- Posted August 1, 2014 by
East Longmeadow, Massachusetts
This iReport is part of an assignment:
President’s immigration plan: Your views
Welcome to America: A life away from fear
- Jareen, CNN iReport producer
Since the age of six I was forced to move around, living in fear for my life; hoping, praying and wishing the fighting would stop. I spent my early childhood years hiding in the dark places of my basement, listening to bombs dropping right over my house and waiting for the gunshots to stop so I could fall back asleep. It all started during the early 90’s. Bosnia and Herzegovina was a beautiful, peaceful country composed of a medley of different religions and ethnicities, similar to the USA. However, the political parties had a different set of priorities: territorial power and control over peace. My parents were a mixed marriage couple, my mom is Croatian (Catholic) and my father is Serbian (Orthodox), therefore when Muslims and Croatians united and began to evict the Serbians, my life changed forever.
On an early spring morning in ‘92, I woke up to the sound of my parents packing the car and my grandma Mara told my sister and me that we were going on a little trip. It all happened so quickly, I left my parents behind and didn’t understand why. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as the car drove away and my little sister’s cries only reinforced the fact that something was terribly wrong. My sister and I were the first to escape with our grandma to a small village away from Bihac, where the war was starting to erupt. My parents stayed behind believing that the conflict would stop, but it only got worse. The Muslim and Croatian military in Bihac was uniting and my dad needed to escape immediately or else he would be imprisoned and eventually killed. Our house was marred with anti-Serbian graffiti and at night, the snipers would shoot at the house to let my parents know they were no longer welcome. It was a difficult concept to understand, but on a late fall morning, my parents made a decision to save themselves and escape on the very last Serbian military van and leave Bihac forever.
Once we were reunited, we needed to find a new safe place to live.
Our destination, Kulen Vakuf, was a Muslim territory but became a Serbian refugee camp during the “cleansing”. When we arrived to Kulen Vakuf, the town bore the scars of the war at hand: torn power lines, bombed-out buildings, dilapidated homes, and no accessible resources. There were only women, children, and elderly couples living in abandoned houses. This was the hardest time for my family. My father had to go fight for the Serbian army, so he would be gone for months at a time. We didn’t have any contact with him, except when other military men would come to town and rarely update us on his situation. My mom had the hardest role during this time; she was separated from her parents who still lived in Bihac and she was raising two little girls in a warzone with little to no income. In the wintertime, there were not many choices for food, but we ate what my mom saved from the garden and we never complained. In the cold winter months, my mom had to wash our clothes in the river and when she would come back in the house I would meet her at the door with a warm blanket because she would be shivering and her hands would be blue and numb. And in the evening we would huddle by our wood stove and she would read us stories until we fell asleep. But it was hard to fall asleep sometimes because all you could hear in the distance was the sound of gunshots and bombs. I would close my eyes, but I couldn’t escape the reality. And when I couldn’t sleep late at night, I would just wait by the window in candlelight and pray for my Daddy to come home and take us somewhere safe where we wouldn’t be cold, scared or hungry anymore.
We spent 2.5 years in Kulen Vakuf, until one day it was overrun, and the enemy was coming closer. My dad was actually home with us, so all four of us fled Kulen Vakuf together to a new territory where the Serbian civilians were safe. Once we arrived, we stayed with some of our relatives and waited to see what our next move would be. This is where my father found out that because of his war duties, he could not leave Bosnia and he had to stay back and fight for his country. We left my dad behind and fled to Serbia to stay with our grandparents. My mom had a very hard time leaving our dad behind; she cried the entire way to Serbia. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to watch her family separate so many times and never knowing if she would ever see her husband again. As soon as we arrived to Serbia, she turned around and went back for my father. She promised my sister and I that she would return safely and that dad would be with her next time she saw us. She kept that promise.
While we lived in Serbia, we had a very difficult time as we had lost everything in the war. The only thing that mattered was that we had each other and that’s what kept us going. When the war finally ended, I was nine and a half, and I remember hearing on the TV that America put an end to this terrible tragedy. But as the war ended, our struggles didn’t. We lived in a very small apartment and only had an outside wooden sani-can as a bathroom. At work my mom would get glares and comments from people who commented on her being Croatian and they said she didn’t belong in Serbia.
A couple of years after the war ended in '99, an organization in Belgrade (capital of Serbia) wanted to help refugees who survived the Bosnian war to relocate to America and start their lives over. My mom immediately wrote a letter to the organization, telling them our story and explaining how an opportunity to move to America would be the greatest gift our family can have. We had to go through an extensive interview process but once we got accepted, we knew a brighter future was ahead of us. The organization found a sponsor in Massachusetts who would help us find jobs and a home. I was twelve and a half when we moved to the USA. When we arrived at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, CT there were around thirty Americans, all members of the church congregation who sponsored us, waiting for us with signs that stated in both English and Serbo-Croatian “Welcome to America” and “Dobro Dosli u Ameriku”. We were so nervous to move to a completely new country where we couldn’t speak the language and we didn’t know a single person. But as we walked through the terminal and saw all those American people just smiling at us and welcoming us, we finally felt safe and at home. Our first month in the US we stayed with one family in particular who were our official sponsors. They still are the kindest family we could have ever met. Although we couldn’t speak English, they helped my parents find jobs (my dad first started as a window washer and my mom was a bagger at a grocery store), an apartment and they even contacted our town’s school system to ensure my sister and I could go to a regular American school. This accelerated our learning of both the language and the culture.
At home, we would practice speaking English at dinner every night. Next, we started celebrating American holidays and after 5 years of being permanent residents, we all proudly became American citizens. My sister and I both graduated from college. She is a Registered Nurse and I have a successful career working for a large global corporation with over 10,000 employees. My mom and dad are proud owners of a beautiful home and they both have good jobs. At the age of 24, I also bought my own home and by 27, I paid off my college debt.
It’s been an incredible journey, one that was both difficult and extremely rewarding because at the end of the each day, I am simply thankful to our sponsors and to the United States of America, whose citizens are more accepting than any other culture I’ve ever known. Thank you for letting me share my story.