World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story

World in Between: Based on a True Refugee Story


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Co-written by a New York Times best-selling author, this moving story of a Muslim boy’s exile from war-torn Bosnia to the United States offers a riveting refugee saga.​

Kenan loves drawing and playing soccer with his friends. He wants to be a famous athlete, hates it when his classmates trash his buck teeth by calling him “Bugs Bunny,” and fights with his big brother, who’s too busy and cool for him lately. Sometimes his parents drive him crazy, but he feels loved and protected—until the war ruins everything.

Soon, Kenan’s family is trapped in their home with little food or water, surrounded by enemies. Ten months later, with help from friends and strangers, they finally make it out of the country alive. But that’s only the beginning of their journey.

An action-packed page-turner with heart about a kid doing his best during difficult times, World in Between celebrates the power of community and resilience, hope and kindness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780358439875
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/27/2021
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 501,147
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Kenan Trebinčević  is a Bosnian Muslim who survived the ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War and came to the United States with his family in 1993. He became a proud American citizen in 2001. Since English is his second language, he enlisted his former client and teacher Susan Shapiro to help tell his story. His work has appeared in TheNewYorkTimes, WallStreetJournal, Slate, Salon, Esquire, Newsday, The Best American Travel Writing, on NPR, Al Jazeera, NY1 and the BBC. He lives with his wife in Astoria, Queens.

Susan Shapiro is an award-winning Jewish American journalist and popular writing professor at New York University and The New School as well as the author/coauthor of twelve books including the New York Times bestseller Unhooked.Her work regularly appears in TheNewYorkTimes, NewYorkMagazine, WallStreetJournal, TheWashingtonPost, Salon, TheAtlantic,, Elle, MarieClaire, TheForward and Tablet. She lives with her husband in Manhattan., Twitter: @Susanshapironet, Instagram: @profsue123

Susan Shapiro is an award-winning Jewish American journalist and popular writing professor at New York University and The New School as well as the author/coauthor of twelve books including the New York Times bestseller Unhooked.Her work regularly appears in TheNewYorkTimes, NewYorkMagazine, WallStreetJournal, TheWashingtonPost, Salon, TheAtlantic,, Elle, MarieClaire, TheForward and Tablet. She lives with her husband in Manhattan., Twitter: @Susanshapironet, Instagram: @profsue123

