Two refugees, seperated by generations and cultures, we sat facing each other inside a restaurant named for Abraham Lincoln and situated on Vermont Avenue. Copper pennies lined the floor, and the likeness of the 16th United States President stared keenly at me from the wall. Lilya was born in Estonia during Soviet occupation, and her family had fled when she was just a young girl, first to South America, then to Washington D.C.
She sat leaning forward over the table, scrolling through photos of her recent trip to the Balkans on her smart phone. The sights before me were instantly recognizable: The smooth stone streets of Baščaršija in Sarajevo’s Stari Grad (Old City), the stunning aquamarine waters of what was likely the Neretva river, and the crisp, green peaks of the Balkan mountain range. As a fundraising professional, she had trained young Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian do-gooders after the Yugoslav War in the art of philanthropy, so they could raise money for relief efforts in a country that no longer was. Returning about a decade later to reconnect with her former students, she had found the remnants of the war still so visible; grenade impressions on buildings echoed constantly the past turmoil.
Since emigrating from Bosnia as a five-year-old, I’ve spent the better part of my life correcting Americans on how to pronounce my name. And yet, I’ve felt as though I’ve never known my name. I wish I could remember that initial moment, likely on my first day of kindergarten, that an American renamed me, flattening the softness of my vowels and unrolling the “r.” My last name suffered, too, from a lack of accents in the English alphabet. I became an Oh-maz-ick, instead of an Oh-mah-zich. For all the inital certainty there was in the need to assimilate my identity, I still find Americans troubled by what to me is a simple, balanced even, arrangement of six letters.
“Is it Tam-rah or Tam-ah-rah?” they ask.
To this, my brows furrow in confusion. “Neither,” I’d like to say, knowing full well that’s not an acceptable answer.
A pair of deviled eggs was placed on the table between us, displayed ornately on an upright wooden cutout of a rooster. Lincoln’s menu, appropriately enough, is loaded with Southern favorites, from a pimento cheese and fried green tomato apperizer to a shrimp and grits entrée. As she cut into an egg with her fork, Lilya shared the story of her name.
“You know my name wasn’t always spelled like this,” she said, gesturing to the nametag provided by the workshop she was leading and I was attending. “It used to be spelled with a J. When I came here, they made me change it to L-I-L-Y-A. I suppose it was easier for them to understand it.”
I didn’t have to ask who “they” and “them” were.
She had spent the morning speaking to our workshop group about the importance of accurate record keeping in philanthropy, particularly in terms of people’s names—people’s identities. And it was in the company of each other that this importance needed no comment.
“These are very good,” she said, polishing off the first of the deviled egg duo.
My first community in the U.S., in the Brookland neighborhood of D.C., was one of Yugoslavian refugees, all of us resettled because of some danger we faced in our home country, some vulnerability rooted in our ethnic and geographic identity. It was in this context I, unkowingly, remained torn between two selves. My week days were punctuated by ESOL classes; games of Duck, Duck, Goose at recess; and the perpetual risk of cooties. In the evenings, I resented my mother’s traditional Bosnian cooking, and drowned out my parents’ conversations over coffee and cigarettes with TV I was probably too young to watch.
I’ve never quite identified with the label, “refugee,” perhaps again because I was too young to understand when I became one. Depending on how much patience I have for conversation, I will label myself an “immigrant” when asked where I’m from. These days, when I watch and read the news, I see how much the nomenclature has changed. Some change, I think, is vital to the respect immigrants of all circumstances deserve—”alien” and “illegal” have always been offensive and, in many ways, inaccurate. Yet I also question the criticism the label “refugee” has drawn in the media. I think of the thousands of Syrians flooding EU member countries, and of the debate over those refugees fleeing from a war that threatens their lives and those “economic migrants” fleeing for better circumstances. I think there is, perhaps, a young girl among those thousands, and maybe her family will make it to Germany or Switzerland, and she may experience her life as a migrant, a refugee, an immigrant, on this tightrope of feeling always both alienated and connected.
Having worked her way through most of an heirloom tomato grilled cheese, Lilya pushed her plate forward. She shifted in her seat as she prepared to answer my question about returning to Estonia.
“It took me about a year to go back after the fall of communism,” she started. “I had been a little afraid. But I was also really glad I went back.”
Lilya spoke with a quiet but formidable confidence and self-assuredness, I noted. It was a quality fitting of her tall stature and almost regal features. I had the sharp awareness of my youth in her presence.
“While I was there, I was able to find some records that indicated that my family had been right to leave,” she continued. “You know, there were these sorts of lists kept by the KGB of who they targeted, and there were religious leaders, like my father, listed. I was able to tell him this before he passed.”
The weight of this knowledge she carried capably, and so the table was cleared by our waitress and the check requested.
As we gathered our things to return to the workshop classroom, I thanked her for her company and for a lunch thouroghly enjoyed.
“It was my pleasure. It’s always nice to meet and share with other refugees,” my new friend said.