for her, and she attended Lanesboro High School, a wonderful school. Lanesboro is probably the oldest school building in southern Minnesota. When I gave her a tour of the school, she told me it was the most beautiful school she had ever seen. Once we toured the research lab that Dad worked at in Mayo Clinic. She never knew there was such a science, with the goal of curing disease, using genetic tools. She said it would be a life dream to work in such a place.

She told us many stories throughout her exchange year, stories that all came together during a trip we took to New York City. It was the first time Jane and I had ever been there; we went with a dozen students, and a friend of ours from Minneapolis. The trip included many classic tourist stops, Museum of Natural History, Times Square, and a trip to the Statue of Liberty. I was about to learn how special this part of the trip would be.

The statue is known the world over as a symbol of liberty, democracy and freedom. If there is one symbol of America, this might be it. A gift from France, in one hand, she holds a tablet that says July 4, 1776, and the other is holding the torch lighting the way to freedom, showing us the path to liberty. At her feet is a broken chain, indicating she was once a slave, but now is free. At 300 feet tall, when she was first opened in the 1880s, it was the tallest statue in the world, and it’s still the tallest statue in the United States. If you have ever been lucky enough to see her, you will never forget all she represents to the huddled masses that have seen her before you. Pixie Nielson's dad's return from World War II, said the sight of her welcoming him home was the most beautiful thing he ever saw.

Armenian friend Adelaidala Baghdasaryan exclaimed when she saw her, "America!!! Your rule of law is the secret of your success!" Exchange students are often surprised by how many rules we follow, here in the U.S. After all, we are known as the land of the free. But they are taught that we have rules about everything, and people respect that, knowing that is the key to freedom for everyone. No one is above following the rules, the laws. When the police pull us over for a traffic stop, we do not automatically bribe them. And when there is bribery, or a celebrity tries to get an advantage, it’s huge news, its not looked at as business as usual.

Isidora told me the story of when she was little, the war was just over, she and her father went into a shop. They were soon being shouted at, "Get out of my shop? Your kind is not welcome here, or anywhere! Get out!"

They were soon in the street, and Isidora's dad knelt down, and wiped the tears from her eyes, and he said, “I’m sorry that you had to see that!"

They sat on the edge of the street and he got a far away look in his eyes. He told her, "This is not the way it’s supposed to be. There is a place where laws are made to protect everyone equally. And people respect the laws. There is a place where no one is born the wrong religion, because everyone is free to worship God the way they choose. No one is born the wrong race, because all races are welcomed there. We would be welcomed in every store there, do you understand?

“In fact, there is a place where there is a statue in the harbor of their biggest city. A statue of a woman holding high a light, so that everyone in the darkness of the world can see, there is a place......."   and he was interrupted.

Neither Isidora nor her father had noticed the shopkeeper had followed them into the street. He struck her father, and snarled, through clenched teeth, "You lie to this girl, Bosniac. There is not such place, and there is no such statue in any harbor anywhere, because there is no place for your kind here, or anywhere on this earth!"

There was more shoving, and a quick departure, and more tears from Isidora. That was her childhood. That was her normal.

However, when we were on the boat in New York Harbor, Manhattan in the distance, Isidora had tears in her eyes again. She handed me her camera, and said, "Please make this picture, Mr. Phil. I want my father to see I found her. I found her and she is real just like he said.

“Please make my picture, so he can see his daughter, with the lady in the harbor, holding high her lamp of liberty, just like he said, shining bright for the rest of this world, showing the way of this amazing land, called, America."

I took her picture. I knew I was seeing something special, I was seeing my country, and your country, through the eyes of someone who lives on the outside.

We all get frustrated, disgusted, sick of some things happening on the news. It doesn't matter what side of any issue we are on, we all feel the frustrations. Discouragement  is one of the devil’s favorite tools, because it makes good people do nothing.

But we all win the lottery, every day.

Sometimes it takes a 16-year-old war refugee with loose shoes to remind us that God has blessed each one of us so much, and that God has blessed America.

We keep in touch with all our exchange students.

Isidora went on to complete a degree from a medical university in Moscow, and is currently a biomedical engineer, working in a master’s degree program looking for a genetic cure for leukemia, in Paris, France.

Phil Hebrink and his wife, Jane, from the Cherry Grove area are always looking for hosts for the next group of exchange students.