Kenan Trebinčević was a happy eleven-year-old who loved martial arts. Then, in 1992, his karate coach threatened the boy and his family with an AK-47, screaming: “You have one hour to leave or be 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 rifle at 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 about surviving the ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims during the Balkan War in a powerful memoir The Bosnia List (Penguin 2014). His latest book, World In Between (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021), chronicles the family’s exile to the US when he was 12.
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’s your reaction to the Ukraine war, which the UN calls the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War Two?
I feel so much anger, especially since the Serbs who committed genocide against us are on the side of the Russians. It brings back horrible memories of my displacement. I’m relieved so many nations are against the Russian invasion of a sovereign country. But I wish we’d been allowed to defend ourselves and had even one percent of the help that Ukrainians have received. I fear the world protects Christians more than Muslims.
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In between releasing 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’s from—and sent me a message on Facebook thanking me for telling the story of our people. From her profile, I saw she was gorgeous, around my age and my 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 her 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 live now and just had a baby son. By facing down my past, I found my future.
During the Balkan War, your teacher held a gun to your head. Your best childhood pals rejected you. Your father and brother were interned in concentration camps because your family was Muslim. How did those memories affect you?
Yes. Though my parents survived, the trauma definitely shortened their life. They both passed away from diseases I believe were triggered by war. It still affects my view the world. Even at 40, I feel like I’m searching for my lost home, justice, and a different ending. I don’t have nightmares and I’m fully functional. Yet hearing of one ounce of injustice can boil my blood in a millisecond. That’s the PTSD resurfacing.
You’re a full-time physical therapist whose work has been published by The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and two top publishing houses, winning awards, and starred reviews. How did you become a writer?
In September of 2011 after my first trip back to Bosnia, I met my co-author, Susan Shapiro, a journalist and writing teacher who was my physical therapy patient in Greenwich Village. Bored with the exercises I gave her to fix two torn ligaments in her lower spine, she kept grading papers. I asked if the theme was ‘What I did on my summer vacation?’ She said the first assignment 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, ‘It’s healing.’
I said, ‘Nobody would care about my story.’ She said that her editors actually loved to hear from marginalized voices. At her next session, I showed her pages about how, on my trip to Bosnia, I’d run into the old neighbor who’d stolen my mother’s belongings and told her ‘Nobody has forgotten.’ The Reckoning was published in the New York Times Magazine. At her next book seminars, I met an agent who wound up selling the book to a brilliant editor at Penguin. But since I worked full time and English wasn’t my first language, I told Susan I couldn’t do the book without her. She said, ‘Okay, you fix my back, I’ll fix your pages’ and we shook on it.
Why did you decide to write your second book as an autobiographical novel aimed at the middle grade market of kids ages 8 to 12?
In 2016, during Trump’s Muslim refugee ban, I wrote emotional pieces for Newsday and Esquire about my own coming to American experience, where the Westport Council of Churches and Synagogues banded together to save my family. The underlying theme was this is how you should treat all refugees. Susan posted it on social media where a former student of hers—who was now a children’s book editor—thought it would make a great kid lit story. But our Penguin editor didn’t want it to interfere with the audience who was reading Bosnia List in high school and college curriculums. Since I was 12 when I came here, we decided to make it middle grade fiction for a younger generation. Luckily, the novel has created more interest in Bosnia List which Blackstone Publishing is bringing out as an audiobook in May.
What advice would you give refugee children the age you were when your family escaped the war?
I’d say it’s possible to learn a new language and make new friends while keeping up with your own heritage and original tongue. I’m 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. Memorializing our story was a way to keep my parents alive. They used to tell me, ‘We’ll be nobodies in our new country so you and your brother can be somebodies someday.’