My childhood was a happy one. I remember Sarajevo as a very beautiful city. One of the most beautiful cities in the world I would say. It is very picturesque; the old Turkish part of the city has well-preserved little old stores, mosques, and older buildings intermingled with very modern architecture. People were kind and friendly, open minded and talkative. We welcomed many guests and foreigners from all parts of the world. Life was quite harmonious, and Sarajevo was always very cosmopolitan. Even during the war it was still like that. The hostilities going on in other parts of the former Yugoslavia were not that obvious in the city. All three ethnic groups still lived together.
I graduated from medical school in Sarajevo in 1984, and I worked as a doctor after that. At the beginning of the war, there was a time of big confusion. Nobody knew what was happening, or what was going to happen. Everybody was hoping that the thing was going to resolve itself very soon and that the hostilities were not going to escalate, but, unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Little by little we were moving towards war. It started gradually. I mean something was in the air for many months. There was a complete confrontation of the opposing parties in the conflict, the ethnic factions. The propaganda spread by the media was fierce. Every program talked about the opposing parties; different versions of the news were coming from Zagreb, Belgrade, and Sarajevo from the three ethnic groups. So by the time the conflict started, the confusion and the division of ethnic groups was complete. Everything was ready for the war.
I do not remember any of this from my childhood. The tension was nonexistent, or it was not obvious in the urban areas of Bosnia Herzegovina and Yugoslavia in general. In the bigger cities of Bosnia Herzegovina like Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Banja Luka, people used to live together, work together, attend each other's celebrations, funerals, often intermarry. Up to one third of the marriages were mixed. Nobody paid much attention to religion (especially to the aspect of it that later turned out to be very important). So it came all of a sudden. I would say that it was somehow induced. Maybe it was very well covered, but at least I could not notice it with my senses. Perhaps it had started little by little, let's say in the mid-eighties.
In the beginning of the war I never thought that I would ever want to leave my country. First of all from the inside it wasn't all that obvious that the war was going to start, and that things were going to become like a conflict between nations. We all hoped that it was going to stop and rather soon. It's that "madness," as we used to call it, it is going to last just a few months, not even that. And then if nothing else the international communities are going to intervene and stop things. But nothing like that happened. And as a matter of precaution, lots of women and children left the city. Among others my wife and my one-and-a-half-year old daughter left the city at the beginning of the conflict. They went to England.
The situation developed gradually. First of all the war was getting worse and worse. The situation deteriorated. I stayed in my town, my country for patriotic reasons. I thought it was my duty as a citizen to help. My being a physician added to that decision. I was supposed to help people. But the situation was getting worse and worse. The city was completely blockaded; there was nothing. The electricity was cut off, the heat, the gas supply was cut off, and the phone connections were cut off. The food supply was cut off. It was like a huge, huge prison or concentration camp with very harsh weather conditions. The winter in Sarajevo is rather bad. Remember we had enough snow to host the Olympics in 1984. So one can only imagine how it was during that Sarajevo winter with temperatures as low as --20 degrees Fahrenheit, with lots of snow and no heat. I would come to work in the morning to the hospital, and I would find people frozen to their beds, there was no heat in the room. They were frozen dead. And it was happening; it was a common thing to find.
A year after my wife left, I was ready to leave Bosnia and join them. It was a very difficult decision, and it didn't come all of a sudden. I didn't wake up one morning and think to myself, I am going to leave. It developed little by little. The situation was getting absurd. On one side, I had my patriotic duties to work for my fatherland and my parents were still there, but on the other side, I had an even bigger duty of taking care of my immediate family. It had been some time since we had all been together, the situation was getting worse and worse, and communication had broken down. I didn't have any way of communicating, just through the humanitarian agencies; they let us talk through the radio station via Paris. It was very brief and irregular and obviously insufficient.
