This week, Bloomsbury has formally published The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival, by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, Associate Professor of Practice in Teachers College’s Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis.

Written for a young adult audience (but with a crossover to adult nonfiction), The Cat I Never Named is Sabic-El-Rayess’s memoir of being a teenager in Bosnia during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) instituted by the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

The book, which has been available on pre-order through Amazon and many bookstores for several weeks, is already the number one best-seller in new releases among young adult biographies, a category that includes books by Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama. It is also number one in the sub-category of cultural heritage in all books for young adults, in young adult books on religion and spirituality, and in all young adult books on Islam distributed by Amazon, and has been selected as the Junior Library Guild Gold Standard for masterfully tackling the issues of Islamophobia, discrimination in education, and the genocide against Bosniaks.

Sabic-El-Rayess, who received the 2020 Samuel Untermyer Award for bravery in service to social justice, came to the United States in 1996 thanks to a scholarship arranged for her by David Pincus, the late clothing manufacturer, humanitarian and philanthropist. Pincus, a board member of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), decided to save her after learning that she was one of Bosnia’s top students, and that she was working with children and the IRC in her then- besieged hometown of Bihać.

TEACHING THE DANGERS OF HATRED Sabic-El-Rayess shares with her students testimony by Serb soldiers and other materials that show how hatred can motivate ordinary people to commit horrific acts. (Photo: TC Archives)

Today, Sabic-El-Rayess holds faculty appointments at Columbia’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Studies and the University’s Middle East Institute. Her scholarship focuses on understanding how and why societies fall apart and the role education can play in rebuilding decimated countries. [Read stories about Sabic-El-Rayess’s work on recent geopolitics in the Balkans; “familial tribalism” in the Trump administration; and the radicalization of oppressed minorities. Watch Sabic-El-Rayess speak at this past spring’s TC “virtual gathering” on systemic racism.] Sabic-El-Rayess was recently invited to serve as the international expert of Canada’s Institute for Research of Genocide.

In 2019 Sabic-El-Rayess delivered TC’s inaugural Charo Uceda Women’s Empowerment Lecture, speaking about her experiences in Bosnia and the power of education. [Watch Sabic-El-Rayess deliver the Uceda Lecture.]

In the following interview, Sabic-El-Rayess talks about why she wrote The Cat I Never Named; about the parallels between 1990s Bosnia and the United States today; and about empathy as a cornerstone of teaching and human relations in all walks of life.

An Interview with Amra Sabic-El-Rayess

When I read The Cat I Never Named, I thought of The Diary of Anne Frank. Of course, you didn’t write your book as a diary, but instead, as a memoir looking back at when you were a teenager — but was Frank’s diary an influence, or did you think of it when you were writing?

Thank you. Anne Frank’s diary is incredibly powerful.

But, no, I didn’t think of that connection, though I greatly appreciate you alluding to the parallels. Unlike Anne Frank, who never got to live her life fully and experience who she would have become, I was lucky to survive the Bosnian genocide.

But, I did write my book in the hope that those who are watching this country fall apart — even if they have no knowledge of Bosnia and what happened there — would connect with my experience in the way that so many young adults have connected with Anne Frank. My hope is that anyone reading my story will be drawn in and quickly realize that there are important parallels between racism and violence here and the killings of Muslims in Bosnia. Innocent children shouldn’t be dying for who they are, but that is still happening every day — here and abroad.

My hope is that anyone reading my story will be drawn in and quickly realize that there are important parallels between racism and violence here and the killings of Muslims in Bosnia. Innocent children shouldn’t be dying for who they are, but that is still happening every day – here and abroad.

