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Bosnian Refugee Talks About Coming to America - 2002-06-08

Unlike immigrants, refugees who come to the United States usually are not drawn here primarily by the opportunities this country offers. Rather, they are fleeing war or persecution or other conditions of danger and deprivation.

"The fact is that actually, me and most of the refugees escaped our countries just to save our lives and our families. And what is the picture that you have in your head no matter how educated you are, it's different than what you find when you come to the country. So it's not that simple. It's a very complex country, with big differences between states, between regions, and it takes a lot of learning to understand, actually, what the United States is all about," Sanja Mehmedinovic said.

She is a dark-haired, blue-eyed woman in her early 40s. She came to the United States with her husband, a writer, and 13-year-old son in 1996, after surviving almost four years of war in her native Sarajevo.

"Where I lived in the beginning of the war was the zone first attacked, and we had to leave our apartment through a mine field with my nine-year-old son and my old mother. And be internally displaced people in my own city for three and a half years, moving from here to there and escaping from grenades. Beside hunger, freezing, and feeling of loneliness, it's very hard when you see that everything is falling apart. Your life is falling apart, your friends and family are being killed or are leaving, and it's like the whole world is falling apart that you lived in for a long time. All that was very hard for me," Ms. Mehmedinovic said.

She said that by late 1995 the family was in pretty bad physical and psychological shape. Her son, whose hair at age thirteen was turning gray, had had only intermittent schooling in the past four years. He wanted to go to America. In Sanja Mehmedinovic's words, "the boy deserved a chance", so the family decided to leave Bosnia and apply for refugee status. They were accepted by the United States, and the resettlement agency that was assigned their case - the International Rescue Committee - sent them to the hot desert city of Phoenix, Arizona.

"It's a beautiful city and the people who live there are very nice and pleasant and they have no prejudices towards newcomers. But the problem was and is with many refugees that we come in this country without money, without help, without friends, family, anybody, without language. So you are pretty much like, you know, in a shock, in a cultural shock. And Phoenix is a huge city, and if you don't have a car or somebody to help you, it's hard to move around, to work," she said.

The International Rescue Committee rented a small apartment for the Mehmedinovic family, gave them some money for the first month's expenses, and helped them apply for food stamps - a government subsidy to help low-income people buy food. Other than that, the family had to fend for itself.

"Actually, I found a job myself, 10 days after I arrived. I was working in a hotel, and I had to drive my bicycle nine miles at four o'clock in the morning because I didn't have a car and I couldn't buy it. And my husband was working in the hotel, after 20, 25 days, because we didn't have any language ability. So I cannot say that it was easy. It wasn't," she said.

After five months the Mehmedinovics borrowed some money and moved to Washington, D.C., where there was a small Bosnian refugee community that could offer them emotional support. But they were determined to make it on their own.

"My husband was working in the beginning washing cars, and I was working different kinds of jobs for two and a half years. But we just didn't accept the situation to go and ask any kind of state help or humiliate ourselves by asking for some kind of social welfare of whatever, so we fought our way out of that situation and it was good after some time," she said.

Six years after coming to the United States, Sanja Mehmedinovic works as a case manager for a resettlement agency, helping people like herself with their first steps in this country. Her husband is publishing his work in English, as well as Bosnian, and their son has a scholarship to attend a prestigious theatre and film program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"Where on earth can you find something like it. He is a refugee kid who didn't have any friends, any money, any connections, and he fought his way out. The difference between the United States and other countries is that here you have the opportunity. In many countries he wouldn't be accepted in such a good school as an immigrant," she said.

Sanja Mehmedinovc said that she feels the decision her son encouraged her to make, to leave Bosnia for America, was a good one.

"I can say now that I am grateful to him, because I grew and my family, we all grew as people. We now know much more than we knew before, we learned another language, we live in a different culture, I think we now are much more educated people and much more worldly people, and we know much more about the world than if we had stayed in the same place. I think it was a very good decision," she said.