I felt I’d finally reached a point in my teaching career where I was more than a few steps ahead of my students. Then, in 2004, I met Merzudin, a sophomore in my English class. The class was small, and the students seemed eager to learn. All of them, that is, except Merzudin.
Merzudin stood over 6 feet tall and towered over most sophomores. He’d put his head on the desk and frequently fall asleep. He didn’t seem to be paying attention. But every once in a while, I’d ask a tough question about The Iliad or Macbeth, and Merzudin would lift his head and give the most insightful answer. What was going on here?
Like many teachers, I worked a few side hustles back then, and one of them was as site manager for the soccer team. Here I discovered Merzudin was a talented soccer player. And he was lightning-fast — a far cry from the sleeping young man I saw in class.
Merzudin was 6 years old when war broke out in Bosnia. Because he was a Muslim, he and his family were targeted for genocide …
By the end of the first quarter, Merzudin was failing my class. One day I pulled him aside. “Dude, what is your deal?” I asked. “You’re obviously smart, but you’ve got an F in my class.”
“Listen,” Merzudin said. “I’m dropping out of school as soon as soccer season is over.” Then he explained that his parents didn’t think he was committed to school, so they wanted him to quit and get a job.
“Not happening on my watch,” I replied. “In fact,” I said, “I saw you running at soccer, and you’re fast. I think you could be a track star.”
Merzudin looked at me skeptically.
“Seriously,” I said. “If you’re as fast as I think you are, this could change your whole life. You could win scholarships and go to college.” I don’t think Merzudin believed a word I said, but I told him to trust me.
What I didn’t understand at the time were the circumstances that brought Merzudin to the U.S. from Bosnia. When he told me his story, my heart broke for this strong young man.
Merzudin was 6 years old when war broke out in Bosnia. Because he was a Muslim, he and his family were targeted for genocide by Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing. Merzudin’s sister nearly had her leg blown off when a bomb exploded in the backyard. “There were no doctors or hospitals,” Merzudin said. “The pain was so bad, she pulled out all her hair.”
The family fled their home and began living in places like an abandoned slaughterhouse. They struggled to find food. At night, the men went out to await the pallets of food dropped from airplanes by the U.N. “Sometimes all we had to eat was bread we dipped in a bowl of Kool-Aid,” Merzudin said.
“My uncle was killed by a sniper. We buried him by candlelight, hidden by blankets. For fun, we made a soccer ball out of sponges and duct tape, but we could play only at night so the Serbs wouldn’t see us.”
Each day was a fight for survival. The family narrowly escaped genocide at Srebrenica. When the war was finally over, Merzudin’s family was able to come to the U.S. to receive medical care for his sister’s leg, which the European doctors wanted to amputate.
Merzudin’s parents were furious with me. What I hadn’t realized was that while Anja was Bosnian, she was a Bosnian Serb …
When Merzudin arrived in Massachusetts, he was placed in seventh-grade English-language-learner classes. “I only knew two words of English, ‘OK’ and ‘bye,’ and I wasn’t even sure what they meant,” he said. But Merzudin quickly learned English through school and TV. “My family’s favorite show was Walker, Texas Ranger, and I swear that’s how we learned English.”
Merzudin tried out for track and smoked everyone. Unfortunately, his grades made him ineligible. So we had a talk. “You have to listen to me like you’ve never listened to anyone before,” I said. “You need to start working to bring your marks up.”
I’ve had that talk with many students. Some listened; some didn’t. Merzudin listened. He stayed after school for extra help. He asked for makeup assignments. By spring, he was eligible to compete.
Merzudin was a strong runner, but he needed more training. I helped him get a scholarship to track camp at Villanova, and I signed him up to run club track in the summer. I negotiated with gym owners to give him a gym membership, and I showed him how to lift weights and what to eat to gain strength.
By senior year, Merzudin was taking Advanced Placement classes and was on the honor roll. He won both the state and the New England track championships and was ranked sixth in the nation. Colleges were calling, so I helped Merzudin get his citizenship so he’d be eligible for scholarships. I worried, however, that he’d have difficulty doing college work because of all the schooling he missed during the war. My director suggested prep school first, and so he applied to the only prep school I knew — Phillips Andover — and we were shocked when he received a full scholarship.
The transition to Andover was extremely difficult for Merzudin. Math especially was tough because he lacked the foundational skills. But Merzudin worked hard to meet the standards.
In college, Merzudin continued to excel. He became a five-time All-American and a two-time NCAA champion. He made the dean’s list and earned “All Academic” honors. Merzudin majored in international relations, so in the summer of his junior year, I helped him find an internship in Washington, D.C. When he graduated, he was offered a full-time job.
Before Merzudin left for D.C., we often met for lunch. One day he jokingly said: “Barile, you helped me with so many things in my life. Now find me a wife.” I knew he was kidding, but I actually knew someone who might be perfect for him. Anja was Bosnian too, and she’d been my student. I decided to play matchmaker, and they both agreed to go on a date. They hit it off immediately.
I was pleased with my matchmaking — until I discovered Merzudin’s parents were furious with me. What I hadn’t realized was that while Anja was Bosnian, she was a Bosnian Serb — the enemy of Merzudin’s family during the war. Anja’s family, however, left Bosnia almost as soon as the war broke out. It was difficult at first, but most of Merzudin’s family came to love Anja. The couple are engaged, and I could not be happier.
In 2011, Merzudin was the NCAA Inspiration Award recipient. This award is usually presented to a college athlete who, when confronted with a life-altering situation, uses perseverance, dedication and determination to overcome the event, and who serves as a role model to give hope and inspiration to others.
Merzudin and I are still great friends. And when I hear the president talk so negatively about Muslim immigrants, I wish he could meet Merzudin.