The Shoes of Hope
If you have to leave your home at a moment’s notice, what would you take? This story shows why Dusanka Reljic, a Serbian teacher escaping Croatia in 1995, took her Wallabees that were a gift from a Jordanian peacekeeper.
I was born and raised in the former Yugoslavia. My husband and I worked as teachers in the town of Kistanje. We loved our jobs and lived in a beautiful home. My flower garden out front was a colourful mix of marigolds, irises, roses and zinnias. In the backyard vegetable garden, we grew about twenty different vegetables, including tomatoes, carrots and peppers. Back then we had lots of good friends, too, including our colleagues and neighbours.
In the summer of 1990, things started to change. Croatia wanted to separate from Yugoslavia, but Serbs in Croatia did not want to separate because of bad experiences under the Croatian government in World War II. Soon Serbs and Croatians were in a bloody civil war. Peace forces arrived in 1992. I hoped that the war would end soon, but the conflict not only continued but it also got worse. My husband and I continued working at the school, even though we were no longer paid.
I rented out a bedroom in our house to a peacekeeper so we could make some money for food. Hamad was from Jordan. He explained that he preferred certain foods. I cooked for him separately, avoiding pork and making rice and ensuring he was happy in our home. I made conversation with Hamad whenever he seemed stressed.
After two months, Hamad told us that he had received an order to serve in a different city. Before he left, he gave me a pair of soft Wallabee-style suede shoes as a token of appreciation for our hospitality. He said, “Mom, these shoes are for you.” This gift touched my heart. And when he called me “mom,” it also touched my heart. He was a stranger from a faraway country, a culture very different than mine, yet we lived peacefully under the same roof and had so much respect for each other. These shoes gave me hope. Maybe there would be a time again when people would embrace each other’s cultural and religious differences and not destroy each other because of them.
August 5th, 1995, was the day that changed my life forever. Early in the morning, Croatian radio announced that the Croatian army attacked the Serb-populated area of Krajina. Soon after that, we saw a convoy of Serbian people from nearby villages and cities fleeing northeast — away from Croatia and towards Bosnia where other Serbs lived. I was shocked. Panic spread fast. My husband went downtown for information, and when he returned, he said we must flee right away. So we did. I took some family pictures, a few blankets and a few clothes. Closing the door of our family home was hard. I became numb. My husband helped me to keep moving. We joined the 300,000 Serbs fleeing from Croatia that one day. Most of those who stayed died. Serbia accepted us as refugees. The shoes that Hamad gave me soothed my legs and my sadness. I had them on my feet during all of the 11 days it took us to drive and walk to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.
Today, 22 years later, I live in Canada with my husband, children and grandchildren. Our old friends are spread around the world. I am grateful to God we survived. I still remember the war, but I also remember the soft shoes Hamad gave me. I do not have these shoes anymore, but this is what they looked like. The hope they gave me still grows and fills up my heart. I believe that we humans all over the world can live in peace and harmony with each other as we do in Canada.
DUSANKA RELJIC is from Croatia. She taught grades 1 to 4 for 36 years before becoming a refugee in 1995 and immigrating to Canada in 2009.