By Cassie Kernick
When Samir Muslic came to America in 1996, his life in Bosnia was already established.
He had a wife, Amila, an infant daughter, Hana, and a promising career as a graphic designer.
Even during the Bosnian War the determined Muslic found a way to work and keep himself busy. But ultimately, he said the future of his daughter is what finally instigated the move.
“She’s one of the reasons why we came here,” he said. “We didn’t want to start again from scratch in the same place; we wanted to get something better for her.”
So when he and his wife arrived in Lincoln with an 11-month-old baby girl, he hit the ground running. He worked four jobs, all with varying degrees of relation to graphic design, until he found his way back into the advertising and marketing world.
Muslic is one of four Bosnians who came to Lincoln because of the war and are now making their mark in Lincoln’s Silicon Prairie through their work in marketing and advertising.
Muslic is a software design architect with Fiserv, a financial services technology company. Adi Kunalic is co-founder of start-ups Hurrdat and Opendorse. Zeljka Hassler is user experience (UX) design lead at Nelnet. And Emir Plicanic is UX lead with Vosaic, a joint venture between Nelnet and Hudl.
The four came to the United States at different ages and from different cities in Bosnia. Some had family here, some did not. But the four share the war as a common reason for leaving their home country and now share a common career.
They are among 500 Bosnians who made Nebraska home after fleeing the turmoil caused by civil war in 1992, when the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina sought independence from the socialist Yugoslavia.
Because of refugee resettlement programs, Samir Muslic quickly became connected to the rapidly growing Bosnian community in Lincoln. Through this community, he befriended, Slava and Pred Paul, the parents of then Zeljka Pavljasevic, now Zeljka Hassler. She was 17 when her family was resettled in Lincoln in 1996.
When she began studying art at UNL in 1998, her analytical-minded parents reached out to Muslic to see if he could offer her a more practical part-time job. He had just the thing.
Muslic had started working at the Distributed Environments for Active Learning Lab in 1998 on East Campus. At this job, he began making the transition from graphic design to web development. Muslic said he naturally became interested in web development as the rise of the internet was “mind-blowing.”
When Hassler began working there in 1999, she found that maybe she had more in common with her software developer mother than she had previously believed.
“I started to see the potential of the internet and computers when it comes to art and design,” she said.
While Muslic’s and Hassler’s careers diverged for a while, they met up again in 2007 at Bailey Lauerman, a branding, digital marketing and advertising agency.
After a brief reunion, Muslic decided to try his hand at the corporate side of web development. Hassler stuck to agency life and began working at Swanson Russell, where her role transitioned into associate interactive art director.
In 2016, she decided to go the in-house agency route at Nelnet where, coincidentally, she would be filling Plicanic’s role as user experience (UX) design lead.
Plicanic was transitioning to UX lead within tech start-up Vosaic, which is a joint venture between Nelnet and Hudl. The two developers had met each other briefly before through social events within the Bosnian community.
Neither Plicanic nor Hassler realized how their interests related to advertising until they were in Lincoln.
Plicanic was interested in development because of his love of video games; Hassler thought she would someday be a comic artist.
Plicanic was 23 when his family arrived in Nebraska in 1999. The family thought they were going to Florida with other relatives, but found themselves resettled in Lincoln instead. They had lived in Germany for six years before arriving in the U.S. During their time in Germany, Plicanic he did a work-study program and studied civil engineering.
By the time he arrived in the U.S., he had the equivalent of an associate’s degree and hated the idea of returning to school.
So he started working at different nonprofits as an interpreter helping other Bosnians and taking a few web development classes at Southeast Community College.
That’s when he and a friend started a company called Asari to develop websites for nonprofits. After school ended, he was looking for more exposure to the tech community, so Plicanic took the job at Nelnet.
Throughout his career, his path also crossed with Muslic’s. Plicanic said Muslic was a great mentor to Hassler but also to Khara Lintel, the woman who would become Plicanic’s wife in 2006.
The career path for Kunalic, COO of Opendorse, is less connected to the other three as his immigrant story starts in Texas in 1999.
Kunalic found himself in Nebraska in 2007 to be a place kicker for the Huskers. He started at UNL as an undeclared major, but by second semester had found his way to advertising.
“I liked the creative side of it,” he said. “That was right at the time social media was taking off, and I loved the idea of capitalizing on that.”
And capitalize he did. He and former Husker teammate, Blake Lawrence, began doing social media for local businesses and quickly co-founded the company Hurrdat in 2010.
After a stint with the NFL, Kunalic returned to Lincoln. Hurrdat had been offering a service that connected marketers with athletes to create social media campaigns. He and Lawrence decided this particular service could become its own company. In 2012, Opendorse was born.
Kunalic sees his dedication to work as part of the immigrant mentality.
“It feels like a way to thank my parents indirectly,” he said. “I want to show them that they made a great decision even if it wasn’t easy.”
Muslic, on the other hand, sees his work ethic as separate from his refugee past. He said he was never afraid of work, but is glad for the opportunities for his three daughters in the U.S.
For Plicanic, his refugee past puts everything into perspective.
“When you go from having things and then losing everything from war, it makes taking risks easier,” he said.
As for Hassler, she is happy that through her refugee connections she ended up working in such a collaborative field.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I feel like I’m lucky to do what I do.”