"The word ‘refugee’ captures almost nothing of who Smajo is. It reduces people like him - and Sigmund Freud, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ and the 15,000 children who fled Britain during the Second World War - into one homogenous mass, stripping them and millions like them of the unique attributes that make every single human being valuable and irreplaceable."
Smajos Story: Introduction
This is me and my friend Smajo in his house in Newcastle last Saturday. #FunFact about me and Smajo: we both immigrated to the north east of England on the same day in July 1994, but in quite different circumstances.
I was about to turn 12, a nerdy little South African kid with a pudding bowl haircut and an embarrassing interest in Greek mythology. Smajo was a mischievous 9-year-old prankster (‘a little shit’, as he puts it) with a love for animals and a talent for drawing well beyond his years.
My family and I came to Durham with British passports and enormous help from aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins; Smajo and his family came to Newcastle as refugees from the war in Bosnia, entirely reliant on the goodwill of people they had never even met.
The word ‘refugee’ captures almost nothing of who Smajo is. It reduces people like him - and Sigmund Freud, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ and the 15,000 children who fled Britain during the Second World War - into one homogenous mass, stripping them and millions like them of the unique attributes that make every single human being valuable and irreplaceable.
At its worst, the word ‘refugee’ is used by amoral political opportunists to drum up division and hatred towards the most desperate people in our societies.
Over the next few months, Smajo and I are going to be challenging the limits of the word ‘refugee’ by telling the story of one refugee in as much detail as we can: Smajo’s story.
Through a patchwork of interviews, videos, photographs, drawings, discussions, letters, maps, articles, artefacts and speeches, we will be taking you on a journey that leads from the small town of Stolac in Bosnia in the early 1990s to the the leafy quadrangles of Newcastle University in the present day.
In August this year, Smajo and I will be travelling to Bosnia to see the country where Smajo’s story began - and ultimately, we hope that this will be the most comprehensive telling of a refugee’s story that has ever been achieved anywhere in the world.
Dear readers, Smajo and I are inviting each and every one of you to come with us as his story unfolds. Our aim is to help as many people as possible to understand the story of refugees not through news reports or placards, and certainly not through the poisonous bile of newspaper hacks who never got hugged as children, but through the most reliable source there is: the first hand account of a person who has lived through that experience.
We would like every single one of you to share Smajo’s words, and to ask your friends and family to share them too. We are asking those of you who are teachers to bring Smajo’s story into your classrooms, and those of you who are students to absorb it into your own stories and carry it with you for the rest of your lives.
We invite you to ask questions, write comments, send messages, come to our talks, and let us know whenever Smajo’s story reaches you, or makes you smile, or brings tears to your eyes, or makes you think a little differently about how human beings relate to each other.
We hope that in telling this story, we will draw attention to the largely forgotten war in Bosnia, where Europe’s most recent genocide was carried out against ordinary families like Smajo’s.
We hope that Smajo’s words will be a powerful rebuttal to the policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’, and that it will remind you of the most fundamental truth that exists about human beings: what makes us valuable is not the group that we belong to, but the fact that we are each an exceedingly brief and singular phenomenon, a one-off spark of glorious potential never to be repeated.
But we also hope that in Smajo’s story, each of you will find some familiar part of yourself. Because ultimately the story of refugees is the story of us all.
In every family tree there are people who lived through war or persecution, who were forced to flee to safety, and who became reliant on the kindness of strangers to survive. That is why every one of you reading these words has the instinct to move away from danger and towards safety, and the compulsion to protect your loved ones at all costs.
The genes of the refugee are your genes. And the dividing line between refugees and the rest of us is not religion, nationality, race or personality - it is pure chance.
A good story changes the lives of those who tell it, and it changes the lives of those who listen to the telling. I want to dedicate this page to telling Smajo’s story not only because I know that it is a good story, but because I believe that it has enormous power to change the world for the better.
This is the story of one family’s survival against terrible odds; a story of love, friendship, courage, optimism and the ability that individual people possess to transcend their pain, and then help others to do the same.
But for this story to properly take flight, Smajo and I need you to play as active a part as you can: because before it can change the world, even a story as important as Smajo’s must be properly heard.
Smajo is ready to tell his story. We hope that all of you are ready to listen.