As a 34-year-old Muslim man with an older brother I look up to, I hated how much we had in common with 34-year-old Said Kouachi and his brother Cherif, the terrorists in Paris who murdered 12 at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. It was also unnerving to hear updates on the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechnya-born Muslim man who, with his late brother Tamerlan, is charged with bombing the Boston marathon, and now might face the death penalty. After every story and broadcast about these violent Islamic immigrants, I think: it could have been us.
The parents of the Kouachis left war-torn Algeria for a better life in France. The Tsarnaevs fled the conflict between Chechnya and Russia for Cambridge. Similarly, my family barely escaped the ethnic cleansing campaign against us in my Bosnian homeland. When we landed in Connecticut in 1993, we could barely speak the language. We had foreign names, strange accents, no money and huge chips on our shoulders. Like most immigrants, we suffered setbacks, toiling in menial jobs. Eldin and I were angry, alienated teenagers too, resentful for all we'd lost. I often ask myself why we wound up as law-abiding, proud citizens while the Kouachi and Tsarnaev siblings succumbed to terrorism. I've searched for clues in the biographical details the media shared.
Said and Cherif's Algerian parents' died when they were young, leaving them in a French orphanage and in foster care, according to news accounts. While the Tsarnaev boys stayed in the U.S., their parents moved back to Russia, where they separated. Their sister in New Jersey admitted she hadn't spoken to her brothers in years. I was fortunate that my family lived together until my mother died of cancer in 2007. After that, my brother, father and I moved close to each other in the ethnically diverse conclave of Queens, New York.
Unlike the Kouachi and Tsarnaev sons, Eldin and I did not seek solace with any specific religious figures or houses of worship. We remained proud of our religion and heritage. Yet we were lucky to have been sponsored by Westport's Interfaith Council, a liberal group made up of different churches and synagogues.
A Methodist minister, the Reverend Donald Hodges, picked us up from JFK airport and welcomed us into his home for four months. The late Jewish surgeon Dr. Malcolm Beinfeld at Norwalk Hospital treated my mother's cancer. The Bosnian genocide reminded him of the Holocaust, he said; he never sent a bill for the surgery, radiation or chemotherapy that kept my mother alive twelve more years. Ted Popadoupolis, my Greek Christian Orthodox soccer coach, gave me rides to practice when Dad was working at the factory or painting houses on weekends. The bus driver at school noticed I had a long walk in the winter. He introduced himself as Offir, from Israel, dropped me off last, taking me all the way home. Dr. Glenn Hightower, my school principal, asked the kids in my seventh grade class to help me. A Catholic Spanish boy, Miguel Peman, offered me a seat next to him and introduced me to baseball and Tater Tots, my first American food.
I was athletic and loved music, but I didn't aim for rap stardom (like Cherif Kouachi spoke of on French television) or dream of Olympic glory like Tamerlan Tsarnaev; thus I was spared harsh disappointment. Instead Eldin and I were blessed with a series of mentors and teachers who helped us form a realistic career plan. We both went to graduate school to become physical therapists. We didn't smoke pot or drink a lot of beer, as Cherif and Tamerlan reportedly did. I wonder if those substances fueled the depression and hopelessness that twisted their judgment and led them towards destructive Jihad influences.
Unfortunately, it's too late to help these damaged men and the people they massacred. Yet we should focus on how to prevent similar tragedies in the future. I applaud President Obama's generous immigration policies and his new plan to pay tuition for community college students who couldn't afford higher education on their own. Perhaps Obama, who grew up in a broken family, with a foreign father, and was raised with his doting grandparents, understands what our goals should be: keep families together at all costs, make affordable higher education available, avoid drugs and extreme religion, and increase multi-cultural support to allow foreigners to assimilate better. My brother and I overcame war displacement, persecution, poverty, rage and alienation -- but only with our family's help and an entire community who supported us early on.
Kenan Trebincevic, a physical therapist in Manhattan and the author of the memoir "The Bosnia List," recently published by Penguin Books.