Many may not know that I started my career at TC being asked to design and teach statistics — as well as qualitative and mixed methods courses, in what is now the department of International & Transcultural Studies.  And as someone who has worked with varied research methodologies, I learned a while back that young people need to be moved to see the numbers as meaningful and purposeful in the context of the research we do. So, in my teaching, I always take the opportunity, when I see it, to evoke empathy by describing my own experiences in Bosnia or the experiences of other marginalized and disadvantaged groups I have worked with over the years. It’s one of the most effective pedagogical tools I’ve relied on, resulting in students’ caring and wanting to change the world. Without motivation, students are simply getting diplomas and credentials. But when we spark their curiosity and motivate them, we also empower young minds to transform and lead the world. Many students have told me that examples I have shared with them over the years have been some of the most powerful teaching moments for them. In part, it is this kind of feedback that has compelled me to write my story.

How difficult was it for you to write this?

Memories of genocide are a lifelong partner, a mental troll that lives in those of us who are survivors. Often, it only takes a word, a scent, or an image to take me back to a horrific scene from the war. But staying in those scenes for a prolonged period of time in order to write was particularly difficult.

Emotionally, the process was challenging and, on some days, overwhelming. Some parts of the book were written through tears. There were times when I was so exhausted after hours or days of writing that I couldn’t talk or even fall asleep. In those moments, I would step away from writing for a few days before stepping back into the emotional whirlpool and writing a new chapter.

I was scared to begin this book because of a sense of uncertainty about what would happen. I often wondered, if I go back to that time, can I ever fully rebuild myself afterward? This fear of what may happen during the writing process precludes many survivors of violence from sharing their stories with the world. 

Before I started the writing process, I was scared to begin this book because of a sense of uncertainty about what would happen. I often wondered, if I go back to that time, can I ever fully rebuild myself afterward? This fear of what may happen during the writing process precludes many survivors of violence from sharing their stories with the world.

In particular, I was concerned because white supremacists in America today are leveraging Islamophobia to energize their movement. The Bosnian genocide has become a source of their inspiration because the genocide against Bosnian Muslims demonstrates that ethnic purity is indeed achievable through gruesome violence. Expectedly, they want to devalue and preclude someone like me from speaking up and encouraging young minds to empathize with the marginalized in hope that such empathy would bring us closer together.

Despite all these challenges, once I started writing, there were days when I couldn’t stop. And now I’m working on an essay about writing as a form of healing. I don’t know what Anne Frank would have said if she were here, but I suspect she’d agree that writing and telling your own story is an empowering process, just as silence is disempowering. Through writing, I’ve come to feel the opposite of how I felt during the war. There’s a scene in the book when I see a plane coming toward our house to bomb the city and my street, and while the pilot is shooting at me I respond by playing my guitar, hoping that music, even though he couldn’t hear it, would somehow change the pilot’s mind. But then I realize that nothing I could do in that moment would make him see me as anything but a target — so I throw and break my guitar, and I actually never played it again. To this day. In that moment of desperation, I felt that I was nothing, that I was going to be exterminated, that nothing I did or said mattered. I didn’t matter.

But, now, I feel obliged to share my story because I see how powerful and effective it has been for those who have already read it. And I have also learned that life is unpredictable. Ultimately, I don’t know how long I will be here to leave my own imprint on this world, but what I do know is that I don’t believe in silence and complacency. There is a lot more that I — and we as educators — can do, and though writing this book has been painful, it has also healed and empowered me. And I hope it will do the same for others.

In the afterword to the book, and in many talks that you’ve given and opinion pieces you’ve written, you’ve drawn analogies between Bosnia in the 1990s and the political climate in the United States now. What is the central parallel?

Hatred is not exclusive to any one nation, any one group of people, or any one person. We all are capable of it, and that awareness should humble us as much as it should inspire us to examine the dangers of what has been unfolding in the Unites States in recent years.

Hatred is not exclusive to any one nation, any one group of people, or any one person. We all are capable of it, and that awareness should humble us as much as it should inspire us to examine the dangers of what has been unfolding in the Unites States in recent years. 

