The Bosnian War (1992-1995) left 2.5 million people displaced from the former Yugoslavia. Forced to flee their country as refugees, many found themselves scattered throughout the United States in major cities and suburban enclaves, trying to build new communities while still healing from the traumas of war.
Utica, a cash-strapped industrial city in upstate New York itself on the brink of collapse, became the new home for thousands of Bosnian refugees in the late 90’s.
The following is the story of Mira,* an ethnically Muslim woman who lost her infant son during the Balkan War (1992 – 1995) and left Bosnia with her family in the hopes of making a better life in America.
“I never would have left my country if I believed we had a future there,” says Mira.
At 24, Mira had survived the death of her first child, two refugee camps, and witnessed the dissolution of her country. Her second child, a little girl, was now a few months old, and her husband Ivan – himself a veteran of three different armies during the Bosnian War – had no professional credentials beyond those of barman and soldier.
Unlike other refugee populations, Mira and Ivan now had a choice about whether they would stay or go. The war was officially over and they were safe in Kladusa – but entirely without hope.
Mira reports that the city was lifeless, the economy crippled, and the former Republic shattered along with its promise of ‘Brotherhood and Unity.’ Having burned with the fires of war and betrayal, the deserted streets of Kladusa were now haunted by the ghosts of hopelessness and fear. The city’s former inhabitants shuffled back from the looted houses in Croatia where they were forced to live 20 to a room in makeshift ‘refuge.’ They returned with few illusions.
Mira describes her pre-war childhood in Bosnia as possessing a quality of innocence, a feeling that her life, like those of her friends and neighbors, would be rhythmic and requited.
“Fulfillment, pleasure, a feeling of happiness,” she says. “That was my life.”
Two years following the end of the war, the promise of middle class continuity that once filled the cracks between Kladusa’s ancient bricks had long since drained away, and the animating spirit that pulsed through its markets and squares was extinguished. There was no evidence Mira and her young family would be able to recreate their former life or advance any dream they might have had of a future.
“We were young, able, with a kid, and with nothing to do. The worst part is when you look forward a couple of years and you don’t see yourself working, you don’t see yourself prospering. It just wasn’t there.”
Mira and her husband Ivan filed for refugee status and after several months in bureaucratic limbo, left Bosnia with their infant daughter Selma for the United States. In April of 1997 they drove to a small town and took a bus to Zagreb, and another to Austria, and from Austria they flew to New York.
“It was scary,” says Mira. “They gave us the IOM bag to carry on the flight. I would say it was humiliating. You feel like nothing and nobody. You don’t know anything. You’re like an idiot. You don’t know the language, the city, the people, where you’re going, what you’re going to do, when you’re going to get there. You know nothing.”
The family arrived at JFK airport where they were told by immigration officials that they wouldn’t be able to complete their journey.
“They said, ‘You’ve got to spend the night at a motel and come back tomorrow,'” says Mira. “Selma was feverish and sick. We kept feeding her milk and fluids and giving her showers. Then we finally went to the airport and landed in Syracuse.”
After several hours of waiting, a volunteer from the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR) arrived and accompanied the family into the city that was to become their new home.
“I remember entering Utica and thinking, ‘It doesn’t look much better than what we left,” Mira recalls. “It was people-less. Dirty. Old. Empty. I thought we might have made a mistake…The only thing holding me was that we were told we could go back anytime we want. So my goal was to get some job, pay off the ticket, buy a new one, and go home.”
There’s a feeling on many of the streets in Utica of a kind of frayed grandeur, a mixture of past glory and present decay. The gaping windows on a stretch of once stately brownstones have been patched with plywood; a rain soaked couch sits on the porch of a palatial, gingerbread-trimmed Victorian blackened with smoke and weather. There are scrubby, ill tended yards, rows of condemned houses full of crack-addled squatters, and long, spacious boulevards peppered with monuments from various epochs, including a 5-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty in faux-greened bronze, torch aloft.
Each successive wave of Utica’s immigrant populations has left its imprint here. It is a city of slices and sections and ‘Littles:’ Little Italy, Little Russia, Little Bosnia.
Burmese, Sudanese, and Somali refugees comprise the most recent swell, and the city has taken them in a somewhat uneasy embrace.
