NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – Amra Sabic El-Rayess is an expert on “othering” – where people in one group are treated differently.
“One comment that I often get is ‘Oh, you don’t look like a Muslim,'” she told CBS2’s Steve Overmyer. “Often people don’t realize they demonstrate their own ‘othering.'”
Her greenhouse is full of plants of different species living in harmony. But human differences are often the center of conflict – a nightmare Amra experienced firsthand as a survivor of the Muslim genocide of Bosnia.
“I never imagined that I would be allowed to be in America. I didn’t think I was allowed to dream of America, let alone to fulfill my own American dream,” she said.
In the ’90s, Bosnian Muslims like Amra were victims of an ethnic cleansing that tore their society asunder. Amra chronicles her survivor story in her memoir The Cat I Never Named. Central in her story is a stray feline who, time after time, saved her life.
“On the very first day of the war, my brother heard her in the back of our property and walked away from the four girls who ended up being blown up and died, while my brother and I survived,” she said.
For four years, Amra was trapped in a city under siege by the Serbian army.
“Out of fear, they were willing to kill innocent civilians. And I see that kind of narrative emerging in the United States, and I am concerned. I am concerned where this takes us,” she said.
The answer to preventing the othering of people is the same answer for allowed her to escape: Education. For four years, she taught herself mathematics, physics and English. Her classroom success and exceptional test scores caught the attention of a humanitarian named David Pincus.
“David is a Jewish man who was saving a Muslim woman who he had never met before,” Overmyer said.
“He felt compelled to do something for Bosnian Muslims and stop genocide, to show that we share humanity,” Amra said.
The philanthropist paid her way through Brown University, then she added two masters degrees, got married and completed her PhD from Columbia.
Now she teaches future professors at Columbia where, like the flowers in her greenhouse, she’s tending to a garden of students.
“That’s a beautiful metaphor that you used. I am passionate about cultivating mindsets and cultivating our togetherness,” she said. “To evoke empathy, we need stories.”
Stories that bind us. And just like the colorful flowers, our beauty is in our differences.
“I want that to be my legacy when I’m not here. People who’ve heard me teach in my class can say ‘Amra preached for us to be together and to have a collective empathy and not hate each other.’ That is what I hope I’m remembered by,” she said.
Amra’s book The Cat I Never Named is already a #1 best seller in young adult non-fiction.
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