In the early 1990s, the Bosnian war ravaged the Balkans and created millions ofrefugees. Fresh out of her “idyllic New England college experience,” Carrie Arcos had little knowledge of the war. Nonetheless, as part of AmeriCorps, her job was to help the refugees build a new life in Boston: find an apartment, buy furniture, get a job, learn English. Working so closely with families and getting to know them on a personal level profoundly shifted Arcos’ perspective on the world. “I met these refugees, and I was like, Where have I been?” she says.
Arcos was inspired by her Bosnian friends and wanted to write about the conflict but wasn’t sure how to go about it (or if, as an American, she even should). It wasn’t until almost 10 years later that she started seriously writing about it; the result is her new YA novel, We Are All That’s Left.
The book begins with the bombing of a Rhode Island farmers market. Zara is injured and traumatized; her mother, Nadja, is left in a coma. From there, the novel slips into parallel narratives chronicling Zara’s attempts to make sense of what happened to her and to connect with her mom and, 20 years earlier, Nadja’s efforts to survive the violence in Bosnia.
Their mother-daughter bond is the heart of the novel. Zara and Nadja begin the novel at odds for reasons neither can fully understand or articulate, but in working through their trauma, both shared and individual, the two women are able to find a new acceptance of each other. Arcos admits that her relationship with her own mother is far less fraught, but she’s fascinated by the dynamic nonetheless. “It’s so crazy that our first relationship in the world that should be your most nurturing, loving relationship for so many of us is so painful,” she says.
Of course, making peace with her mother isn’t Zara’s only struggle in the wake of the bombing. As she tries to make sense of what’s happened, she loses interest in photography, the passion that’s shaped much of her life so far. “I think as artists, our art is how we process, how we see the world, how we…make meaning,” Arcos says. Figuring out how to pick up her camera again is a major part of Zara’s healing process.
Unusually for a YA novel, We Are All That’s Left also tackles Zara’s faith. Growing up with a Muslim mother and a Catholic father, Zara’s been casually religious for most of her life, but she only starts to consider what God really means to her in the wake of her trauma. “All of us are searching for meaning, searching for belonging, and part of that search is the faith conversation,” Arcos points out. It’s too important a topic to be ignored.
As big as these questions may seem, they’re really pretty normal for a teenager, as Arcos is quick to point out. Being a teenager is remarkably similar all over the world, even in conflict zones. It’s all “music and clothes and boyfriends and dancing—you know, all of that—and then their world gets rocked upside-down, and they’re dodging bullets in the street,” she says. The transition is just as difficult for those caught in it to grasp as it is for us.
The lessons of Bosnia are still all too relevant. With the contemporary refugee crisis only growing, Arcos hopes that readers will find greater understanding of and empathy for displaced people. “Refugees are like you, they’re like me, they’re real people,” she says, “and I think it’s hard to see when we lump them into a ‘they,’ this huge number.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.