When word spread that the Boston Marathon bombers were Muslim brothers, Americans tried to understand why.
We still don’t have answers. But one man who is particularly perplexed also provides special insight.
Kenan Trebincevic’s life is similar in some ways to Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s. He and his brother were born 6 years apart. They’re “foreign-born-and-named, athletic, Islamic brothers from difficult backgrounds in Eastern Europe,” where they were persecuted before finding refuge in the United States.
Yet while the Tsarnaevs ended up in the Boston area — a true melting pot — Kenan’s family spent many years in Westport. Our town has very few Muslims — from any part of the world — but it offered a safe haven for the Trebincevics.
Kenan — now a physical therapist in Queens, and the co-author of a book, The Bosnia List, to be published next year — described his growing-up experiences here in a fascinating op-ed piece published in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal.
In “Two Muslim Brothers Who Took the Assimilation Path,” Kenan said his family — “caught in the bloody war between Bosnia and Serbia” — moved to Westport in 1993.
His father, Senahid, “slung poultry at a fast-food chicken place and took other low-paying jobs.” His mother, Adisa, babysat and did data processing. There was little money, “and it was hard to get jobs without connections or language skills.”
Yet unlike the Tsarnaev boys, Kenan said “my brother and I made many friends in the U.S. and wound up on the more successful side of the American dream.” Although he felt “lost, estranged and resentful” as a 13-year-old newcomer to America, his life took a different path.
One reason was that — while he and his family remained proud of their heritage — they had an anchor here. They were sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, which he called “a group of liberal churches and synagogues.”
When we arrived in 1993 at JFK airport, we were met by the Rev. Don Hodges, a Methodist minister. He drove us to his Westport home, where we stayed for 4 months. It’s not surprising or wrong for immigrants to deepen their focus on religion in a strange land. But I would speculate that in our case we felt such gratitude to the people of differing faiths who helped us that our chances of assimilating, and succeeding, in America were enhanced.
Westport taught an important lesson in multi-cultural living.
When my mother found a lump in her breast, the late surgeon Dr. Malcolm Beinfeld at Norwalk Hospital operated on her. Dr. Beinfeld, who was Jewish, told us that the Bosnian genocide against Muslims reminded him of the Holocaust. We never received a bill for the surgery or for my mother’s subsequent radiation and chemotherapy.
A Protestant [sic — he was Jewish] dentist, Richard Sands, asked my mother: “What does your son need?” At 13, I was taken to an orthodontist who gave me braces and took care of me for two years. I was embarrassed but deeply grateful that he never asked for a dime.
On my first day of school in Westport, Dr. Glenn Hightower, the principal, and a member of Mr. Hodges’s church, introduced me to the 7th-grade English class with his arm draped around my shoulders. He explained that my family had been exiled in the Bosnian war, and he asked the other students to help me out.
I had a foreign name, strange accent and could barely speak the language. I felt scared and pathetic, like a mutt waiting to be adopted. I was immediately befriended by Miguel Peman, a Catholic Spanish-American student, who offered me a seat.
When the school-bus driver who drove me home noticed that I had a long walk to Mr. Hodges’s house, he introduced himself as Offir, from Israel, and dropped me off right at the driveway, making me promise not to tell anyone. Later, my Greek Orthodox soccer coach, Ted Popadoupolis, gave me rides to practices and games when my parents couldn’t.
Kenan and his brother did not try to become Olympic stars, like Tamerlan wanted. But, Kenan said, “a series of teachers and mentors helped us formulate a realistic career plan. They geared us toward a more feasible field than sports stardom: physical therapy.”
Kenan’s piece in the Wall Street Journal concluded:
It is impossible to know what went on in someone else’s childhood or what is happening in another’s mind or heart. The Tsarnaevs took one path. My brother and I, despite our family’s war displacement, persecution and years of poverty, thrived — but only with stable parents by our side, good jobs and help from many and diverse guardian angels. During a dark week, it was easy to forget that countless immigrants to America have similar stories to tell.
And it’s easy, too, to forget — if we ever knew — that some of those stories take root right here in Westport. We’re thousands of miles from places like Serbia, but to boys like Kenan Trebincevic, we can become home.