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Genocide survivor shares her story to help others be resilient against hate

Posted at 12:45 PM, Mar 31, 2021

"The Cat I Never Named" is a story about the Bosnian Genocide and it's getting a lot of attention for its parallels to current events.

“On a good day, a friend of a friend died. On a bad day, someone in my family died,” recalled Amra Sabic-El-Rayess.

To understand her story, you have to picture Amra Sabic-El-Rayess as a teenager, in Bosnia, in 1992.

Her childhood was unlike any other. In fact, she says, back then, she often wondered what other teens were experiencing rather than her reality.

“I lived for 1,150 days under Serb military siege with no food, no access to electricity or to the outside world. We were bombed daily,” she said.

Amra tells the story of a cat that befriended them.

“In one moment, we heard Matzi crying out she didn’t want to come out and join us we, so, my brother Dino and I step away for a second. At that moment, a bomb hits and blows up four of our friends.”

That cat would one day be a focal point and the title of her book.

Amra says education was her survival, her second chance at life. She made it to the United States, she says, a shell of a human. Broken, standing in front of an immigration officer with a few dollars in her pocket.

“After a long time of him looking through my documents and having a very serious face, he reached out with his hands, touched the fingerprints of my hand and said, 'ma'am, welcome to the United States of America. I am sorry for what happened to you, you’re safe now,'” she recalled.

That shell of a human would later get two master's degrees and a doctorate. She would become a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College and she would write a book about how she survived hate.

“Hatred is paralyzing, it is self-destructive. As much as it is destructive,” she said.

She said she was too exhausted from persecution to hate back.

“Hatred has one final destination, and it is always genocide and killing and violence. Hatred is a choice; none of us are immunized against hatred. Hatred is not exclusive to any one group of people,” she explained.

Her goal is for readers to experience her stories and make a memorable difference.

“What happened in Bosnia, genocide against Bosnian Muslims, was solely based on our identity and 'othering.' And I see the same narrative and the same movie playing over again in the United States of America, and that’s what compelled me to write the story,” she said.

She believes hate never has a happy ending.

She hopes the happy ending in America will be one of hope over hate, of love and triumph over fear and anger.

“We all have a place here, we’re all equally American and love this wonderful country, and we need to do more and stop the hatred that is on the rise."