Let me ask you this, which situation is worse: being killed during war or surviving?
From an early age, I've contemplated this question a great deal and as I've gotten older I've grown convinced that survival is worse. Despite people facing heinous deaths, the people who are laid to rest at least have an end to the pain, while those who survive, do not.
My parents are survivors of the Bosnian war during the '90s. To have two parents come out of the war alive, I know, is beyond luck. It’s practically divine intervention. However, because of what they endured, their minds constantly transport them to horrific memories of when their country was overrun by genocide. They starved in concentration camps, witnessed loved ones bloodied on the streets, walked many miles in dark corn fields to hide from snipers, and even jumped out of three story houses to escape assault. Their neighbors were hunting them.
Many did not survive. Entire towns were decimated. Mothers who once had four sons now only had themselves and their sorrow. Houses that once had three generations living within their walls were now reduced to rubble. Sadly, this is a familiar story for far too many families.
Often, when war and genocide are discussed these losses can be photographed and quantified — commemorated once a year with prayers. What is hardly discussed is the quiet trauma that sets in once peace treaties have been signed and refugees have been transplanted.
Torn from everything they've ever known, refugees are thrust into new lives that they did not choose, while facing prejudice and a lack of understanding. It's like starting a race after someone has already crossed the finish line. Suddenly, things as simple as grocery shopping or asking where a restroom is become a new war on survival.
People like my parents were robbed of their 20s and 30s. Robbed of their educations. Robbed of their careers. Robbed of being able to raise their families out of love instead of survival. When you are separated from loved ones by thousands of miles, you begin to learn miserable new habits. It's things like expecting bad news whenever the phone rings. It’s knowing down to the penny how much money you need each month in order to feed your family of five on one paycheck. It's when you learn to ignore your depression because you don't have the time or strength to process what's happened to you. You learn loneliness. This is what you must learn to survive, once you've already survived death.
Neither historians nor psychologists can delve into the haunting trauma of survival. They can't quantify the fact that survivors learn to always be missing something. Back home you'll miss the big events: birthdays, weddings, funerals, but almost more painfully, you'll also miss the smaller moments. Those moments of rehashing your day around the dinner table, gossiping about neighborhood drama, or even just being able to hug your mom without having to save up thousands of dollars. It's those moments that many don't contemplate, but that constantly plague survivors. These are micro-traumas that haunt survivors to the end of their lives.
Of course, survivors learn to cope, but coping is simply a different form of grieving. You find yourself grieving the fact that your kids won't ever have the life you imagined for them, but trying your best despite this. Grieving is when you visit your family and wonder if it's the last time you'll see them. Grieving is the realization that while you were educated in your own country, it's worthless in the new life you must assimilate to.
It's everyday. It's wanting to help your kids without knowing how. Small things, like trying to help them with homework or worrying they are embarrassed of your accent all feed the feeling of being an outsider. These are the unseen wounds that come with surviving and follow you through your lifetime.
All of this runs through my mind. I look at my parents who have given me everything — things that they never even had — and how easy my life is in comparison. I don't see anger, but sadness, when winter months drag on and they miss their parents. I feel the disconnect when they call back home and they get no updates because life just moves too fast to be kept in the loop. I watch them as they struggle to relax. I sympathize with the guilt they feel in doing something for themselves instead of their families.
I remind myself that despite all of the loss, they are considered the lucky ones for surviving. My parents have been put through many forced restarts in their lives, but they have done so gracefully and while maintaining their kindness. They were survivors when they escaped death in Bosnia and they are survivors every day when they bravely face a life they were forced to accept. They have survived more than death.