Like in the former Yugoslavia, we haven’t learned — yet — to adequately address and process America’s past. Americans ought to come to terms with our history of racism and slavery instead of hoping that the issues will go away if we sweep them under the rug. That strategy didn’t work in my birth country, and I suspect it won’t work here either.

This is where a failure of education comes in — we need to examine and diversify the narratives of who we are, how this country was built, whose voices are represented in the classroom, and who we want to be going forward. Increasing our own self-awareness and questioning of who we are as a collective, as a nation, has to be more prominently discussed in our schools.

For instance, over the last few weeks, I have been getting emails from educators and school administrators around the country who often begin by saying: “We never had a Muslim author, educator or scholar come to speak to our students. Would you please consider speaking with our students?” It inevitably makes me wonder: What does this mean for Muslim children in American classrooms. Is this a parallel between the former Yugoslavia and the U.S.? Do these American Muslims feel the way I felt in the former Yugoslavia? What is most problematic is that this experience is likely not exclusive to Muslim students, but is shared by all students who feel marginalized and under-represented in American classrooms.

After several of these calls, I have decided that I would donate any and all speaking fees so that these institutions can use those funds to purchase copies of my book for students who would otherwise not be able to afford them. These kinds of engagements will take up a significant portion of my time in the coming academic year, but they are also the key reason why I decided to write my story — to educate and exemplify how one can self-empower and empower others through education and storytelling.

To share another parallel, in the former Yugoslavia, Bosniaks were never legally recognized as a group, though we had existed in the region for centuries. The country only legally recognized Bosnian Muslims in 1968, but we were still not allowed to say we were Bosniaks. We were this invisible ethnic group and had no representation in school curriculum.

Over time, we became a numerical majority in Bosnia. Though we gained access to health care and other rights, we were never truly equals. I tackle these tensions in the book through my own experiences with discrimination despite being one of the top students in the country. As Bosnia became more diverse, so did the Serb nationalist narrative become louder — it depicted Bosniaks as a threat to the ethnic and racial purity of white Christian Europe. Within several years of the emergence of this extreme narrative, Serbia began to propagate the creation of Greater Serbia as an ethnically pure nation and a solution to what Serbians saw as a diversity problem.

I don’t think that I need to remind anyone in the U.S. today that a very similar narrative is shaping up in the U.S., where Jews, Muslims, Black people, Mexicans, and others are characterized by some extreme voices as a threat to an imagined America. “Othering” has become a way to assert one’s dominance, and that eventually leads to violence and destruction. At least it has in my country of birth.

So, I think evasiveness about what we need to truly address — the discomfort some have about how the country was built and how we want to define ourselves going forward — is creating this gulf. Unless we talk to each other and begin to get to know each other’s stories in a more meaningful way, social unrest will become the norm, not the exception.

How can we change that dynamic?

For most people right now, disagreements take the form of arguments over the dinner table, but there may come a time when there is no dinner table. I see the U.S. going through social disintegration, the creation of different truths and realities for different groups. We can’t agree on the nature of right and wrong, and the media is helping build these opposing realities.

So, I’m not as confident as some people are that we couldn’t end up in a much uglier place, simply because of the industries that have grown up around propagating extreme views. There are very few people in the middle trying to bring us together. Education has to do that. As I’ve unfortunately learned firsthand in the former Yugoslavia, silence doesn’t work — it doesn’t benefit any of us.

Conversations need to be held and actions need to be taken — at TC and elsewhere — about the diversity of our country, our faculty and students. We need that range of perspectives to be represented in our classrooms, including the kinds of perspectives that can come only from having lived these experiences of oppression, persecution and marginalization.

For most people right now, disagreements take the form of arguments over the dinner table, but there may come a time when there is no dinner table. I see the U.S. going through social disintegration, the creation of different truths and realities for different groups. We can’t agree on the nature of right and wrong, and the media is helping build these opposing realities. 

