Melina Delkic is a junior at Georgetown University.
I still vividly remember when we came to America. Seven of us piled into a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in San Jose — my parents, my aunt and uncle, two cousins and 4-year-old me. I remember my dad working a grueling construction job that ended up seriously injuring his back, and my Uncle Jasmin waking up at 3 a.m. to get to his job at the airport. We had a few hundred dollars saved collectively, and my parents used part of it to pull together some semblance of a Christmas. We didn’t previously celebrate Christmas, because it’s neither a Muslim nor a Bosnian holiday, but they wanted us to feel included. My present was a light pink, doll-size metal bunk bed with a ladder and floral sheets. I didn’t have any dolls for it, but I loved playing with it anyway.
Those days I dreamed mostly of living in a house with stairs, having a puppy and being an archaeologist princess. I used to look up at the crooked, creased posters of Aaron Carter and Britney Spears taped to my walls and wonder when we would all meet and become friends.
We are, in fact, Bosnian war refugees, but I don’t feel like one. My parents and I have a house now, in St. Louis, with hardwood floors and stairs and a little dog who’s getting chubby. We have family dinners in a real dining room with real furniture that we chose because we liked it, not because someone was giving it away. The walls are painted in colors rather than generic white, because we don’t have to rent our home anymore. We decorate for Christmas because we’re content with new traditions.
We don’t talk about how my mom hid on the back of a truck in a convoy to escape the war; we talk instead about my flight home from college and laugh about the annoying guy with a man-bun who pushed his seat back as far as it would go. We don’t talk about the shelves of books pillaged from my mother’s childhood home; we talk instead about the books I’m reading for my classes at Georgetown University and about how wild it is that they are sold online for less than a dollar. We don’t complain anymore about the complicated, ineffective bureaucracy that is the Bosnian government; we gush instead about my internship at the White House, in a government that actually functions. We don’t talk about the elite Yugoslav leaders who refused to listen to their people; we talk instead about how President Obama reads letters from little kids and refugees and farmers every day and even responds to them.
Bosnia is in our hearts, but it’s no longer our everything. We are American, and it’s not just because we’ve lived here longer than we’ve lived anywhere else. Nor is it because we are citizens who pay taxes here, go to school here and vote here.
We are American because we cheer for the Cardinals and make buffalo chicken dip on Super Bowl Sunday. We decorate our Christmas tree while playing Bruce Springsteen, and we put up too many flags on the Fourth of July, even though my mom finds that tacky. We are American because we smile at strangers in the grocery store and hold open doors for each other and believe in the good in people.
We are American because we know, every time that the economy dips or the real estate market crashes or a tragedy unfolds, that we will not just regain our strength but also emerge better than we’ve ever been. We insist on believing that we are special, even if the rest of the world rolls its eyes at us — until we prove them wrong. We root for the underdogs, and we elect presidents who come from nothing. Above all, we are American because we don’t need to receive any benefit in order to love and to help. We accept the tired, the poor and the persecuted out of the goodness of our hearts, and nothing more.
In my 20 years, I’ve put some of my dreams to rest, and rightfully so — that career as an archaeologist princess, for instance. But I will not stop believing in the kind of tolerance, warmth and love that brought my family to America. My America is one where people stop to help you when you drop your things, where people give up cushy salaries to make a difference in the world, where people treat war refugees with the love, support and compassion that human beings deserve. My America is one where we open our hearts wider than we ever thought possible, and we don’t ask why. It’s where we give the starry-eyed little refugee her education, her puppy and her stairs, too.
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