It’s time I told this story. It happened 32 years ago, but it’s made me who I am and moves me to share it with you now.
It comes in five parts…
Chapter 1: Fun in the Sun
I was 6 years old. My parents woke me and my brother one fine summer day. Soon we were on a train from communist Czechoslovakia heading on vacation to Yugoslavia, the land of sun, multiculturalism and more freedom. I knew little at the time about the repression and dangers of staying behind the Iron Curtain.
All I knew then was that we were on vacation! And so, I reunited with long lost relatives who fed us and loved us dearly. Rode donkeys. Ate ice cream. Captured crickets and swam in the Mediterranean.
And then one night, I had a terrible nightmare: that the city we were in would be covered in blood, brother killing brother. I had no idea why or how this would come to pass in just 8 years time.
I also knew nothing about what my parents were up to.
Chapter 2: Closed Doors
My parents had a secret plan, to bet everything on one simple act: defection. As fortune would have it, they were denied, and briskly. But, now that the truth was out, there was no turning back. If we did not find a way to escape to “The West” soon, my mom and dad would be arrested and my brother and I would become wards of the state. We sought refuge from many sources, all of them turning their backs. Eventually, we got a tip from a priest who smuggled refugees.
Chapter 3: Escape
We headed to a border crossing in the north, close to Maribor. My godfather escaped there with his son – hanging onto a truck’s wheel axle, while a friend seduced the border guard. My brother and I still knew nothing but we saw our parents tense and sweating.
When I found out about the plan, we were in the town square and it was noon. I burst into tears. My sense of stability fell apart, like the ground opening up to a dark chasm beneath my feet.
At the time, we believed that if we made it out, we would never be able to return home. We would never see our extended family again. The faces of my grandmother, cousins, uncles and aunts, all who I loved haunted me. This loss ripped my heart to shreds.
We waited till nightfall. Then crossed the mountain. It was harrowing. Long. I nearly passed out and then I saw a vision of an angel or Mother Mary, some kind of apparition that helped me to tame my terror and soothed my grief.
Twenty years later, after the civil war came and ravaged the country, I would revisit this journey with my mom. I also went to a mountain nearby named Medjugorje, where at the same time as my vision, a group of teens were “visited” by the “Mother of Mercy” who protects children. Since then, millions of Catholics visit the place as a pilgrimage.
After twenty years of holding that grief, I went up to the top and sat there and cried for a long time and then thunder and lighting and rain came. My loss became a desire to connect more truly and deeply to everything and everyone, again.
Chapter 4: Finding Refuge
Somehow, luck shone upon us, as we crossed the border, which was heavily guarded. We hid. We ran. We made it to the other side. We knocked on doors in the early morning hours of an Austrian village.
My dad stumbled with his limited German.
We found a man who fed us and took us to Vienna.
We declared our status and landed in refugee camp, of which I have fond memories. Running free in the woods with other children. Raiding orchards. Catching fish in streams with our bare hands.
My parents worried and there was violence in the camp. Later I found out that most refugees are good people fleeing bad places. Yet, a few are bad people looking for people vulnerable enough to victimize.
We sought asylum. And waited. No jobs. No status. In limbo.
Chapter 5: The land of snow and ice
Just before Christmas, the plane tickets and documents arrived.
To me as a child, the camp we were at was romantic, but it was actually a burned down summer camp, so when the cold of winter came, it was cold and uninsulated.
Yet, very quickly we were in the air. Flying on our first plane flight to Halifax. There, my dad tried to teach the border official how to pronounce our last name “Jurasek”, which sounds like You-ra-sec. After a douzen failed attempts, our name has since been stated the same way as Jurassic Park. I too have given up on trying to correct people, but my mother tongue is the language I still dream in.
Another flight and we landed at our destination: Calgary. When the sliding doors opened out of the airport, we walked into a blizzard white out. It took a few days before we saw our new home.
Safe and sound. It was the start of another life…
Why did I tell you this story? Now?
Because IF — an extremely likely IF — my family and I had not been accepted into refuge….
You wouldn’t have known me and I would have grown up a ward of the state – my parents sent to prison, on the other side of the world.
Also, because we did find refuge, I am incredibly fortunate and grateful. Many — vast majority of refugees — are not. It’s like we won a lottery against incredible odds.
At the same time, the survival and safety of refugees depend on less on luck and more on us who are privileged– whether we are courageous enough and generous enough to welcome them by offering refuge.
I hold a hope close to my heart that by sharing my story — though much less horrific and dangerous than the plight of many — I may compel others who live in this privileged world we share together to open up and offer refuge to others.
There are so many ways to do this.
One that I am a part of is to join and/or donate to refugee sponsorship groups in your area. It takes a village to help a refugee family or group to settle and find themselves welcomed.
You may also live in Toronto and wish to join me at a performance and fundraiser for this cause. I will be on stage with many fine musicians and actors playing back stories like the one you read here. You can even tell us your story if you wish.
You can buy tickets or just pay-it-forward and buy some for others who cannot afford it. 100% of the profits (almost no costs as we are working free) will go to sponsoring refugees, here: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/refuge-…
And I would certainly love your feedback and comments sharing by replying to this email too.
Your story is also important, that is why I organize and host shows like this, to give space and to honour our stories collectively.
May we all be safe and supported to pursue our dreams in community!