In 1992, Amra was a teenager in Bihac, Bosnia, just before the start of the Serbian military invasion of Bosnia. She didn’t know what was going to happen when her Serbian best friend told her at school that they couldn’t speak to each other anymore because the friend’s parents forbade this as Amra was a Muslim.
Afterwards, waves of Muslim Bosnian refugees started arriving at Bihac, and teenaged Amra still didn’t know the details of what was happening.
Then Serbian tanks arrived at Bihac and started shelling homes from a high point, including Amra’s house. That was when she realized that a war was going on. However, she still could not understand the extent and the implications of the war, or that it would continue for many years, resulting in the killing of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs.
Almost 30 years later, Amra, now an associate professor at the Teachers College in Columbia University, New York, has realized the whole picture and published an emotional and heart-breaking book about what she didn’t know when she was a teenager, and what she knows now: “The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War and Survival.”
Amra’s realizations and analysis were twofold: personal and academic. After moving to the US during the war in Bosnia, while at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, she studied, researched and wrote about the war. Later, at Columbia University, she obtained two masters degrees, in international affairs and international education, and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in international education.
These degrees seem fitting with her life experience and need to understand how and why countries and societies fall apart, and what role education can help in rebuilding them.
Her book’s personal experiences added to that, particularly how she survived ethnic cleansing as well for more than a thousand days under the Serb military siege. She also describes that when she came to America in 1996, she added to her ambitions and dreams and after only three years, in 1999, she obtained a B.A. from Brown University.
Writing in “The Huffington Post,” she acknowledged that “American values seem universal and unimpeachable: democracy, fair play, and hard work. We wonder how anyone cannot hungrily embrace such obvious virtues.”
But, not forgetting where she came from, she added “to a poor, forgotten person in a ravaged country, the simple helping hand and moral guidance of a caring mentor can prove far more persuasive.”
Amra’s story was not only about the Bosnian death and the American dream. Her moral compass led her to question the morality of the American dream itself, particularly the morality of the US foreign policy, and particularly towards the Muslims.
She wrote – “Rather than wage a hearts and minds battle with bombs and bombast from on high, America must engage with moderate Islamic communities” and “as a Bosnian genocide survivor – I do not want to just warn Americans but I want to scream from the rooftops that if we continue to dehumanize each other and opt for hate over social cohesion, we will soon find ourselves headed to an abyss on a suicidal train with no return ticket.”
In 2020, as former president Donald Trump was flaming hate and divisiveness, she wrote, commenting on the increasing rightist militia activities: “The other day a shocking photo came across my Twitter feed. It showed a masked young man proudly holding his AK-47 while wearing a “chetnik” – Serb nationalist – insignia. Serb forces wore the same insignia while eradicating Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) during the genocide in the 1990s.”
She added: “I cringed not only because I was one of those Bosnian Muslims, but because this time, the young man was not from my past but from the present. He was not a bearded Serb soldier in 1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina, but an American man standing in front of a manicured lawn on a United States street in 2020.”
Actually, she said she decided to write this book after her youngest daughter became concerned that Muslims in America might be rounded up and taken away.
“That was for me the critical moment that jolted me, made me realize that in some ways, I was abdicating my responsibility as a genocide survivor to share my story with the world,” she wrote.
In the book, she wrote: “I spent 1,150 days living under the Serb military siege, cut off from the rest of the world, starving, losing many dear friends and family members that I had loved, simply because we were Muslim.”
Why the title of the book, “The Cat I Never Named”?
On a day when the Serbs were bombarding Bihac, a nameless refugee cat followed her home and she helped save her life. So the cat became the focus of her book about living through the war. She wrote that the cat “picked us as her family, adopted herself and became a really critical source of hope and love during the war when humans hated us,” she explained.
“Whenever I got depressed or really sad about what my life at that time looked like, (the cat) was there.”
As shown from the title of the book, Amra intended to address the world through young adults, and the book became appealing to both young and old adults.
She had in her mind the future of her new country and the book “allowed me to really open a window for young people in America to this idea that hatred has consequences, hatred has a final destination, and that final destination is inevitably always violence.”
Last year, she and her husband, Tamer El-Rayess, an Arab immigrant and a prominent New York financier, established a scholarship for students “who have sought refuge from their homelands …”
Book: “The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War and Survival”
Author: Amra Sabic-Al-Rayess
Publisher: Bloomsbury, New York
Print Pages: 366
Price: Hardcover: $18.39; Kindle: $8.53