Stories of Refugees and Immigrants
As the warlike tensions escalated, Vanja and her friend, students from Bosnia and Hercegovia, watched as numbers of cars, loaded with people and their possessions, lined the streets in a mass exodus. Vanja thought she would just go visit her friend’s home and thus, she grabbed her winter coat and a few pieces of jewelry.
After staying six or seven days with a family now numbering 24 persons, they went across the nearby border to Croatia, staying through the summer in a refugee hotel. Vanja’s mother joined her and by summer’s end, they left for the Grandmother’s village. They were never able to return to the apartment for their possessions, and needing to earn money, Vanja headed across the Italian border and into Austria and then Germany. She found employment, despite not knowing the German language.
For eight months, Vanja lost track of her parents who had stayed in soldier occupied Mostar, near Sarajevo. Finally, a Red Cross letter arrived with news of their survival. Vanja says that her Father has said that he believes “Mother Mary had a large dress that took us in and covered us to protect us from the violence.” Vanja met her future husband, Zdravko, as former friends reconnected in Germany. He was the only man she dated who did not ask her religious background. (Vanja had always been labeled as “mixed” because her father was Orthodox and her mother was Catholic in a country torn apart by Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim divisions.) Zdravko is Catholic. They married and daughter Tia was born in Hamburg.
As they worked in Germany, they realized that they would not be granted residency there. At about the same time, the Clinton administration initiated a refugee status that allowed people of “mixed marriages” to move to the United States. After seven years on a waiting list as refugees, they were granted the opportunity to come to Lincoln, Nebraska. On arrival in Lincoln, Heartland Refugee Resettlement got them settled and they started with janitorial jobs as they gained their English skills. Vanja moved into a para educator position with Lincoln Public Schools before returning to Heartland Refugee Resettlement.
Today, Vanja, Zdravko, and Tia have been in Lincoln for six years and became citizens last year. They attended classes to learn about home ownership and today they own their home.
My journey through the world began on April 4, 1992, when the first bullet was heard in town and the beginning of the war was announced in Bosnia. I was only 11 at the time and since then I have not had a place that I would feel comfortable calling home. Every year, the celebration of Eid brought thousands of people to our town for dancing, good food, and reconnecting with old friends. Towards the end of the day, an army convoy entered town and shot a local man in the street, sending people into basements for the rest of the night. The following day, we began building temporary houses in the woods for ourselves in case the army returned to town. Once the army realized that most people were in the woods, they started dropping bombs on mountains where they presumed we were hiding. We were occupied from all sides and there was no way out and people believed that the army would eventually regain control of our town and kill us. People lost all hopes of ever escaping and our only option was to wait out the end of the war.
Five months later, a local man began telling people that he can take people out, but through enemy lines, therefore not guaranteeing that we will make it out alive. My father and a few other men accepted the proposal. According to our tour guide, the army controlling this area had a shift change only a couple times a day and we had to wait for hours to move between shifts when the enemy would not be paying such close attention. All of a sudden, our lives in the woods seemed much better. Since there was no way back, my father decided that we should head for Croatia. On the border of Croatia, we were asked to spend a night in a school because the city was under attack. That night, an army stormed the school and took away all men including our father. We continued our journey to Croatia without knowing what happened to our father. Upon our arrival, we were settled in a Mosque in for 3 months. We waited for someone to tell us that our father is home and alive. Before we could hear anything, we were transferred out of the capital into a smaller town and settled at an army base. We were not allowed to walk or sit on the grass because the army base was filled with land mines.
After a choice of returning to Bosnia or Germany, we chose Bosnia to be reunited with our father. We were happy even though we were back at the front lines of the war. A couple of months later, our lives were shattered with the death of our mother. She was killed by shrapnel while fetching water in front of her mother’s house. Within a month, we were devastated once again by the disappearance of our father. Since I was the oldest in our household now, I was left to take care of my two little brothers. For a year, we worked hard, ate very little, and listened people talk about the orphaned children whose father abandoned them. On my 13 th birthday, a letter arrived via UNHCR from America, telling us that an American lady will be arriving within days to take us with her and all we needed to do was travel 14 hours on foot to get to her. Why we believed this stranger, to this day we do not know.
Our father met us in Croatia and we safely arrived in New York to find out that this lady is our stepmother, who had risked her life to come and save ours. She held her promise and my little brother was in America within months. We moved to Crete where we finished high school and then I entered Beloit College in Wisconsin. After 4 years of college, I went to Bosnia for a visit and met Almir, an old friend from elementary school, who later became my husband.
It has been 13 years now since we left Bosnia and we have become very americanized, but our memories will always keep us close to home. Here I had an opportunity to become what I wanted and gain my independence. Now, I help people that come to this country and may feel lost, just like I was 13 years ago when the only phrase I could say was “I don’t speak English.”