Read an Excerpt

March 1992

I’ve seen army helicopters before, but only in war movies.
      Today is the first time I see one for real.
      It happens during recess, when Mr. Miran is lining us up to pick teams for our fudbal game and the copter streaks across the sky above us. I’m excited to be so close—but it’s much louder than I thought it would be. The engine sounds like it’s inside me, rattling my brain. I put my hands over my ears. It doesn’t help. The crazy wind makes my hair stand on end. Even the blades of grass are shaking.
      I run down the field with the other kids, my arms stretched out like wings, as if I’m flying.
      “Who do you think is in there?” I ask my best friend, Vik.
      “Important army generals,” he guesses. “I bet they’re gonna get all the bad guys.”
      I wonder who the bad guys are. They must be in big trouble if generals are coming to arrest them from the sky.
      “Where are you going?” Mr. Miran yells at us as the chopper flies out of view. “Get back here!”
      I’m curious where it’s landing, but I don’t want to make Mr. Miran mad and lose my chance at a good position on the team. Fudbal is my life. I push to the front of the pack of fifth- and sixth-grade boys and start showing off some of my footwork.
      “Choose me!” I wave, trying to get Mr. Miran’s attention.
      “Kenan, you play right wing today,” he decides.
      Yes! I squeeze my fists hard, totally pumped. The entire school will be watching our Friday pickup match, I bet—including Lena, the coolest girl in my class. I’ll impress her—and Mr. Miran, who never praises anyone. He’s reffing our game on the sidelines in his suit and leather loafers, smoking a cigarette as usual. When I’ve been standing too close to him at school, Mom tells me, “You reek like an ashtray.”
      “Smoking’s bad for you,” my dad always says. He’s one of the few men I know who doesn’t smoke. He’s a sports coach, so we’re always talking fudbal, which he says people in the U.S. call soccer. So weird. On satellite TV, my older brother, Eldin, has shown me what the Americans call football: huge guys carrying what looks like a brown dinosaur egg. They run away from even bigger guys to avoid getting squashed. If a giant American player jumped me, I’d break like a toothpick.
      I rush to the broken fence to throw my blue sweatshirt on a spike, and I peek over the top, where I can see the military base behind the school grounds. There are soldiers everywhere. Two sit on a bench, taking their guns apart to clean them. The barracks have always been here, but there’s more army men than usual. I want to tell Lena about the close helicopter and the troops, but Vik’s older brother, Marko, starts shouting, “Come on, Bugs! Chomp, chomp.”
      Not this again. My stomach sinks as Marko points to my three huge, horrible front teeth. They hang over my bottom lip and make me look like a rabbit. He’s been calling me Bugs Bunny, from the American cartoon, because he knows I hate it. Mom makes me wear a retainer so my teeth will move into the right place, but I refuse to wear it at school and only put it on at night. What if it fell out of my mouth when I coughed or Lena saw me drool and the guys teased me even worse? No way. I try not to smile much and put my hand in front of my face so nobody notices.
      I’ll show Marko. Today I’ll prove I’m a great athlete, small but speedy, so he’ll shut up about my screwy mouth. But he keeps making that stupid chomping noise, and everyone cracks up. I feel hot all over.
      “Just ignore him, Kenan,” Vik says, joining me on the field. “I’m in, too.”
      Of course Mr. Miran wants Vik, the best dribbler.
      “Notice more soldiers around today?” I ask as we wait for the whistle.
      “Yeah. I saw a sergeant with a stopwatch timing how fast they oiled their rifles,” Vik tells me.
      Why do they need so many guns ready? I wonder. How many bad guys are there?
      After kickoff, Vik gets the ball. He keeps it glued to his feet. Like me, he’s eleven and small. His two front teeth are twisted, so he has a lisp. If you stand close when he talks, he spits on you. The other kids sometimes make fun of him too, but I don’t. I never will. I know how terrible it feels to get picked on. Vik and I have been best buddies since first grade, when nobody would play with me at recess. Then Vik asked me to join his team, saving my whole school career. So I’ll always be loyal.
      A few days ago, Vik, Marko, and I were at the store to get new numbers stenciled on our T-shirts. Marko snagged 10, the number I wanted—like my favorite players, Pelé and Maradona. Marko’s older and taller than me, so I sucked it up and took number 9. Later, I asked my parents for the same red Adidas shorts the other guys had. Dad insisted I stick with blue. When I asked him why, he said, “The Serbian Red Stars wear red. That’s Milošević’s team. He’s a sociopath.”
