‘World In Between’ and ‘Bosnia List’ Author Kenan Trebinčević

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Kenan Trebinčević was a happy eleven-year-old boy who loved martial arts. Then, in 1992, his karate trainer threatened the boy and his family with an AK-47, shouting, “You have an hour to leave or get killed!” Their only crime? They were Muslims living in the former Yugoslavia. Trebinčević’s father and brother were sent to concentration camps. The boy’s favorite teacher, a Christian Serb, pointed a gun to his head. People they knew and loved were killed during the genocide.

Trebinčević’s family managed to escape, eventually settling as refugees in the United States. He shares the harrowing story of surviving the ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims during the Balkan War in a powerful memoir The Bosnia List (Penguin 2014). His fascinating and poignant latest book, world in between (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021), recounts the family’s exile to the United States at the age of 12. The Bosnia List audio book officially released on May 17.

In this interview, Trebinčević talks about his journey to becoming a writer, shares his advice for today’s refugee children and explains how, by confronting his past, he discovered his future.

What is your reaction to the war in Ukraine, which the UN calls the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II?

I feel so angry, especially since the Serbs who committed the genocide against us are on the side of the Russians. It brings back horrible memories of my trip. I am relieved that so many nations are against the Russian invasion of a sovereign country. But I would have liked to be allowed to defend ourselves and even to have one percent of the aid that the Ukrainians received. I fear that the world protects Christians more than Muslims.

between liberation The Bosnia List and world in between, you married a Bosnian woman. How did you meet?

After the bosnia List was published, Mirela read the book in Sarajevo, where she is from, and messaged me on Facebook thanking me for telling the story of our people. From her profile I saw she was gorgeous, of my age and religion and luckily no mention of a husband. Having a long distance relationship 4,400 miles away seemed too expensive, complicated and insane, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. After staying in touch, we finally decided to meet in Munich. Two months later, in 2017, I bought a ring and flew to the capital of my former country to propose. We got married in 2019 in New York, where we now live and just had a baby boy. By facing my past, I found my future.

During the Balkan wars, your teacher pointed a gun at your head. Your childhood best buddies rejected you. Your father and your brother were interned in concentration camps because your family was Muslim. How have these memories affected you?

Yes. Although my parents survived, the trauma definitely shortened their lives. They both died of illnesses which I believe were triggered by the war. It always affects my view of the world. Even at 40, I feel like I’m searching for my lost home, justice, and a different ending. I have no nightmares and am fully functional. Yet hearing about an ounce of injustice can make my blood boil in a millisecond. It’s the resurfacing of PTSD.

You are a full-time physiotherapist whose work has been published by The New York Times and the wall street journal and two major publishing houses, winning awards and star-studded reviews. How did you become a writer?

In September 2011, after my first trip back to Bosnia, I met my co-author, Susan Shapiro, a journalist and writing teacher who was my physiotherapy patient in Greenwich Village. Annoyed by the exercises I gave her to repair two torn ligaments in her lower spine, she kept proofreading. I asked if the theme was ‘What did I do on my summer vacation?’ She said the first task she gave her students was to write three pages about their most humiliating secret. I laughed and said, ‘You Americans. Why the hell would anyone do that? She said, ‘That’s healing.’

I said, ‘Nobody would care about my story.’ She said her editors actually like to hear marginalized voices. In her next session, I showed her pages about how, on my trip to Bosnia, I had met the old neighbor who had stolen my mother’s belongings and told her: “No one has forgotten . the Account was published in the New york Time Magazine. At his next book seminars, I met an agent who ended up selling the book to a brilliant Penguin publisher. But since I was working full time and English wasn’t my first language, I told Susan that I couldn’t do the book without her. She said, “Okay, you fix my back, I’ll fix your pages” and we shook ourselves on it.

Why did you decide to write your second book as an autobiographical novel aimed at the middle market of 8-12 year olds?

In 2016, during Trump’s ban on Muslim refugees, I wrote moving articles to press day and Squire about my own American experience, where the Westport Council of Churches and Synagogues banded together to save my family. The underlying theme was how to deal with all refugees. Susan posted it on social media where a former student of hers – who was now a children’s book publisher – thought it would make a great enlightened story for children. But our editor Penguin didn’t want it to interfere with the reading public. List Bosnia in high school and college programs. Since I was 12 when I arrived here, we decided to make it a mid-level fiction for a younger generation. Fortunately, the novel sparked more interest in List Bosnia which Blackstone Publishing releases as an audiobook in May.

What advice would you give to refugee children your age when your family escaped war?

I would say it is possible to learn a new language and make new friends while maintaining your own heritage and original language. I am lucky to be bilingual with two countries now. In many cases, parents leave their homeland to give their children a better future. So doing well in school is the best gift you can give your family. I dedicated bosnia List to my mother Adisa and World In Between to my father Keka. Commemorating our history was a way to keep my parents alive. They used to say to me, ‘We won’t be anything in our new country, so you and your brother can be someone one day.’

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