by Constance Kehoe –
Flying over the Alps for the fourth time in two weeks, heading home to Irvington from Geneva, the tune from “Both Sides Now” came into my head. Our former EF “daughter” Selma Memic whom my husband Kevin and I hosted in our home two years ago, had said goodbye to us the day before at the airport, after she had just hosted and guided us on an exhilarating journey through Switzerland, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia.
Nine students from EF (Education First, an international school of language and culture with a large campus in Tarrytown) have lived with us in our Irvington home over the past seven years. All have stayed in touch via Facebook with me; but Selma, in a role reversal, became our host.
As a host family, we delighted in introducing our EF girls to Halloween candy duty in October and family Thanksgivings in November. But Selma was, and remains, passionately interested in U.S. and international politics. In the summer of 2016 she asked for our help in getting involved with the Hillary Clinton campaign, and this we did gladly.
Over time, we learned how the Clinton family was entwined with Selma’s family roots in Bosnia. She once sat us down in our basement to watch a documentary about Richard Holbrooke, whom Bill Clinton named as America’s envoy during the 1992-95 War in the former Yugoslavia, and how he worked relentlessly to protect the vulnerable populations under threat of being slaughtered by the government of Slobodan Milosevic.
Months after Selma returned from New York to her home country of Switzerland, I received a soulful email from her. She had stayed up through the night of our November election and was devastated by the results. “How could this happen?” she wanted to know. It was then that we agreed to visit her some day and have since kept in close touch as she studied international relations at the University of Geneva.
Prior to our visit, I casually asked if she could look at my Ancestry.com research and see if we could visit some of the places my Swiss relatives once lived. This she did with the rigor of a senior thesis. My great grandfather, Samuel Messerli, emigrated from the German-speaking area of Switzerland. Selma located the church he attended, spoke with Brigitte, the church secretary, made a date for us to visit the church and arranged to have Christian Wengler, the current church president, act as our guide. On top of all that, she did all the driving, getting us to and from the idyllic Swiss village of Blumenstein. After cheese and coffee with the Wenglers, Selma and Kevin walked up toward the mountain waterfall above the church, and I wandered the graveyard.
All our gestures to assist her back in New York seemed to pale in comparison, but not to her. At her request we helped her polish her already excellent English language skills, padding her vocabulary with idioms like “white knuckle driving.” The simple human experience of engaging in face-to-face conversation was a gift we now know we provided.
Our journey with Selma included three days in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, followed by four days in neighboring Croatia. From the moment she grabbed the first taxi (speaking Bosnian, of course), we knew we were on a journey that would have been impossible without a personal guide. We traveled to the home her parents recently built on the outskirts of this city where we greeted family friends across the street. Selma was bubbling with enthusiasm as she introduced us to the country of her parents and grandparents, where she spent many summers during her childhood.
In attempting to recount the experiences of the individuals and families whom we met over these five days—men and women who experienced war, sieges and genocide just 20 years ago, I run the danger of trivializing them. However, it was our intention as well as Selma’s to help us and others better understand this tragic period. That included a heartbreaking trip with Selma and her neighbor, a survivor who lost his father, to the town of Srebrenica, the site of the worst war crime in Europe since WWII.
With a friend of Selma’s father’s cousin as our driver and commentator, we drove around the city of Sarajevo and started up into the hills surrounding the city where Milosevic’s army set up artillery to pick off the civilians who ventured out onto the streets. As he pointed out the buildings left half-burned and riddled with bullet holes, we could tell how personal and painful this was for him. Selma, translating quickly, always reported on the friendliness and generosity of the Bosnians she knew and loved.
Selma, we learned, was always interested in expanding her own knowledge of this painful war that her family had experienced. She was born after the war in Switzerland, the country to which her parents escaped and where they met. To this end, she organized a visit for all of us to the newly opened secret wartime tunnel in Sarajevo. This tunnel provided the only entry point for food and other supplies for four years into this city.
As the days in Bosnia went by, Selma’s interest in Richard Holbrooke and president Bill Clinton became clear to us. During the siege of this lovely city, several of Holbrooke’s colleagues were killed attempting to descend into the city via a treacherous mountain road Selma pointed out to us. Looking up at that road, where hidden mines were a constant threat to travelers during the war, we imagined that dangerous U.S. mission as we crouched down in the damp tunnel through which wounded civilians were carried on stretchers, and milk products were secreted in to feed infants.
I imagine Selma, with her passions and compassion, one day becoming a diplomat, working in the Holbrooke model—coupled with 21st century ingenuity. Selma speaks French, German, Italian, Bosnian/Croatian and English. Kevin and I take pride in the modest way we helped fine-tune her English skills and her knowledge of American culture by sharing our Irvington home and neighborhood with her. Now she is also studying Russian at Geneva University.
Both sides now? One small step for mankind? A new generation committed to world understanding? We have renewed hope. Thank you, Selma.
Constance (Connie) Kehoe and her husband Kevin Weber live in Irvington, where she serves as a Trustee and Deputy Mayor.