The Day Of The Pelican: Flight

09/20/10 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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Vermont Reads 2010: The Day Of The Pelican

AP photo/Santiago Lyon.
A young Albanian refugee from Kosovo grips a fence at a refugee camp.

(Wertlieb) Good Morning. I'm Mitch Wertlieb.  Today, we begin our 2010 collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council in support of its one-book, state-wide, community reading program "Vermont Reads."

A young girl draws an unflattering cartoon of her teacher. She gives him a big nose - like the bill of a pelican.  As punishment, she has to stay after school, and cannot walk home as she usually does with her older brother.  She will come to associate this event with the beginning of the end of life as she knows it, because as she stays behind at school that day, her brother vanishes on his way home.    It is Kosovo, the year is 1998, the family is Muslim, and everything is about to change.  

This is "The Day of the Pelican," Katherine Paterson's work of fiction for adults and young-adults about a Muslim family threatened by what came to be known as "ethnic cleansing." It is this year's "Vermont Reads" selection by the Humanities Council.

The novel begins in Kosovo. But in many ways, it is a more universal story about people displaced by war.

In the 1990s, the section of Eastern Europe known as the Balkans was torn apart by sectarian violence. Separate wars alternated between Bosnia and Kosovo and dominated the news.

By 2003, NATO had peacekeepers in the region.  Among them was Lt. Col. John Johnston, commanding officer of an Army National Guard helicopter medivac unit based at the Burlington airport. Johnston says the devastation of the war was easy to see - even  from the air.   

(Johnston) "You did notice when you got into Bosnia a lot of the houses had been destroyed, or there were bullet holes or other damage that had been done. It was a big contrast between coming through portions of the Alps and flying over Vienna, Austria and then seeing the destruction that had taken place in Bosnia. It was a pretty big contrast."

(Wertlieb) And it was devastating for the people who lived there and were caught up in the violence. Nijaza Semic was just 18 when war broke out in her native Bosnia.

(Semic) "Like in every war, it's similar or the same, the shooting starts and then you have to run for your life. And I didn't bring anything. I was just with my mom and my brother on a big, sort of like a truck, a neighbor was driving and there were a lot of us on the back of the car and I didn't bring anything with me. That was the first time I was running away. I ran many times."

(Wertlieb) Semic's experience in Bosnia was similar to what happened many times in Kosovo, which is the setting author Katherine Paterson chose for "The Day of the Pelican."

Paterson was inspired to write the book after she met a Kosovar family that her church in Barre sponsored through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.

(Wertlieb) In the small Balkan village in Paterson's novel, an eleven year old girl goes to school and helps out at home. Her father is a shopkeeper. She has an older brother, two younger brothers, and a baby sister. She has a best friend. It is early spring and she longs for the cherry trees in the garden to bloom again. But by the time they do, she will be gone. When her brother finally reappears after months missing, he carries a warning: the family is no longer safe. They must leave their home in the village for refuge on the family farm. They don't know it, but they are beginning an epic journey.

Here is an excerpt from The Day of the Pelican read by Nijaza Semic.

"Although Uncle Fadil kept insisting that there was plenty of food at the farm, Mama and Baba were determined not to be any more of a burden than necessary. The men and Mehmet loaded the back of the car with fifty-pound sacks of flour, cases of cooking oil, sacks of onions and potatoes, big cans of white cheese, some jars of honey and plum jam, and a box of assorted canned goods: the goulash that Mehmet liked and the "pashteta" that Baba liked to spread on his bread in the morning. Thick coils of spicy sausage almost masked the usual smells of the old car. Space, though hardly enough, was left just behind the front seat for the four older children. The family was ready - or as ready as they could be - to leave the only home the children had ever known, with no idea of when they would see it again.

"Wait," said Mama, as Meli was about to climb over the front seat into the tiny space behind it. "My photo - my parents' photo!"

Meli took the key from Baba and ran back up the outside stairs. Out of habit she slipped off her shoes at the door and raced into the living room. Her hands were shaking as she took the picture down from its special place atop the television set. The grandparents she had never known stared out at her as though wondering why they must leave their comfortable setting. She got a towel from the bathroom and wrapped the picture in it to protect the glass. "Don't drop it!" she told her shaking hands as she stuffed her feet into her shoes and, the precious picture tucked under her arm, closed and locked the door behind her. Slowly, she descended the steps, went out the gate, and returned to the waiting family.

She didn't look back. She hadn't said goodbye to her room, or the kitchen, or the living room. She hadn't said goodbye to her school, or even to Zana, who would never understand how she could leave without a word. But she wouldn't cry. "We must all be brave," she kept telling herself. "Besides, we'll be back soon. Of course we will." But something echoed deep and dark inside her stomach: "Inshallah." God willing."

(Wertlieb) Nijaza Semic, reading from Katherine Paterson's book, The Day of the Pelican

The fictional family eventually makes its way to a refugee camp in Macedonia.

Filmmaker Mira Niagolova visited a camp very like the one in the book, and made a film about it.

(Niagolova) "Most of these people, they didn't want to leave their countries, they were just forced and this is a consequence of something that is bigger than themselves, something that they even didn't have part of it. None of these people expected to end up in a refugee camp. And the fact that they couldn't go back to their homes was so devastating that they couldn't get grip of it." 

(Wertlieb) Refugee camps offer food, basic shelter and relative safety, but life there is hard. You can't go back to your real home, and what's ahead is unclear.

The specific circumstances differ, but the experiences are similar in war zones around the world. Such as Bhutan.

Rajev Dahal's family fled Bhutan when he was one. He spent years in a camp. His family lived in bamboo-constructed housing, where the roof leaked, and where they again lost everything:

(Dahal) "It was in 2008 that there was a fire that damage like 1,600 refugee houses like 8,000 or more people had to live for a few months in the open sky, it is a real bad memory for me. It took like a year or two to rebuild the refugee camp. Everybody has to live outside the camp in the forest for three or four months so it was a really bad part of my refugee life."

(Wertlieb) Rajev's Bhutanese refugee family eventually left the camp for the United States. Nijaza Semic's Balkan refugee husband eventually did, too. Different wars, different camps and different times, but similar ordeals and outcomes:

(Semic) "My husband was in a concentration camp, during the war so when he was in camp, the red cross came and gave them little cards - I guess it was like when Red Cross comes and writes your name, they are not going to kill you. And that was our ticket to the United States because people who are in concentration camps, when they get out they can choose from a list of countries."

(Wertlieb) Nijaza came with him. It was a long process that took more than a year to complete.

(Semic) "We knew we were going to the United States of America, but we didn't know where. So when we came to New York, we had cousins who were living here so I asked one of the officers at the airport if we can switch and come to Vermont and they approved it."

(Wertlieb) Both Nijaza Semic and Rajev Dahal are among the roughly 300 people who come to Vermont each year, brought here by the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. Currently families are coming from Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan and Burma.

Most of them had never even heard of Vermont. Tomorrow we'll hear more about their difficult journey. And listen today at noon when Katherine Paterson will be our guest on Vermont Edition. 

I'm Mitch Werlieb.

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Vermont Reads 2010: The Day Of The Pelican
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