It takes about an hour to swim to Croatia, if you're not pushing too hard and you're going with the current.
The swim had been Jesus's idea. We were sitting on the rocky beach in Neum, on the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina, drinking beer and basking in the sun. Jesus wasn't his real name, but with his long hair and gaunt frame, he resembled the mainstream image of Jesus so much that we had taken to calling him that. This Jesus was more of the "jump into water," rather than the "walk on water" type—he was always proposing adventures. Together with his sister Diana, and Aaron, one of our staff members, I joined Jesus on what became our last adventure in our journey through the Balkans.
It was a quiet crossing, our silence extending to the bottom of the Adriatic, as we attempted to fill some very large gaps with very small talk. During the hour of our swim, we crossed an international border without hassle, passports, or questioning, and before I knew it, we were on the other side, sitting in Croatia looking across the sea to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
We were in a different country, yet it looked just about the same. The sun was still scorching, the beach in Croatia was just as rocky as the beach in Neum, and I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. I had wanted to feel changed.
At some point, sitting on the beach, the reason I didn't feel changed hit me: I was an American. Confronting the privilege that my American citizenship provides me was a constant occurrence throughout the trip. At each border crossing, members of the group who came from countries in the Balkans had a significantly more difficult time traveling than those of us who were lucky enough to be American citizens.
Crossing borders had always seemed basic. It's true that as a Palestinian-American I have had more than my fair share of trouble at the airport. But I've only been hassled, and never (yet) excluded. On the beach in Croatia, I found myself angry at this privilege, angry that I could so easily cross a border that was thousands of miles away from my home, while people living within miles of it could not. By luck of my birthplace, I had more access to the Balkans than some of the people who lived there.
Unlike Bosnians, who are forced to remain within the boundaries of their country, we enclose ourselves in countries, or houses, or communities in which we can unite and define ourselves by our boundaries. What we often don't stop to consider are the people our borders keep out. In our communities, who do we deem "undesirable?" To whom do we not grant figurative citizenship? The Balkans reminded me to remember the borders—to recognize those who walk across them without thinking twice, and those who have to fight much harder for their right to cross.
My five weeks in the Balkans on a trip with Jewish and Palestinian students was a sort of personal experiment in crossing borders. There are lines between us—Jews and Palestinians—that exist because of our histories. Often, unspoken or suppressed tensions found their way into our discussions. We had to break through our own borders by challenging one another to look deeper than the politics, to find out what these conflicts really do to us, and to examine how we relate to one another because of them.
Conflicts can run deep in a person, and do in the residents of the Balkans. You could see the impact of the Balkan wars in the face of every person we spoke to on our trip, just as you can now see bits of them in the faces of our Vision members. We internalize the conflicts we throw ourselves into, and so, in breaking apart the borders that these conflicts create within ourselves, we manage to end up broken as well.
I eventually swam back across the sea, back to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and back to a place in which I was legally allowed to be. I sat back down on that familiar beach, but I sat back down in a more appreciative manner. I returned to that beach, and refused to be disappointed by its rocks or its crowdedness, and reminded myself that I was lucky just to be there.
Tina Musa is a Columbia College sophomore.