Imagine your family being forced out of your home in the middle of the night and making your way to a refugee camp in another country, not once but twice.
This is my family’s story.
It was 1994, when my mom and dad and I had to leave our home in what was previously called Yugoslavia, in the city of Velika Kladusa. We were later allowed to return, only to be forced out again months later. I was three years old.
My parents and I first stayed in the Turanj refugee camp in Karlovac, Croatia. Turanj was basically in no man’s land, between Croat and Serb enemy lines, and riddled with mines, which meant you couldn’t go outside and play with your friends. We spent about four months there, until we were told that our hometown was safe enough to return to and live in again. That didn’t last very long.
Sometime in 1995, we made our way to another refugee camp in Croatia. This one was called Kupljensko, and it’s where I attended preschool and kindergarten, which were housed in a tent. We stayed there until our move to the United States in 1998.
The process of becoming a refugee in the United States is a long and excruciating one. The entire process took about a year for us, but it can take up to two years. My uncle, who had moved to the U.S. a couple of years before us, was our sponsor, and was responsible for sending us the refugee application and taking care of us after our move to the U.S.
After we filled out that initial application, all three of us were put through extensive interviews, not once, but twice. After the interviews, we were all put through a health check. After quite a bit of poking and prodding, we were finally given the OK to move to the U.S.
We landed at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 1998. It’s a day I’ll never forget because it was the day my life changed forever. My uncle, who I hadn’t seen for years, picked us up at the airport and we moved in with him and my aunt, until we were able to get a place of our own. My mom and dad and I spoke no English at the time.
Despite what most may think, we were responsible for paying back the cost of all three flights to the U.S., just months after moving here. But soon enough, my mom started working, we moved into our first apartment, and I started the second grade at Hodgen Elementary school. My dad, who was shot during the war in Bosnia was paralyzed on the left side, and couldn’t find work for several years after we moved here.
Fast forward 17 years. I graduated high school, a luxury some in Bosnia don’t have. I was fortunate enough to attend and graduate from the best journalism school in the world, the University of Missouri in Columbia, and since graduating, I have worked as a journalist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and now in my hometown of St. Louis.
I can’t sit here and tell you about the number of people I’ve seen get shot, or blown up, or die in front of my eyes, because I was lucky enough not to see such atrocities. But I can’t say the same for my parents. I can see the pain in their eyes every time we talk about the war or every time we go back to Bosnia for a visit.
But more importantly, after all of these years, I can now see the happiness in their eyes as well, thanks to the fact that we were able to move here so many years ago.
I remember the day all three of us finally became citizens of the United States of America. I remember attending my first Cardinals game, my first Rams game and my first Blues game — all unimaginable when we were living in our war-torn country — but thanks to the generosity of the U.S., they are among our best memories.
I’m sure you may have read about the Syrian refugees trying to gain access to the U.S. recently, and you’ve probably read about some governors in the U.S. taking a stand against accepting them into their states.
According to The Guardian, the process of making your way to the U.S. as a refugee right now takes between 18 months and two years. Candidates are vetted by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and many others. The U.S. has accepted just 2,174 Syrian refugees since 2012, according to The Guardian.
As you reflect on the Syrian refugee crisis and whether they should be accepted into the U.S., try to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine being that young couple with a a three-year-old looking for safety, or the refugee fleeing while being shot at, or seeing family members tortured or killed, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll want to give them a chance. Just like you gave my family a chance.
Source: St. Louis Business Journal