Utica needs these people less than they did the Bosnians in the 90’s. The Balkan War brought a ready made community with a ferocious work ethic to Utica’s failing factories and tanking real estate market – one that acted as a sop for a near fatal population bleed. It is a haven, but no paradise. In Utica one makes do.
“It’s not the America we expected,” says Ivan. “We thought there would be Las Vegas type of cities.”
“I had no real expectations,” counters Mira. “Maybe I did. I was so scared I wasn’t even thinking. I was not expecting to see emptiness. It was weird. There was no one walking on the streets. It was April, and there was some dirty snow on the ground. When I walked in the house where our friends were waiting for us, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The chair they used – my mom would use it to clean the ceiling. My grandma had something better and she’s almost 80. I couldn’t believe that was in America. I was shocked. How can people live like this?”
They lived with their friends for some time, and Ivan rescued a gutted TV set from a curb to use as a coffee table.
“I didn’t believe I was going to find homeless or poor people,” say Ivan. “When you say ‘U.S.’ back in Bosnia, it’s like ‘Wow, they’re millionaires, money all over the place.’ But there’s people in downtown Utica collecting garbage. We were not sure where we were…
“When the US presents itself outside the borders, it’s the best. We didn’t expect handouts, don’t get me wrong. But a decent life. I saw so many people – homeless, dirty, ripped clothes – is this really the US?”
“We got our own apartment within two weeks,” says Mira. “We got food stamps. We didn’t have cash for a couple of months. We were given some old furniture. One set of dishes. Blankets. They gave us a couch and a chair. The apartment was nice. It was a one bedroom, but that was plenty for us – coming from one room with twenty people.”
Mira and the family got the requisite tour of Utica’s social services, and they grounded their lives in the momentum of survival.
“Life went fast in the beginning,” says Mira. “You gotta do this, you gotta go there, sign this, sign that. In a month when our case was up at the county, we got some cash. It was enough to buy soap and diapers.”
In July Mira’s sister came with her husband and daughter, and in September her parents came with her little sister.
“Then it was a different story,” she says. “Your heart is full, you have support, you have help. You have somebody to share bad and good. It got easier.”
Tanya, her second daughter, was born in May of 2001.
“We had a few months left with Medicaid, and then we were going to lose that,” says Ivan, “So Mira started working so we could have health insurance.”
Mira’s first job was working at a factory assembling and packing medical supplies for minimum wage. She says it wasn’t bad at first, but the workload and hours increased, so she got a job at a nursing home.
When asked if America has become her new home, Mira’s response is nuanced.
“I still see my hometown the way I saw it before the war. I’m not aware of the changes. My sister went back and she was so disappointed. She tried so hard to make a nice picture for me. Some things you have to see, you have to feel, to realize. Maybe that’s what it is – I have to go back and draw a line about where I belong…
“I would make the same choice again – coming to America. Life got easier. Working. Sending kids to school. A normal life. The past moved where it should be. If I stayed that past would be closer. Life is now. Where it should be.”
Even if it is an evasion of the past, there are gifts to living fully in the present.
It is late on a Sunday afternoon, and I’m wrapping up my interview with Mira’s husband. As we’ve been talking in the living room, Mira and Selma have been toiling in the kitchen, pummeling and stretching wheat dough into stretchy paper-thin sheets, filling them with spinach and ground beef, and rolling them into tubes to make burek, a traditional dish.
Coiled into pans, the dough is cooked with roasted chicken and potatoes. Mira and Selma are setting the table, laying out bowls of sauerkraut. The kitchen is very warm and Mira appears, her face shiny with sweat, to announce she is taking a shower.
Minutes later, Mira emerges from the bathroom and is almost unrecognizable. Her black hair falls down her back in loose, damp waves. She smells of fruity shampoo. Her cheeks are flushed. She wears a bright green shirt.
A few hours previous she was telling me her story and in the telling seemed to become once again the woman in that narrative: a woman forced to eat her meals out of a bucket, her body torn in two, and holding a baby boy deep in the crevice of a broken heart.
But now she is this woman: flushed and smiling, sitting at a table heavy with a meal she has made, her brood assembled and happily tucking into spongy burek and steaming chicken. There is enough for all of them, for a second meal, and for a guest. Later, there will be strawberries and sugar on a platter.
And then, something after.
*The names of Mira, her family, and those of other refugees have been changed to protect their privacy.