      I don’t know exactly what a “social path” means, but I can tell it’s bad.
      We live in Bosnia, and Milošević is the president of Serbia, the republic next door, just an hour and a half away. My family is Muslim, but we don’t pray five times a day like my grandmother, Majka Emina. She gets mad when I spend the money she gives me on sports. “Too much fudbal. You should go pray!” she shouts all the time. When I ask my parents why she’s been praying so much lately, Mom says, “We all go someplace to feel strong.”
      I totally get that, ’cause I feel strong here and now all right, rocketing down the field with the ball. I kind of think this is the way I pray, like it’s what I’m put on earth to do. I fall, but get up fast, not even winded. I imagine breaking the tie in our game and being the star player. Mr. Miran will tell my father I’m important to the team, and for once, Dad will be prouder of me than Eldin. I’ll get tons of fans, and Lena will like me best.
      I sprint up and down the rocky ground, focusing on the ball. I can’t stop the other team from sinking a goal, but we do get one back, tying the score again. I need to get a shot in.
      “Three more minutes,” Mr. Miran calls.
      Oh no. My time is running out. I’m desperate to show off the new killer kick I’ve been practicing. Bugs has a few surprises up his sleeve. Luckily, Vik’s surrounded, so he passes to me. I hurry up the field. The ball bounces off my shin and hits the huge scab on my knee. I don’t even look down, nervous I’ll screw up. Everyone crowds around the field, staring at me. The girls quit hopscotching. Even the lunch truck lady leans out of her window to catch the end of the game.
      There’s Lena! I can see her from the corner of my eye. She’s wearing a pink shirt, her shiny brown hair in a ponytail. I dribble the ball down the field fast, knowing she’s watching. My teammates chant, “Kenan! Kenan!” The goalie glares, trying to psych me out, but he can’t. I wind my leg far back, revving up all the power in my right foot.
      Bang. I blast the ball directly at the back corner of the net, so hard the goalie can’t block it.
      “Goooallll!” I scream, pumping my arms in the air. Vik and my teammates run over, slap my back, and give me high-fives.
      “Great work. Keep it up, and you’ll play for the national team someday, Kenan,” Mr. Miran says.
      My heart is pounding against my rib cage. It’s the best day ever! As I grab my sweatshirt from the broken fence, my mind flashes to the impressive cleats one of my brother’s friends wears to train for his team, the Croatian Outlaws. When I’m older, I’ll represent my country wearing official spikes too. I’ll be the star player of the Yugoslavia national fudbal team, much more popular and famous than Eldin. I wish my brother and Dad had seen me score. At least Lena did.
      As I run off the field with my friends, I see her standing with our classmates on the playground. “Good shot, Kenan,” she says.
      See, one of the things that makes Lena so awesome is that she isn’t shy or stuck-up like some of the other girls in fifth grade. In art class, when I asked her how she made her collage, she moved closer to show me her special glue.
      I stop next to the yellow lines she’s drawn in chalk on the pavement. She looks right at me. Her brown eyes have long lashes, and when she smiles, all her freckles scrunch up around her nose. She smells like bubblegum.
      “Thanks, Lena,” I say. I can feel my cheeks turn red.
      As I’m rushing back toward school, I hear her tell her friends, “He’s good at drawing too.”
      For years, Vik and I have been trying to get Lena to notice us. We all live about a block away from each other. Last weekend, Vik balanced me on his bike’s handlebars and we rode by Lena’s house five times. Then we ran over a nail, and his tire blew. I hid in the bushes as she came to her window and peeked out from behind the curtain to see what the noise was. She’s the only girl we’ve ever both liked. We have an oath not to get upset if she chooses one of us. But I hope it’s me.
      “Did you see Lena watching us?” I ask Vik as the school bell rings.
      “She already likes me,” he mutters. I hope he’s not going to break our Lena pact.
      In class, I don’t hear the history lesson. I’m too busy reliving the goal, carving Lena’s initials into the wooden desk with the needle of my geometry compass. I make sure to hide what I’m doing from Mr. Miran. Goal or no goal, he’ll be mad if he catches me.