There were a couple of ways to leave the country. One was by land. Although the city was besieged, there was a possibility to do it through no-man's-land. So people would go by land to another part of the surrounding region. I embarked on a German military plane at the airport in Sarajevo, which was operated by UNHCR. They took me to Ancona, Italy. I had a special permit which was needed to get out. I was helped by a close friend. The permit was like a UNHCR ID card, but it was given to other people too. Because I was involved in humanitarian operations in Sarajevo, I was entitled to one of those cards. It was usual to use them as a way of finding transportation. There was communication between Sarajevo, Zagreb, Split, and then Ancona, Italy. These three cities communicated through Sarajevo, so I decided to go to Ancona. In Italy, I stayed for two days waiting for a friend of mine to arrive from Split. We rented a car, drove to Paris, and finally I joined my family in London.
I started my fellowship in cardiology in England. I spent almost three years there. Since the situation wasn't getting any better in Bosnia, my wife and I had to think about the future of our child. We decided to try our chances somewhere else, to try to move to some other country because it was extremely difficult to stay on a permanent basis in any European country. Even in England, we could not have permanent residency, at least not immediately. We were aware that we might be asked to leave the country, and we wanted to avoid that stress and upheaval.
From England we came directly to Chicago since my wife's sister is living here. She emigrated with her family just before the war. However, they immigrated to the United States naturally, since my brother-in-law has been working for an American firm for ten years. We came to Chicago in 1995. Once we were in Chicago, we made a plan. We agreed that my wife would find work as quickly as she could in order to support us, and I would study for the U.S. medical exams in order to be able to work as a doctor. We managed to realize this plan, at least a part of it. My wife found a decent job. She has degrees in English and Arabic, so she found a job as a secretary. She is doing fine. And I have managed to pass two medical exams.
My residency in London certainly helped with finding a residency here. But the systems are not entirely compatible, and my previous medical experience is not officially recognized. So I had to be qualified in order to be eligible to have a medical license. Passing the examinations took a considerable amount of time and energy. I had to restudy all the medical material. I had two tests in seven months, and I was lucky enough to pass them. After that I was entitled to seek residency in the States. They accept applications once a year, so it was too late last year. I had to wait for a year, and I managed to do it. I signed a contract with Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, and I am starting residency in July.
Meanwhile I have been working for the Interchurch Refugee and Immigration Center because I thought it would be the second most important job for me to do. I do community service and social work with refugees. I have been employed there since April 1996. I live in Bensenville, which is a western suburb. There is not much of a Bosnian community here, but we find it to be a safer environment for the child than the inner city. We have a small, nice apartment, and my daughter goes to school nearby. She has a lot of friends. My daughter will be seven in August this year. She is a first grader; her English is much better than mine. She corrects me all the time. Actually it's her primary language even though we are struggling with her to speak Bosnian. When my parents come over or when we go to visit them we would like them to be able to speak with her. But it is getting difficult.
My parents are still in Bosnia/Herzegovina, and I would like them to join us, but so far they are reluctant to leave the country. They have spent most of their lives there, and they are at an age when moving has become more difficult. So far I have not been successful in trying to get them here. They still live in the same apartment, but I am not sure whether all the window panes have been repaired. At least they are fortunate enough to have an apartment. I also have a sister. She is five years older than I. She lives with her family in a small town in Germany near the Swiss border. They have been there since the beginning of the war. She has two kids; the younger son, Faruque, was born in Germany. It might be that they will be coming over here to the U.S., because the situation in Germany for the refugees is not very good. Germany was very kind to take 300,000 Bosnian refugees, but only temporarily, and as far as I know, they do not have any intention of extending their hospitality for much longer.
I believe that in the next couple of years it is not going to be very easy to live in Bosnia. First of all the problems have not been resolved. The differences between opposing parties are still enormous and very difficult to bridge. The country is devastated by the hostilities. The bulk of the population has left the country and is uprooted. I think 4.2 million inhabitants of Bosnia/Herzegovina have left for other parts of Yugoslavia, for European countries, Australia, or the United States. So I think it will take quite some time to get the situation back on track.
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