On the morning of my father’s heart surgery, I felt the need to remind myself of my own history. I was sitting alone in the living room of our family home in St Albans. My mother was cleaning the house frantically while we waited for the 3 pm phone call that would tell us how the surgery had gone. I remembered the photo albums that were buried in the cabinet underneath the television. To pass the time (and to keep my mind off the seven per cent chance that the heart surgery wouldn’t be successful), I took out the albums and flipped through a life I hadn’t seen or thought about in years.
I went through the images one by one. Photos from our lives in Bosnia, where I spent only the first seven years of my life, before the war, but they didn’t satisfy my longing to revisit the past. Earlier that morning, as the anaesthetist arrived by my father’s bedside, I had seen my parents embrace tenderly – and with a strange, delicate fear that seemed familiar. So I kept looking.
It was when I found the album of photos from our time as refugees in Germany that something stirred. In a small album bursting with photos piled on top of each other, I found an image that I hadn’t seen in a long time: my mother, standing gawkily in red pants and a black blouse next to a life-sized poster of Jon Bon Jovi.
Standing in the bare room beside the smiling rock star, she looked awkward.
I found more photos in the small album of the poster hanging on the door of the bedroom I shared with my brother, Elvis, in that apartment. Of Jon Bon Jovi wearing a pair of blue jeans and a long, patterned shirt with open sleeves that hang over his hairy hands. He is posing sideways and smiling, his longish hair covering his eyes slightly. He was the first icon to grace our walls. The cool rock star my brother introduced me to with Keep the Faith; the record that produced ‘Bed of Roses’, ‘Keep the Faith’ and ‘In These Arms’ – songs we never tired of back then.
On the afternoon of my father’s operation, I remembered the bedroom vividly: the odd diamond-shaped space, with the mustard fold-out couch that my brother and I slept on. The way the room opened onto a large balcony that overlooked an empty rubble of land and the street we lived on, Sertoriusring.
Elvis collected the poster piece by piece over a number of issues from a German music magazine called Bravo. This process started the best period of our teenage lives.
Just as ‘Keep the Faith’ represented the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Bon Jovi, so did the poster mark a new chapter in ours. We’d been in Germany for just over a year, but already we were happily immersed in the zeitgeist of 90s culture: Bon Jovi, Nirvana, Tupac, Biggie, Puff Daddy, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. The Bundesliga and, of course, NBA Basketball.
We had arrived in Mainz (near Frankfurt) in September 1993. We were granted refugee asylum on the condition that we would return home to Bosnia following the end of the war. As great as asylum in Germany was, the future remained uncertain.
The Bosnian War started in 1992 and ended in December 1995. During that time, 350,000 other Bosnians received the same temporary refuge from Germany – the largest number of Bosnian refugees hosted by a single country. Recently I was reminded that this kindness wasn’t singular: Germany’s open-door efforts during the Syrian refugee crisis allowed a similar number of refugees into the country, giving war-torn families like mine some space to heal and attempt to lead, a normal life.
What I didn’t know at the time, but what my parents did (and were rightfully afraid of) is that we were temporary guests, not permanent residents.
My parents feared that we wouldn’t be able to remain in Western Europe when the war came to an end. After all, the town where we were from had been made part of Republika Srpska, the newly created ‘Bosnian Serb Republic’. This knowledge, coupled with the fear that another country wouldn’t accept us, was the strangely familiar sense I had when my parents embraced at the hospital. It was the same kind of fear – a worry that prayed for the better side of hope.
We spent our first nine months in Germany in a small hotel in a municipality called Budenheim. We had been lucky that most of our family was together – even my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins were there.
But in July 1994, each family was provided with a residence of their own. My family was given an apartment by the state in a small town called Finthen, just outside the city of Mainz, where we stayed happily until September 1997, when we migrated to Australia.
From the moment Jon Bon Jovi appeared in our room, our walls started to disappear under other posters and stickers. The pop culture of the 90s was more interesting to us us than the ravages of war in our homeland. We cared far more about learning who Tupac Shakur was dissing in ‘Hit em up’ than in trying to understand the difference between Bosnians and Serbs.
For Elvis and me, this room wasn’t merely a bedroom – it was the space that sheltered us from fully knowing what was happening back home. The worries of our mother and father did not faze us in there; Bosnia was far away. The shock we experienced following the events of our exile, when we were marched out of our village Suhaca with shelling, shooting and killing all around us, soon faded. The room that our parents had gifted us to decorate as we pleased gave us the opportunity to be normal kids, not refugees or ausländer (‘foreigner’), as some of the kids would often call us.
I think my parents knew that back then. They let us be kids to protect us from trauma. To let us live, and grow into children of the 90s, without pulling us into the uncertainty that we wouldn’t be in Germany forever.
In the rest of the apartment – the corridor, the bathrooms, the living room and the kitchen – our family carried on living as refugees. Lost in those photos, I remembered how often the corridor door that opened onto our living area would close when guests arrived. It meant adult conversations were happening and we weren’t to take part. But we didn’t really care. In our bedroom, we lived as teenagers did: retreating into our space to listen to cassettes and CDs, to the music that taught us English before we ever knew we’d need it in Australia.
At around 3 pm on the day of my father’s heart surgery, I started to put the photos back inside the photo albums, making sure each went where my father had originally placed them. The phone rang and I watched my mother reach for it quickly. I saw her smile and say ‘thank you’ repeatedly in her broken English and knew my father’s surgery had been a success. He was in intensive care and we could visit.
I placed the candid shots of our room with Jon Bon Jovi last. That tall figure that graced our door didn’t make us feel like refugees at all. He made us feel like kids.
Lead image: crop of cover of ‘Keep the Faith’