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A War, A Family, A New Beginning: Former Bosnian Refugee Recounts Her Journey to Wisconsin

Joy Powers
Zijada Beganovic posing in her apartment.

The world is facing its worst refugee crisisin recorded history. Millions of people have been displaced by conflicts in Syria, South Sudan and other countries.

While European nations have been grappling with the influx of people, the U.S. has placed a temporary ban, which is set to go into effect March 16, on immigration from many of the countries affected by these conflicts.

The situation that Syrians face today is not so dissimilar from another crisis the world dealt with just two decades ago. The Bosnian War started in 1992. By its end, just three years later, more than 100,000 people were dead. Most of them were Bosniaks, some were victims of a genocide targeting the Muslim, ethnic group.

Zijada Beganovic was 4-years-old and living near Sarajevo at the beginning of the war. She and her family are Bosniak. Her parents grew up there while the country was still part of Yugoslavia, at a time when Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats lived together in relative harmony. 

Credit Courtesy of Zijada Begonavic
Zijada and her mother in Sipovo, Bosnia.

Zijada doesn't remember too much of her early childhood in Bosnia. "As a little kid, I didn't know why we were leaving. I just remember something was wrong and we left," she explains. 

Much of what she does know about the conflict has come from relatives and her own research.

The Beganovic family left the country in August of 1992, four months into the Siege of Sarajevo, where armed Serbian forces terrorized the majority Bosniak city in what would become the longest siege in modern history. More than 10,000 people were killed. 

Her family decided to move quickly as tensions escalated in early 1992. Zijada remembers being at her cousin's house in a small village outside of the city, watching the smoke from explosions loom over Sarajevo. "Where her house is there's a giant field of grass... it [was] so beautiful," she says. 

Credit Brian Eager / Flickr
Photo of Sarajevo, Bosnia, taken in 2011.

In order to flee, the young family needed to get back to the road, back into the city. But the field was surrounded by mountains, where snipers were hiding. "We ran through those fields not knowing if [we were] going to get shot from the soldiers that are behind you up in the mountains. So that was a challenge because you didn't know where the soldiers were, you couldn't see them," Zijada explains. 

What happened in Bosnia has been referred to as "ethnic cleansing." Both Serbian and Croat forces sought to rid different regions of Bosniaks and Bosnian culture. They did this by removing people from their homes through intimidation or force, detaining and killing people, and destroying mosques or symbolic buildings. In some cases, men and boys were systematically murdered; women and girls were routinely assaulted and raped. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs were suddenly enemies. 

When the Beganovic family reached the road out of town, they got into a car with a man. "The driver thought that my mom was a friend of his. Apparently she looked like someone he knew who was Serbian," Zijada recalls. "And he kept talking to her, just having this conversation. I remember my sister and I, we were in the back seat on the bottom, under the seats just trying to be protected, just in case someone started shooting the car." 

"He was assuming he knew her and she never said she wasn't that person. He got us back into town, where we were living in an apartment... not knowing like, what if he finds out? What's he going to do?"

"He was assuming he knew her," she continues. "And she never said she wasn't that person. He got us back into town, where we were living in an apartment. So that was weird. That was probably scary for her, not knowing like, what if he finds out? What's he going to do?"

Not long after that, Zijada, her mother and her sister fled the city by bus. Though she doesn't remember most of the trip, there's one moment she still vividly recalls: "One part of this drive, I was looking out the window... there's half a person in a ditch and half a person on the side of the road. Same person, just two pieces. I'll never forget that." 

"And I asked my mom about that and she didn't know what to say. Like, how am I supposed to know that? How's she supposed to explain that? And then everything after that was kind of blurry," she explains.

Zijada, her sister and their mother got to Germany before the height of the violence. Her father stayed behind, and joined the family later. Zijada believes he was required to stay and help Bosnian forces, since Bosniaks didn't have a standing army at the beginning of the conflict. She thinks he was working with a group of medics, but she's not really sure, and she's wary of asking her father about his time in the war. 

"People don't really like to talk about the past, especially the ones that are older and know exactly what happened. It's something that's not very talked about, unfortunately," Zijada explains. 

Life as a refugee

Credit Courtesy of Zijada Begonavic
Dzejna (on the left) and Zijada (on the right).

Her family's time in Germany lasted more than 7 years. Germany accepted more than 300,000 refugees during the war, but Zijada says they were often reminded that the German people didn't necessarily want them there. "You had kids who didn't really accept you for being a refugee, they used to tease [me] and in German it's called 'Auslander,' which... it wasn't a nice word for anyone to call you," she explains. 

Her family was lucky. They were able to live a comfortable life in Germany. But once the war was over, the government started expelling Bosnian refugees. The Beganovic family had two options: Go back home or go to the US. The choice seemed obvious. 

"Why would you go back home, when your home's destroyed? There's nothing there," says Zijada. "People are poor. It's still sad over there, like, it's getting better but there's so much poverty there still."

"It was a different feeling coming here. It didn't feel real, and I imagined America to be so different from what it actually is."

