By Hana Muslic
I left the city I was born in at 11 months old, hidden in a car seat covered by jackets and a bulletproof vest.
“Our story is really a fascinating one,” said my mother, Amila Tanovic-Muslic.
My family came to Lincoln, Nebraska, as refugees from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in April 1996.
Our story begins in early 1992, when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to dissolve. Each of its former territories declared and fought for independence, especially after the rise of Serbia’s then-president Slobodan Milosevic.
Under Milosevic, the tensions that had already been brewing between Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three ethnic groups – Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – came to a head. Genocide began with the “ethnic cleansing” of the Bosniak majority, the group my family belongs to.
Our hometown, the capital city of Sarajevo, came under siege by the Army of the Serbian Republic in April 1992. For the next four years, our people endured what would become the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.
The war was in its fourth year when my parents, newlyweds, made the decision to escape.
“It seemed never-ending,” my mother said. “There was always some kind of ceasefire being signed, but it always ended up broken. We thought there was no future for us there.”
My birth in May 1995 made the escape a more pressing issue. I was born in the basement of what was once Sarajevo’s primary hospital before bombs completely destroyed it. The day of my birth, there was no running water, electricity or gas.
“With a small baby now in our lives, we had to make sure we could provide a better, safer life for her,” my mother said.
Leaving our hometown
Since we lived in a part of the city within the first line of fire, grenades had totally demolished our apartment building. This led us to move in with my grandparents in a different neighborhood. We were displaced – meaning we had good standing to apply for refugee status.
To apply, my parents and I would have to travel to Croatia, one country west of ours, and seek services from the U.S. Consulate there. Bosnia and Herzegovina only had an embassy. This meant escaping from the besieged Sarajevo and leaving behind all of our family and friends.
“It was very hard to leave them in that uncertainty,” my mother said. “But I thought I could help them more from outside the country. We could send them money and if they wanted to come live with us one day, that would maybe be possible.”
Both of my parents worked for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and had accreditations from the organizations to come in and out of the city for business. When the day came for them to finally leave for good, they packed up a car with the few personal items they could bring. As an infant, I obviously could not receive the same accreditations my parents received for “business travel.” This is when the jackets and bulletproof were used to hide me.
“Our only fear was that you would start crying,” my mother said. “But it was quick and easy. Really, leaving wasn’t that traumatic.”
We arrived in Split, Croatia, in February 1996. Longtime family friends of ours, Dunja and Damir Dapo, offered their seaside vacation home to us while we waited for our refugee status to process.
This processing involved countless medical checkups, thorough background checks and interviews with government officials where my parents had to prove that we would not become burdens to the United States. We received refugee status three months after we originally applied.
Coming to America
My mom’s younger brother, Haris, was living in Lincoln and attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after escaping Sarajevo on his own two years before us. He came through Church World Service, a nonprofit that organizes refugee resettlement.
“The government wanted some kind of guarantee that we would not become a public charge,” my mother said. “So Haris worked with CWS again to find us a sponsor for our coming to Lincoln.”
That sponsor was Sheridan Lutheran Church. Families from the church provided furniture, household items and rides for us during our first few months in Lincoln. CWS’s refugee resettlement program provided my parents with three months paid rent for our apartment, three months free medical insurance and enrollment in a program called Employment Search.
Employment Search’s goal is to help refugees find a job in their first three months of resettlement so that they can support themselves thereafter. Volunteers help these new Americans fill out job applications and search for jobs they are qualified for.
“For us, finding a job wasn’t so hard because we came with a knowledge of English,” my mother told me. “But it’s very hard for some people who don’t know English to obtain a job right away. Some of the families we know had to attend English Second Language classes at Southeast Community College.”
My mother found a job at Everett Elementary School as a para-educator and my father worked three different jobs – one in the early morning for a newspaper delivery service, one in the afternoon at Nebraska Press and some evening jobs as a pizza delivery man. They worked opposite shifts at these jobs so that someone was always at home to take care of me.
In the last 20 years, my family has seen many changes – all for the better. My twin sisters were born in 1997 in Lincoln. My parents have both found jobs they love that make good use of the degrees they obtained in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our family from back home has come to visit, and we have gone to see them several times since the war ended in late 1996.
“It’s a good life,” my mother said of living in Lincoln. “We are not thinking about going back because we’ve established our roots here now. We came without anything and we’ve built a good life since.”