I have often wondered whether the United States has an obligation to get involved in the internal conflicts of other countries. When does the power to intervene become an obligation to act? I gained some insight into this dilemma when a small part of the Bosnian war spilled into my home last year.
During the height of the Bosnian conflict, my family was informed that twenty Bosnian students were airlifted out of the mountains surrounding Sarajevo. A relief organization called “Bridge for Humanity” sought families in the United States that would take in these Muslim teenagers for the school year. The need was urgent because the U.S. government would not let them board planes until homes had been found.
My parents and I spent at least a week contemplating whether we should offer. At first I resisted, fearing the obligations that I would be forced to undertake. I knew it would be my job to help this visitor integrate with the students at our school and to look out for him in social situations. Eventually, my parents agreed, but they left the final decision to me. The deciding factor was my parents’ reminder of the six-million people who were killed in World War II. Many of these Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” had tried to flee Germany and Eastern Europe, but found no country that would accept them. Being Jewish, I found it easy to imagine how desperate I would have been in the same situation, needing someone to rescue me. The choice was made.
Emir arrived last October with one small bag. He told us that he had crawled out of Sarajevo through a narrow tunnel leading to the mountains beyond the city. He crawled for many hours in this hot confined space, terrified of being caught and shot by the Serbs. I doubt that Emir looked back during this journey. The building where he had once lived had been blown up months before. He survived in cellars, with little food, and electricity for only five hours each week. Behind Emir, the bombs fell on his city every day.
When Emir arrived at my house, for the first day he could not stop smiling. He appeared jovial and appreciative of the United States and of my family. Soon, however, it became clear that Emir had not escaped Bosnia completely. His inner rage began to emerge. His hatred of the Serbs permeated his thoughts and judgments. Eventually, he began to hate the United States too. To Emir, America’s failure to prevent Serbian atrocities made it evil. He found it reprehensible that some Americans opposed sending troops to defend the Bosnian minorities. He hated Americans that would not risk their lives to save his people.
The six months that Emir lived in my home are the most difficult that I can remember. Many nights I would stay up very late talking to him about his negative attitude toward the United States. As he attacked our society, I found myself becoming defensive, then angry. When my mother found butcher knives hidden in his drawers, anger turned to fear. I began to understand the depth of the trauma Emir had experienced in Bosnia, even as I pulled away from him. I discovered some limits to what I could give.
It is now six months later. I have learned that the casualties of war cannot be measured merely by life and death. Those who survive may live with pain, and those who try to help may feel its repercussions. This experience brought a new dimension to my life, as well as a new appreciation of my advantages in the United States. As we are a privileged nation, I feel we have an obligation to aid both oppressed and impoverished countries. There are risks, there are rewards, and there are degrees of failure. Sometimes those we help may hate us for being less than they imagined. But because we did not look away when we were needed and had something to give, we have lived up to our moral obligation.