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Refugees in Our Communities

IMG_1897Marina Kovacevic, Law Student and Former Refugee from Banjaluka, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Where are you from?
Banjaluka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Why did you have to leave? Who did you leave with?
I left when I was 8 years old with my mom and sister. We had to leave because the living conditions in Bosnia at the time were unbearable. We had just gone through a civil war, and much of my family was either killed or in financial despair. We did not know the future of our home or what would happen to us if we stayed, if we would even live to see another year. During the war, my father was drafted into the army on the Serb side because we lived predominantly in a Serb region. His platoon was captured and taken to Croatia. He was held in a prison camp, but was allowed to leave when he called an aunt who proved that he was half Croatian. However, the Croatian army had taken all of his identification documents, so he could not stay in Croatia as half Croatian and could not prove his half Serbian identity when he tried to return to Bosnia. He applied for refugee resettlement with the United States and several other countries. Luckily, the Catholic Social Services in the U.S. helped him immigrate to the United States and after several failed attempts that took a year, my mom, sister and I, were able to immigrate as his dependents.

What were you able to bring with you?
I brought clothes and one doll. We also brought some photographs, video cassettes, and music cassettes.

When did you arrive in the U.S.? Which organizations helped you when you arrived?
I arrived on January 16, 1997 and the Catholic Social Services helped us.

What surprised you about daily life in the U.S.?
EVERYTHING!

I was surprised about how HOT it was in Arizona in the middle of January.

I remember thinking that the grocery stores were gigantic and I had so much fun going. In Bosnia, we only had coca cola on birthdays and New Years because it was expensive. So I thought it was wonderful to have coca cola whenever I wanted. I also gorged on cookies, chips, and McDonalds, which I had only seen in movies. It isn’t that my family was poor in Bosnia, but chocolate and snacks were just not sold ever since I can remember.

I also found it wonderful that everyone always smiles in the U.S., something that we consider ingenuine in Bosnia. But, I loved it.

I loved the desert and the fact that western movies that I had seen stayed true to the actual scenery.

I loved how many children’s movies there were on TV and even though we only had basic cable back then (about 10 channels), there was always something fun to watch. Once we got the Disney Channel, I was in heaven.

Lastly, I was mostly surprised how emotional people are here. I felt this as a child, but more so as I grew older. Here, it is okay to express your emotions, even encouraged. It is okay to stop in the middle of what you are doing and smile, cry, or laugh. It is okay to tell people you love them every day and you will not be seen as weak or ingenuine. That is my favorite thing about America.

What would you like fellow Americans to know about refugees arriving in the U.S.?
I would like them to know that refugees and immigrants are just as intelligent and capable as you. I did not appreciate being talked down to (which I still do) because people thought that just because I did not speak English, I was not as intelligent. I work with immigrants and always imagine where they used to work in their home countries and how intelligently they speak in the native languages. So, I appreciate that someone does the same to me.

I would also like people to know that immigrants and refugees are not “stealing” Americans’ economic opportunities or social benefits. Refugees did not choose to leave their countries and the lives they likely loved before things became ugly. They simply needed to save their own lives and do what is best for them. They had to find another countries and if they need any public benefits Americans claim they abuse, refugees are only allowed to use it for a certain amount of time until they settle in.

I would also like Americans to know that we are the same. I would like to put themselves in refugees’ shoes and think–would I do anything necessary to save my own life and the life of my child? If so, what would that be?

What do you (and your family) do now?
I am immigration attorney in the making, my sister is a bankruptcy attorney and my mother is a student liaison for refugee and immigrant students at an elementary school district and she teaches behavioral health (psychology) at a university.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I want to continue traveling the world. I want to learn Spanish and several other languages. I want to ride an elephant, sky dive, and have my own garden. I want to live in a big city and work for a non profit organization that deals with human rights. I want to present a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. I want to write a book. I want to have a column in a fashion magazine. I want my mom to retire in a beach house. And lots more!

 

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