After school, I bump into my friend Huso at the entrance to our building. He’s so strong, he’s carrying his new BMX bicycle on his shoulder. Huso’s two years older than me and really smart. He’s kind of one of my heroes.
      “Scored the winning goal in the fudbal game at recess,” I tell him.
      “Nice.” He high-fives me. He has a blond crewcut, and he wears a blue shirt tucked into his jeans and clean white sneakers. Of all the boys in our apartment complex, he’s the neatest dresser. His dad is a good friend of my dad’s. He’s a professor. That’s why Huso is the only one of my friends who speaks proper Bosnian and English. His dad is tutoring me once a week so I can learn a little English too, like my father, who says, “You’ll be better respected if you know more than one language.”
      “Let’s get a game going later?” I ask Huso. He nods. He goes to a different school, and lately, he’s been busy studying. But I always want Huso on my team; he has a kick like a rocket.
      When I race up the three flights of stairs and barge into my apartment, I smell peppers roasting. My father and brother are in the living room. “Dad, Dad! I got the winning goal!” I tell him, dribbling an imaginary ball in the air to show him my fast footwork.
      “That’s super, Kenji.” He grabs me close and ruffles my hair.
      “It was only a recess game,” Eldin says, rolling his eyes. “Calm down.”
      “Mr. Miran said if I keep at it, I might play for the national team.”
      My brother snickers. “Yeah, like that will ever happen.”
      “Take off your shoes and sweaty socks,” my mom calls from the dining room. She’s ironing shirts, and she has the door open to the balcony, which is filled with her cactus and ferns. She has a green thumb. And she’s such a neat freak, it drives us all crazy. The dining room is for eating only. We leave our shoes outside the front door. If my pants get wet from the rain, they have to come off at the door too, so I won’t ruin her black and white rug.
      “The last thing I want when I get home from work is to spend hours bleaching,” she says. Mom’s the office manager at Velma Clothing Company. Vik’s and Huso’s mothers work there too.
      As she irons, Mom sings along to Madonna on the radio. “Rescue me . . . Baby throw out your rope . . .” She claims her plants like the music.
      “More crazy girl crooning?” Dad teases her.
      “Better than your old-man music,” she fires back with a smile.
      My dad is sixteen years older than my mom. He listens to worn-out albums from his jazz band days, which he keeps in a wooden case. It’s hard for me to imagine Mom meeting him when she was just eighteen. That’s the same age Eldin is now. My Uncle Ahmet says Dad “robbed her cradle.”
      Everyone says she still looks young, even though she’s about to be thirty-seven. Maybe it’s because she’s short. The last time Dad measured me, I was five foot two, as tall as she is.
      “Old-man music?” Dad says, raising his eyebrows. “One day when I take you to hear the greats on the other side of the pond, you’ll understand.”
      Now my mother rolls her eyes. “America? Yeah, what a dream.” She laughs as she keeps ironing. “When we’re rich and connected enough to get visas.”
      When we were studying geography, Mr. Miran told us that America is 5,500 miles from Brčko and has fifty separate states. It’s gigantic compared to Yugoslavia. We only have six republics: Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. They add up to the size of a yellow square on the U.S. map called “Oregon.” Bosnians are situated right in between Serbia and Croatia. We’re smushed in the middle, like the jelly inside a doughnut.
      I go to our bedroom, bummed but not surprised that Eldin’s still avoiding me. We used to hang out all the time. He was the one who taught me how to play ball. He’s six and half years older than me and eight inches taller, but I’m catching up. Eldin can lift way more weights, though I already run faster. But now that he’s a senior, he doesn’t talk to me. He’s always on the phone with his friends. Since he’s eighteen and almost done with high school, he’s too busy hanging out with kids his age and dating girls.
      Last weekend, after he complained, “I’m not missing a party to babysit Chicken Arms,” I got really upset. If there’s anything that annoys me more than getting teased for my teeth, it’s being teased for my skinny arms. I tried to kick his leg but accidentally hit him in the crotch. He fell to his knees, yelling, “I’ll kill you!” I ran to our room in a panic, but he caught me and shoved me to the floor and kicked me in the back with his huge foot. Then, when I cried, he called me a baby. He took down our bunk beds and put my frame and mattress on the floor, across the room from his. He shoved my car collections aside and taped a poster of the Croatian Outlaws fudbal team over his bed. Now we barely speak, except when he’s insulting me.
      “Dinner’s ready,” Mom calls after a while. “Wash your hands.”
      We all hurry to the table. I forget to dry my hands and wipe them on the back of my pants, hoping she won’t see and make me go back and wash again. Mom serves chicken soup, fried okra, and my favorite, moussaka with beef. After my fudbal triumph, I’m starving.
      “Guess what I saw today? A giant helicopter, like the one in Airwolf,” I say between forkfuls. “It landed at the army base. And Vik saw a sergeant timing the soldiers to clean their guns faster.”
      Mom flashes my father a worried look, like I’ve said something wrong.
      “Stay away from them,” Dad snaps. “They’re not good guys.”
      What does that mean? I’m confused. He always says the army’s there to protect us. He spent twelve months in the military when he was eighteen. So did mom’s brother, Uncle Ahmet. Now that Eldin’s eighteen, he’ll be doing it soon too. It’s a requirement.
      “When do you go back to the reserves?” I ask.
      “Never,” Dad says.
      What changed? I’m about to ask when Eldin interrupts. “Can I take the train to Croatia with Tomo to see the championship game tomorrow?”
      “No,” Mom answers. “That’s seven hours away.”
      “We can stay overnight with Tomo’s cousin,” Eldin pushes. “Please? I’ll get the early train back Sunday morning.”
      “He is eighteen now,” Dad jumps in, which means he’s going.
      “Can I come?” I beg, though Eldin’s still mad at me.
      “No extra ticket.” He shuts me down.
      I know he could sneak me in if he wanted to. He’s such a liar.
      “Too far,” Mom repeats, shaking her head. “It’s dangerous.”
      “Eldin’s old enough to take the train to see a game with a friend,” counters my father.
      “Keka, stop,” she says.
      That’s Dad’s nickname. He’s the owner of Fitness Keka, the best gym in town. To him, sports are serious business. He’s in great shape. Whenever we’re out walking around, guys stop to talk to him and ask advice. People call him “the unofficial mayor of Brčko.” It makes my chest swell with pride.
      Sometimes, during volleyball games at his gym, I help out the players with him, holding the cold spray to numb their pulled muscles and other injuries. After the game, I wait for my dad in the locker room. Once, the guys were goofing around, hoisting me up on their shoulders. My head felt so dizzy I was sure it would fall off, but I didn’t want to scream put me down ’cause they’d think I was a wimp.
      Mom raises her voice. “This is not the time for Eldin to travel so far.”
      “Your mother’s a worrywart,” Dad tells us, smiling.
      Eldin nods, happy to have Dad on his side, as usual.
      “Keka, the climate’s changing,” she replies. There’s a line between her eyebrows, like she’s frowning with her whole face.
      I look out the window. It’s sunny, so I’m not sure what the weather has to do with anything.
      “He’ll be fine. Stop being a nervous Nellie.” Dad has the final word.
      “You leave me the phone number of Tomo’s parents and his cousin,” Mom tells Eldin, looking annoyed.
      Eldin grins in victory. My mouth droops. I’m so jealous. He always gets to go everywhere and do everything with his buddies, just ’cause he’s older.
      After three helpings of rice pudding for dessert, I go to my room to try to forget my brother, the big-shot showoff. I draw a picture of Lena, the sun and birds floating above her long hair. I’ll give it to her for her birthday on Monday and ask if I can walk her home from school.
      As I’m getting ready for bed, I hear Mom and Dad arguing. My parents hardly ever fight. I put my ear to the door, hoping to figure out what’s going on.
      “It won’t affect us, Adisa. This is our home, everyone here likes us,” Dad is saying.
      “When trouble is walking by, don’t offer it a seat,” Mom says loudly. “We have to get out of here fast.”
      Get out of here? But why? Where would we go? Who would I play with at recess? I wouldn’t be any good on another fudbal team without Vik. And what about Lena?
      “You’re in denial,” Mom tells Dad. I’m not sure where Denial is, but it sounds scary. Especially the way she says it, stretching out the last sound so it hums, giving me the shivers.

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