87: The Price of Peace

87: The Price of Peace

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

The Price of Peace

Peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

He came to the United States, as refugees do, fleeing persecution and danger in his native country. Marko was born in Bosnia to Serbian Orthodox parents, although he practiced no religion. He had the equivalent of a master’s degree and enjoyed a high level, managerial job. In Serbia, he would have been easily accepted, but in Bosnia — where Serbs, Croatians and Muslims were all fighting each other — he was not accepted. He had the further complication of having married a Croatian woman.

He tried to keep a low profile, but eventually lost his good job. When he and his wife started receiving threats, they applied for refugee status so they could begin a new life without fear of religious persecution and violence.

They passed the lengthy scrutiny of the U.S. refugee-vetting process and were finally cleared to go to the United States. Our international refugee center in Ohio sponsored them and helped settle them in a modest apartment. Although they were both well educated in their native language — she was a lawyer — they attended my English as a Second Language classes at the center.

My classes functioned as a sort of mini-United Nations. In addition to the former Yugoslavian factions, we also had refugees from Burma, Iraq, Laos, Somalia, Sudan and other war-torn countries. All of the refugees had a story, and the stories were far beyond our normal American experience to understand — from having their houses burned down around them, to being used as human shields, to being left for dead in a pile of people of the “wrong” religion or politics who had just been shot.

In English class, it was easy to tell who had been enemies in their native countries. They sat on opposite sides of the classroom and avoided each other before and after class. Whatever their backgrounds, my most important rule was You May Not Bring Your Enmity into This Classroom. Everyone had to get along or at least tolerate one another while we were learning English. Part of our unspoken curriculum was also for these displaced and emotionally battered people to learn that the U.S. is a friendly, welcoming place for all, no matter your religion or ethnicity.

I got to know Marko better than some of my other students — partly because his English was better than most — but also because he had an insatiable desire to learn everything he could about his new country.

After class, he peppered me with questions about many aspects of American life. “What is a Whopper? Do I need to pay to go to the national park? How can I get a driver’s license? What does ‘No way, Jose’ mean?”

Some questions were easy; some were not — such as when he asked me why there were so many different churches and religions here and how people of different faiths could coexist peacefully. We talked about the concept of freedom of religion and the wisdom of our founding fathers in separating church and state, and the fact that every person is free to choose which church to attend — or none at all — as he or she pleases. It was hard for him to understand because it was so different in his country, where religious arguments had been going on for centuries, causing bloodshed and forcing many people, like him, to abandon their native land. How did Americans with such different backgrounds live together in peace?

Although Marko was not religious himself, his intellectual curiosity about it led him to ask if he could visit my church to see what an American house of worship was all about. So we took him to church with us one Sunday.

He took in everything in respectful silence. At one point in our Protestant service, the minister said, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” The congregation responded, “And also with you,” and then we turned to the people around us, smiled, shook hands, and wished them peace.

Marko shook the first offered hand in stunned silence. Then as he realized what people were saying, his eyes shone. Complete strangers were smiling at him, an outsider, a refugee, and wishing him peace! It was what he had been forced to leave his homeland to find, and find it he did.

~Becky S. Tompkins

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