How to be a Good Loser: A Guide to being a Refugee


I recognized Basel immediately when the shot cut to a group of refugees standing in the rain, and he turned to look briefly at the camera. I was at home a couple of months back watching a Sky News report showing Syrian refugees wading through muddy water and being pushed by Croatian border police, an embarrassing image of Europe’s refugee policy.

Basel had owned a bakery in the heart of Old Damascus, and he rarely charged me for my morning maamouls when I was an Arabic student in Syria. We’d chat through my very limited vocabulary while I waited for orange juice from the next stall. Now here he was on Sky News, standing in mud in what was once my country.

In Bosnia, we’ve been reliving our nightmare watching the Syrian war unfold. There are many similarities to note: mass displacement and loss, U.N. shortcomings, a reluctance to take in refugees, a Russia-backed tyrant, and a quiet international community.

We recently observed the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords. The agreement may have ended the Bosnian War, but it left us in political limbo. Bosnia inherited a messy power-sharing agreement that institutionalized ethnic divisions and a countryside sown with mine warnings. It is all a relentless reminder of our past, and a foreshadowing of Syria’s future.

In the early spring of 1992, war crept quickly into our ordinary lives in Sarajevo. Fewer and fewer of my classmates were coming to school, until one day our teacher separated the few of us left by ethnicity: Bosniak and Croat kids were shoved to the back, and Serbs were to sit up front. Many of us didn’t know where to sit. That was the last day I went to school. The shootings and mortar shellings came closer to us every night in our neighborhood, and we started sleeping in the bathroom, away from the windows. I remember one standoff happening in our apartment building, and that it took days to wash all the blood off the walls and stairwell.

I remember some months into the violence when a parade of pristine white vehicles with their blue-helmeted passengers drove into Sarajevo. They honked, and we cheered in relief. “Look, Dragana,” my father knelt down next to me and said, “That’s the United Nations. They’re here to stop the shootings. We’ll be safe now.”

On one particularly warm spring day, soon after the U.N. convoy arrived, I snuck out onto our balcony to play with my neighbor Zinka as we often did in the evenings. We were used to the sound of gunfire, so when we heard the light popping sounds we ignored them kept playing. At once Zinka got up and ran inside, and I didn’t realize what was happening until the window behind the balcony shattered. To this day I can’t imagine how much hate someone would have to have to shoot at a 6-year-old girl. I froze.

I remember so clearly trying to move, even as everyone inside shouted at me to get up and run into the house, I was petrified. My father finally ran out and grabbed me.

Not long after the balcony shooting, my mother, brother, and I escaped the siege. My parents put together cash for the three of us to be smuggled out of Sarajevo on a cargo plane. My father stayed behind. I clung to him tightly at the airport and we both sobbed. “Just for a few weeks”, they lied to me, and to each other, “just until the U.N. stopped the fighting.”

We hung tightly onto each other as the cargo plane took off. We slid and screamed, and there was a loud explosion behind us once we were in the air. It was my first time on a plane. I cried the whole time; everyone cried. Once we landed, we saw that the plane had been hit in the tail section during takeoff, and realized how close we had come to dying.

Our cargo plane crash-landed at the nearest airport, at a military base outside of Belgrade, much to everyone’s surprise and horror. Everyone fled and we walked to a nearby park to sit down in the shade. A uniformed officer came out and walked sharply towards us carrying something in his hand, and a gun was visible in his holster. My mother held her breath and squeezed my hand tightly. My family is of mixed ethnicity— my father Bosnian Serb and my mother Bosnian Muslim. My name is a common name in Serbia, but my brother’s isn’t. We were too young to understand the significance of any of this.

“You just flew in from Sarajevo, didn’t you? A cargo plane was rerouted here,” he said in a way that made it sound like we were on holiday and left out the part where his army nearly shot us down from the sky.

There is simply no way of lying when one is carrying two small children in pajamas, and a bag full of cash, documents, passports, diapers, and underwear. Life, after all, was still somewhat normal until that afternoon, when we became refugees.

The Serbian officer knelt down next to my brother and studied us. Which child would he talk to, and ask for our name? If we said too much, even if my brother just said his name or my mom’s name, we could be detained or attacked on the spot.