Without diverse representation at schools of education, we are precluding our teachers from fully grasping how they can empower, understand and include those students who feel silenced, marginalized and excluded. Without demonstrating diversity in our own ranks, we de facto prohibit teachers and school leaders from seeing representation in the places of power in education — places where we should embrace and include insights that come from those who know what it means to be oppressed and live with a persecuted identity. Our teachers and school leaders need this kind of exposure to better tackle racism, oppression and exclusion in all of its forms.

There are many uplifting moments in your book, but also so many painful ones. Perhaps one of the saddest, and the one that most signals what is to come, is when you realize that your best friend, Olivera, who is Serb, sees as you a threat. Then she and her family leave your city on the eve of the Serb invasion, and you realize that they knew what was coming and didn’t warn you. Did you ever hear from her again?

Olivera reached out to me many years ago during the war. She sent me a Red Cross message saying, ‘One day, if you survive, perhaps you’ll understand that what we did was for a higher cause.’ During the war, I realized the higher cause was the goal of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia, which my friend unfortunately came to believe was more important than my life.

And then after the war, about ten years ago, she found me on Facebook. She wrote to me and said, ‘Hey, I heard about you, I’m not surprised you ended up at an Ivy League school, I often think about you as my best friend.’ It was as if nothing had ever happened.

But, what she did not know is that I was no longer the voiceless Muslim girl I was before the war. So, I wrote back asking her if she remembered the message she wrote to me during the war suggesting that genocide against Bosniaks was justifiable and had ‘a higher purpose.’ I told her a bit about what I survived and that our friendship couldn’t heal without her acknowledgement of what had happened to me. That was the last time we were in touch.

How do you understand the actions of the Serbs? How were people able to act so brutally toward people who only recently had been friends and fellow citizens?

Most of us think, ‘I can’t see my neighbor committing a horrific crime against me — it can’t happen to me, not here.’ But then you see it happen, and it becomes possible, and in my case, it became my reality for years — and eventually people find themselves in a position of no return.

Bosnia was kept together after the war through the Dayton Peace Accord, but it remains dysfunctional and divided. The genocide was legitimized in the half of the country that was given to Serbs, and those responsible for the mass executions and rapes are still celebrated there as heroes for killing Muslims. So the country survived, but it will never be the same.

The wisdom in situations like these often comes after it is too late, the atrocities and crimes have been committed, and it is only then that most understand, “I should have done something, taken action.” This is why I hope my book will serve as a timely reminder that the moment to counter hatred and act is now, before it is too late.

In my course on radicalization, for instance, we talk about how someone transforms their own moral framework and goes from being an average person to justifying killing an innocent human being simply because of that person’s racial, ethnic or religious background. I share a video of a confession of Serb soldier whose voice and face are anonymized. He was one of many who were witnesses during the trials at The Hague relating to the war crimes, crimes against humanity, mass rapes and genocide. He details how he felt the first time he killed a human being — and how over time a sense of discomfort turned into complete exhilaration. The adrenalin rush from killing Muslims, he shared, gave him a sense of superiority. He said Muslims were othered and dehumanized to the point that he ultimately rationalized their killings as necessary.

After watching his testimony, students get to apply theories we cover that explain how average human beings can commit horrific crimes if their mindset is reshaped by the propagation of hate. I ultimately warn that no one is immunized against hatred, that hatred has driven people into wars for centuries — so we must do all what is in our power to learn from the lessons of the past. And in education, we can and must do more.

Again, thinking of Anne Frank — perhaps she would have gone on to become a scholar who, like you, studied how societies fall apart. When you came to the United States to go to college, did you already know that you wanted to do that kind of work?

I’ve always seen education as my only savior and outlet for empowerment. It was the only way for me to succeed and have a place in society. I hoped that if I could be one of the best students in my country of birth, I would eventually gain a sense of belonging. But obviously that didn’t work in an environment where I had no voice or representation. I went through my entire schooling never reading a book about a Muslim girl.

