Out of a war zone
With war raging in Bosnia-Herzegovina in mid-1993, 13-year-old Lejla Becirovic, her 15-year-old brother and their parents fled their home in Ljubuski. In fear of being placed in a concentration camp where they would surely die, the family sought refuge in a tiny mountain village in neighboring Croatia.
Conditions there were hardly better. The family lived in cramped lodgings with no electricity or running water. When it rained, rainwater washed down the interior walls of the small rooms they inhabited. But at least the family remained together — and alive.
It was in this small village that they applied for refugee status and evacuation as far as possible from the conflict enveloping the Balkans. “At that time we were told the countries that were taking refugees were Germany and the U.S.,” Becirovic confirms. After a year wait, in terrible and often freezing conditions, the family was evacuated to Twin Falls, Idaho.
The refugee center in Twin Falls quickly found jobs for Becirovic’s mother and father, enrolled both children in school, and secured an apartment for them. The family was grateful to be safe. It was 1994.
Acclimation to the new culture and a new language was not easy. “The only English words we knew were from American songs,” Becirovic recounts. The refugee center enrolled the whole family in mandatory English language classes. Her parents attended for only a short while, but Becirovic and her brother stayed in courses for four months. By that time, they could both communicate well enough to get along at Twin Falls High School.
Their new understanding of English, however, brought an unintended consequence: they could now experience racial epithets from callous classmates. “People would taunt us and say, ‘Go back where you came from.’” This seamier side of America, Becirovic says, is rarely recounted in Europe, and thus was unexpected.
Nevertheless, Becirovic graduated from high school – actually from a school in Missouri (“I just wanted to see the country,” she says), graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Following graduation and a return to Idaho, she enrolled at Boise State University and graduated with honors from both the bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in the School of Social Work. Becirovic says a common fallacy regarding immigrants is that the federal government provides them a free education. “I got one $500 scholarship in all of my schooling, the rest was all students loans just like everyone else.”
Becirovic has had numerous offers of employment, and is considering taking on a full-time counseling position. But other opportunities beckon.
She spent the closing of this past summer back in Bosnia-Herzegovina: “If I could get a job there, I’d go back tomorrow,” she says. Some of Sarajevo has been rebuilt, but portions remain tattered and abandoned, a metropolitan casualty of war. Other consequences still plaguing the once great city that hosted the 1984 Olympics include heavy unemployment. “Lots of people go to college, but there are few jobs for them when they’re done with school,” something that weighs on Becirovic’s mind as she contemplates a return to her native country.
The visit to her hometown was not the experience she expected. Orthodox Christian Croats now dominate the city where Becirovic and her Muslim family once lived — and tensions remain high. In Ljubuski, cemeteries are segregated by religion: “I wanted to visit the Muslim cemetery, but it’s just not safe to do so in a Croat town.” Croats now occupy the Becirovic family home.
Back in Twin Falls, some things remain the same. Becirovic’s father, once a manager of a textile plant in Bosnia, maintains his job at the College of Southern Idaho — the same job he took upon arrival in America. For Becirovic’s mother it is much the same — she remains at McDonald’s.
The American Bosnian community, however, has grown. Becirovic’s cousin owns a coffee shop in Twin Falls, which serves as an unofficial gathering place: “It’s a place we can go and hear our own language.” The growing Bosnian community also means increased attention from Bosnian entertainers who are now touring America more frequently. Becirovic describes a recent show at Boise’s Mardis Gras club that featured Bosnian singer Halid Beslic. In her native tongue, Becirovic asks her father how he would describe Beslic’s music. The translation: it does not translate – something akin to country music, Bosnian country music.
Now 26, Lejla Becirovic looks and sounds as if she has always lived in Twin Falls, or Des Moines or Seattle. But she radiates qualities — depth, compassion, and maturity — that come from someone who has faced her worst fears and emerged on the other side the better for it.
Written by Chris Blanchard.