“I’m Dragana,” I volunteered before he even asked. My mother audibly sighed and squeezed my hand tightly. The officer pinched my cheek and gave me the box of sweets he was carrying before walking away.

“The most important part of being a refugee is being a good loser; it’s the only way to survive this.”

Like Basel from Damascus, even after fleeing the terror of war, we still were not safe. I remember the danger we faced as I see scenes of refugees like Basel desperately making their way across Europe. We had to deal with the legions of those eager to take advantage of our vulnerability — smugglers, criminals, traffickers, and the violent xenophobes. Countries like Hungary also closed their borders to us, as they are doing now to Syrians. Others humiliated us to deter more refugees from coming. One cousin fled to Denmark, where she was denied freedom of movement and kept in a detention center for more than a year, another two were held in long quarantine after they arrived in the Czech Republic. Even those who welcomed us did so only to a point. When the refugee population swelled, when we overstayed our welcome, we were blamed for everything from overcrowded schools to currency inflation.

At some point, refugees must make a definitive choice regarding their identity. Some adopt an Anglicized nickname, a new persona, a new history to adopt, a new flag to pledge allegiance to, a new city to love. Others, like myself, continued to identify as a Sarajevan and a refugee, clinging to memories. I had to remember where I sat in my classroom, the name of the boy I liked, the lady at the newspaper stand downstairs because if I forgot, that meant giving up hope that we would go back one day. I would have given anything on this earth to wake up at home in Sarajevo on a dull day, watch my parents rush around getting ready for work, and run downstairs to get the paper and a pack of Walter Wolf cigarettes for my mother. Just one more time.

The most important part of being a refugee is being a good loser; it’s the only way to survive this. You learn to lose your nationality, your home to strangers with bigger guns, your father to mental illness, one aunt to genocide, and another to nationalism and ignorance. You learn to lose your kids, friends, dreams, neighbors, loves, diplomas, careers, photo albums, home movies, schools, museums, histories, landmarks, limbs, teeth, eyesight, sense of safety, sanity, and your sense of belonging in the world.

Basel will have to learn to live with whatever is left of a person after everything is stripped away. Once he arrives where he’s going and sets his bags down, that’s when he’ll have to process everything, when he will count everything he’s had to leave behind. He will reflect on the past four years and wonder how the world watched and did nothing.

In 2014, I went back to Damascus as part of a UNICEF mission. Crossing the Lebanese border into Syria, in a sea of women carrying children and bags of clothes, I saw my mother everywhere.

One morning in April 2014, I put on that blue helmet to tour the schools with a colleague in Damascus, and as we were about 30 meters from a school entrance a mortar hit in front of us, and we both fell to the ground. A guard shouted at me to get up and run inside before the inevitable “double-tap”, but I couldn’t move my body, I thought for a moment maybe I was injured and that’s why I couldn’t move. That’s when I remembered Zinka and the balcony shooting for the first time in years. There is a low, soft whistle that is heard before a mortar hits very close. It happens just a fraction of a second before it hits, and somewhere deep inside, I had buried that sound and that memory.

One thing I often found myself telling displaced children I worked with was that “schools and houses can be rebuilt when the war is over.” Perhaps I should have said something more honest in retrospect, that there is no going back home again–because home is both a place and a time. It is made of the people who make it a home, the smells from the kitchen, the chitchat from the living room. There is no place where one can feel safe again. There is no place you will belong to again, no place that will feel yours, including your own country if you ever go back.

It’s generally not war refugees I’ve worked with choose to remember, but the people who help. My mother’s colleague who snuck us out of Serbia that day, the French volunteers who took refugee kids camping, and those who came to welcome us at the airport when we were resettled in Ohio; those are the people I think of daily. I hope Basel finds such kind people on his path too.

Dragana Kaurin is a human rights researcher and ethnographer. She writes about historical memory, forced displacement, and refugee rights. A graduate of Columbia University, she now lives in New York.


Human rights researcher and ethnographer. Writes about techy stuff, humanitarian innovation, forced displacement, and refugee rights. Nutella expert.

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