Aleks Babic, adjunct instructor in public health studies and human service studies, said some of their happiest childhood memories were when an underground bomb shelter served as their family’s home. When the bombing was too heavy, their neighbors would come to the shelter.
Beds filled with friends, jokes filled the room with chatter as evenings took place under candlelit card games while the outside world physically blew up around them.
“Those where the happiest times for me, especially when my family was all there and accounted for,” said Babic, who prefers the pronoun they.
Babic was born and raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which, at the time, was a republic in Yugoslavia. The first 11 years of Babic’s life were split between being a kid, being a survivor of war and escaping their home in search of asylum.
Living in wartime
Before the war, the family spent their days playing tennis and taking afternoon walks. Before the war, they spent months going to the beach and away-camps. Before the war, they had a childhood free from gunshots, death and displacement.
The war began part-way through Babic’s first-grade school year and havoc ensued soon after.
“I was shot soon after the war started,” Babic said.
After Babic was shot, their mother rarely allowed the children to go outside, confining them to life in a bomb shelter.
At age 9, already a gunshot survivor, Babic received more devastating news — they had lost their best friend.
“For me, that reality was so present because I was shot at the beginning of the war and I remember not understanding why I had survived and my best friend had not,” they said.
Babic said they still don’t understand, nor do they have any answers — answers to why, at age 9, they were processing death under the pretense that they could very well perish next, along with anyone and everyone else they knew.
“Being shot sounds terrible, and it is, but really the devastating part — assuming that you survive — is all of the toll that it takes on your family who has to care for you without resources and the fact that you’re not able to run or carry anything,” they said.
Resources were of paramount importance during war, Babic said, given frequent bombings and house raids.
“There is never a moment of certainty that nothing terrible will happen,” Babic said.
The road to freedom
Babic and their family used to go on vacation in Croatia, but during the war they found temporary safety in their seaside escape.
“We did not have documented status so we were essentially ‘tourists,’” Babic said.
If they did not find asylum somewhere within a fairly short period of time, Babic said they would’ve been forced to go back to Bosnia.
They didn’t go back.
Instead, Babic and the rest of their young, able-bodied family were selected to go through application for asylum in the United States.
But the hard part was nowhere near over. There were several interviews located throughout Croatia.
“We were lucky enough to have an extended family member who was able to help us get there each time, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a chance of being interviewed,” they said.
After getting cleared, Babic and their family flew to the United States with nearly nothing. No furniture, no household items. They did, though, have a three-year debt to pay.
When they flew, they didn’t pay for their tickets — the U.S. government did. They had three years to pay back that cost of the tickets.
So, immediately upon arriving as refugees, Babic’s parents had to get jobs in a country where they didn’t speak the language, build a new life and hope to make enough money to pay back the plane ticket.
Babic’s family was lucky enough to have a sponsoring agency that paid for their housing for three months and allowed Babic’s parents to go to Guilford Technical Community College to learn English.
“This was a relatively short time to adapt to living under entirely new circumstances after just having left a war,” they said. “I remember — and I’ve heard this story from so many others — ducking at the sound of backfiring cars or fireworks. It takes a long time for both the mind and the body to start believing that the new safety is real. At the same time, everything and everyone around is so new and unknown.”
Becoming a professor
After graduating from Guilford College, Babic became an instructor.
“I had wonderful professors as models for what it might mean to do fulfilling work,” they said.
Babic found gratification in teaching. They loved learning and collaborating with others in their undergraduate experience, which led them down the path to becoming a professor.
“I am certain that this kind of work will offer me lifelong learning opportunities,” Babic said.
But not everyone gets positive opportunities. Not every human fleeing war gets a safe and happy ending, as the media is showing with the present Syrian refugee crisis.
“One thing that is unique about the Syrian conflict is that the faces of the Syrian refugees have been at the forefront of media conversations,” Babic said.
Tens of thousands of refugees are arriving in Europe from war-stricken, death-ridden areas — desperate for safety.
In public health, Babic said they talk about preventing a problem before it begins so, while the United States and Europe can focus on providing aid and stability to those without, they can also continue to focus on how to prevent global conflict that results in refugees in the first place.
“It’s important to remember that no nation is simply all good or all bad,” Babic said, noting that during their time embalmed in war in Bosnia, Serbia was painted as savage for attempting to ethnically cleanse the nation of Bosnia.
Twenty years later, Serbia is now accepting refugees rather than being a catalyst in creating them.
Greensboro, too, is taking in refugees. It is a refugee resettlement site, which is currently serving a number of Syrian refugees. Babic said Elon should consider about how to help.
“How will Elon serve the local refugees?” they said. “How can current students contribute towards creating a space for refugees that have not even arrived? To feign concrete understanding can be an insult, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t try to understand history, and learn about and care for each other in a deep way.”
A few years after coming to the United States, Babic and their dad were in an elevator. Someone else came in, and started to chat about how terrible it was that they lost electricity the night before.
“Yes, it’s terrible — we didn’t have electricity for three years,” Babic’s father replied, demonstrating the impossibility of imagining what is outside the scope of how we understand and interact with the world outside our colonized land.