When Zijada and her family moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in 1999, they already had family living in the area. Zijada says she was surprised by the topography, the prairies and farm fields were much different from the mountains and forests she was used to. "It was a different feeling coming here," she remembers. "It didn't feel real, and I imagined America to be so different from what it actually is." 

Lake Geneva, a small resort city near the Illinois border, has a relatively homogenous population of white Wisconsinites. Zijada and her sister, Dzejna, stuck out with their dark hair and features. She says people would sometimes come up to her speaking Spanish. She would tell them she was European, from Bosnia, but they wouldn't understand. "I don't think kids knew what a refugee was, what war meant, what anything like that really meant," she says. 

"I tried to avoid telling people what my religion was, only because I didn't feel comfortable [with] how they would react."

There are no mosques in Lake Geneva or the surrounding county. The nearest mosques were over the border in Illinois or in the Milwaukee area, about an hour drive away. "I tried to avoid telling people what my religion was, only because I didn't feel comfortable [with] how they would react," Zijada explains. "There's so many perceptions about religions, especially Muslims." 

Just two years after moving to Wisconsin, the September 11 attacks killed nearly 3,000 people. The attackers were Muslim, members of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, who thought of themselves as crusaders for Islam. While Lake Geneva was physically distant from the attacks, there were a lot of misperceptions about what it meant to be Muslim. 

"There was this one example in high school," Zijada says. She was taking a photography class, and the teacher asked them to take a photo of something "pure."

"I remember asking my mom, 'Do you think it would be too much, or just taking it too far by taking pictures of myself... with the hijab on?'" she explains. "And she's like, 'No, that's who you are. You should be okay with that and whatever kids say, that's on them.'"

"There were some kids that ended up taking some of those photos that were hanging up in class, and writing bad things on them. They wrote terrorist, and some other things like that."

"The pictures turned out to be very beautiful... It showed who I am," she continues. She felt it showed another side of herself, something more than a teenage girl or "Zijada with the brown hair." But things took a turn after presenting them in class. 

"There were some kids that ended up taking some of those photos that were hanging up in class, and writing bad things on them," Zijada explains. "They wrote terrorist, and some other things like that. And to kind of just be like, 'whatever,' I laughed with them." 

"I didn't stand up for myself," she admits. "I laughed about it and then I took it home and was like, 'What the hell.'" Looking back at the incident years later, she wondered why she didn't take a stand. "Was I not confident enough to stand up for who I am, or did I just want to fit in with the others?" she asks. "I didn't realize how bad that was for someone to do." 

Life in the U.S. today

Credit Courtesy of Zijada Begonavic
Zijada and her husband Matija.

When she looks back at her childhood, Zijada says, "It feels like it's a different world... It doesn't feel like it's my life."

Zijada went on to graduate from North Park University with a Bachelors of Science in marketing. She now lives in Chicago with her husband, an ethnic Croat and Catholic. Like many Americans, she believes in looking forward and not dwelling on the past, although she recognizes that's more difficult for those who were "stuck" in Bosnia during the war. 

She worries about the travel ban and the anti-immigration platform that now President Trump ran on. During the campaign, Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Zijada still has her green card, but she thinks of herself as an American citizen. "I'm still a permanent resident, I still have all the rights except of voting. And it doesn't mean that I'm not trying to be an American citizen. I'm still a proud American citizen, that's who I am. I live here, this is my new country, my home."

"I'm still a permanent resident, I still have all the rights except of voting. And it doesn't mean that I'm not trying to be an American citizen."

Well before Donald Trump took office, Zijada faced issues when returning home after traveling abroad. She routinely faced a barrage of questions from border agents, and was detained once after going abroad.

"They took me to the other office and I had to sit there, and they had to verify my documents even further," she says. "And I just sat there, I'm thinking, 'What the hell?' I didn't do anything. I have no criminal record, I work, I have a degree, right? I went and got an education, I pay my taxes, and here I am, still being questioned for why I left this country. Is it because my passport says Bosnia? I don't know." 

She's nervous to travel now, unsure of what might happen when she returns. "It's nerve-wracking thinking about it, because what if they say, 'No, you can't come in,' and I have to go back," she says. "It could happen. I hope it doesn't, but I don't know. That's the thing."

When looking at the refugee crisis around the world, she's reminded of her own experience fleeing Bosnia. The photos showing crowds of Syrian refugees fleeing the country, mirror those of Bosnians in the early '90s. She wants to remind people that people like her didn't leave because they wanted to, but because they needed to. 

"We didn't choose to leave, right? We didn't choose to be kicked out of our home because of political reasons."

"We didn't choose to leave... We didn't choose to be kicked out of our home because of political reasons," says Zijada. 

She says that refugees are just people looking to live their lives free from danger. She hopes the United States continues to do what it did for her family: provide a safe space for families fleeing violence and hopelessness.

"Just like American kids and people who live here, we also just want to live our lives," Zijada continues. "We want to have a family, we want to be happy, we want to be healthy, and we don't want to be causing harm to anyone."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.