Emory Report

 September 15, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 4

Hepburn spends summer helping refugees in war-torn Balkans

Walking through the bombed and battered streets of Sarajevo this past July, it was not literal, but symbolic, blood that brought home the real ravages of war and suffering for Amy Hepburn.

And she was no novice. Hepburn had spent the two previous months volunteering in a Muslim refugee camp on the Croatian island of Obonjan, tending to and commiserating with all forms of human anguish. But she was unaware the city of Sarajevo had decided to fill in its potholes of destruction and-to serve as an inescapable reminder of what had caused them-paint them bright red.

"All of a sudden you'll look down and have this nauseous response because you're walking over this blood-red part of the pavement," Hepburn said. She asked the couple she stayed with in Sarajevo why their government would want to torment themselves this way. "They said, 'We will never forget. We don't ever want to forget what happened, what they did to us.'"

Them. Us. The two words carried new meaning for Hepburn after her summer at the camp, living with the refugees as one of them, doing what she could from day to day but mostly just being there for them. In fact, helping others is something at which Hepburn is already a grizzled veteran.

Hepburn recently joined the University as assistant to the director of the Emory Women's Center and brought with her extensive experience in volunteerism. She was active in community service in high school in Ann Arbor, Mich., and as a student at Duke she co-founded Break for a Change, an organization that planned alternative spring breaks in which students could spend their vacations volunteering at such exotic locales as an AIDS clinic in Washington or a homeless shelter in Atlanta.

Just before her final semester last winter at Duke, she decided to get an international perspective on her ambitions so she applied to the university's Hart Leadership Program and was selected to spend the summer in the Balkans. After spending three hours a week in class that last semester to learn about Balkan culture and language and the history of the conflict, Hepburn and five other Duke students were there-the first Hart volunteers to be stationed within the recently "stabilized" Croatian borders.

The refugees at Obonjan lived in tiny rooms and were fed three meals a day of thick soup and dry, often stale, bread. Showers were allowed once, perhaps twice a week, and in between people poured buckets of fresh water-which had to be brought in from the mainland-over their heads to keep clean. They were not allowed to work, except for cigarettes, and their only connection to the rest of the world was a ferry that came twice a day.

Hepburn and her two companions lived just as the refugees did, trying their best to assimilate into their culture and win their confidence. The refugees never lost hope, Hepburn said, but the losses they had endured and the fact they were treated "like animals" tempered their spirits with bitterness and cynicism.

"It's tempting to glorify your work there," Hepburn said. "It's tempting to say that you came in and did all these great things. But the truth is, probably the best thing I did was just give them my time. I had all the time in the world. I would just sit down and have coffee with them, and they would want to tell me their story because that's sort of their own grieving process."

At times it was difficult. Tensions ran high between the Croatian guards and the Muslim refugees and also between the refugees themselves. Bosnia is a rigidly patriarchal society, and Hepburn said domestic abuse was common among the families living at Obonjan. Some women had been in Serbian rape camps, and all of them bore psychological scars. Sometimes they refused to attend Hepburn's English classes for fear of their husbands' disapproval.

"So maybe I would stop in for coffee while their husband was out for the day, and maybe I'd pull out my book and ask, 'Oh, have you learned this?'" Hepburn said. "The younger generation of women was a little more precocious, but maybe it's because they've been growing up in these refugee camps for the past five years. I don't know."

But for all the hardships, there were also moments of jubilation. About once a month a refugee would be placed in another country. He or she would pack the alloted one suitcase and, along with perhaps a sibling or parent or child, go down to the island's single port to await the ferry. The whole island would wave their goodbyes. Hepburn received a call recently from one such former refugee, who was relocated to St. Louis just after she left.

"And as I'm listening to him on the phone, I'm thinking, 'Gosh, two months ago he didn't know any English,'" she said. "And I was so proud. I said, 'Your English sounds great!' You're so excited for them.

"The power of the American dream is so alive for these people. They talk about America, and it's things you take for granted, like supermarkets or non-mined grass where your kids can play all day. That's so important to these people. I have never felt more fortunate than when I was over there. As a country, we have a lot to share and give to other people."

-Michael Terrazas

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