When I came to the U.S., my initial focus, after getting my first degree in Economics from Brown University, was on survival. Back home, I was seen as the hope, the person who can rescue everyone. So my goal was to excel at Brown, and get a job that would enable me to financially support my family members who were still alive. And that is exactly what I did. My first job out of college was working for Goldman Sachs, in investment banking. Goldman Sachs is an impressive institution, and I quickly learned a lot, working on deals worth up to $14 billion and being on teams that helped create firms like Verizon Wireless.

But my experiences in Bosnia were never far from my mind. At the end of my first day of interviews at Goldman, I walked into the office of the partner who at the time headed the Leveraged Finance and Leveraged Buyouts Group. His phones were ringing and multiple screens were flashing, and I was the last person on his interview schedule for the day. He didn’t even look at me when he said: “I just finished interviewing dozens of other Ivy League graduates with perfect grades like yours. Why are you better than them? Why should I hire you?”

Without hesitation, I said: ‘I survived the genocide in Bosnia, and I need to feed my family. I’ll eat a computer if that’s what it takes to do the job.’ He looked up and said, ‘What did you just say?’ I repeated it, we engaged in a longer conversation, and I got the job.

But even after several years of working there, whenever I had free time from putting in 16- to 20-hour days, I’d be reading about corruption and war in the developing world and how education wasn’t available to girls in many developing and predominantly Muslim countries. And it became obvious to me that I wasn’t doing what I was passionate about.

I called HR and asked, ‘How many people doing what I’m doing have gone on to pursue a doctorate?’ They were very surprised. They told me only one person that they knew of — and that was in 1963!

At that point, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to learn more about the developing world. So first I went for my master’s degree at SIPA [Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs], in economic development, focusing on the Middle East. Sharyn O'Halloran [SIPA’s George Blumenthal Professor of Political Economy and Professor of International and Public Affairs] asked me to be a teaching assistant for some very difficult statistics courses. The students were often staying overtime to work with me during my TA sessions, and eventually an article was written in the SIPA publication calling me “the Mother Theresa of Statistics.” Finally, several faculty members told me, “You should consider getting a Ph.D.,“ and thought I should explore TC, given my love of education.

I had read work by Henry Levin [now the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Emeritus of Economics & Education], and I went for an interview with him after I applied to TC. I’d just delivered my first child, Jannah, she was three weeks old, and I brought her with me to TC, along with my mother. We went to the TC cafeteria, and I wanted to leave Jannah with my mom, but Jannah was crying as if the world was ending. About 20 students surrounded us and offered to help after learning I was there for an admissions interview. My mom didn’t speak any English and was largely deaf from a bomb that hit our home during the war. There was that piano in the corner of the cafeteria, and one student excitedly said, “Don’t worry, I know some lullabies.”

I was nervous, but went to meet Hank, leaving screaming Jannah in the hands of my mom and singing TC students. It was the most amazing, inspiring and thoughtful conversation. I left thinking, “I’ve found my home.” And the rest is history. I never left TC after finishing my doctorate.

Since then, all the research topics I’ve worked on have been driven by the concerns I’ve had for years about radicalization, exclusion, discrimination and oppression of unprivileged groups and how we can socially transform societies to counter hate and discrimination. I continue to focus on these issues in new and innovative ways. One of my forthcoming publications, which I am particularly proud of, is my co-authored piece with Stephen Heyneman [“Education and Corruption.” In George Noblit (Ed.), Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, New York: Oxford University Press]. It examines 20 years of research on corruption in education pointing to the need to further expand and examine links between elites, favor reciprocations, and institutionalized racism. I have published in the past on the strong connections that exist between favor reciprocations and corrupt elites, but next on my agenda is to expand that work by studying how elites leverage corruption to maintain and institutionalize racism.

In short, so much work remains to be done in education and while this is a challenging line of inquiry, every day I wake up excited about my work both in and outside the classroom.