Sarajevo to Arizona: One refugee’s story

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – I am a doctor, a member of the armed forces and proud to call Arizona my home. I am also a refugee.

One of the strongest memories from my childhood in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the day I followed my mother to our neighborhood clinic. It was summer and the mortar attacks were intense. Children were getting cabin fever from having to hide for weeks in dark basements. A neighborhood boy just wanted to see the sun and when his grandma wasn’t looking, he snuck outside.

The mortar landed close by. I hid in the hallway of the clinic as my mother held the boy’s head, trying to reassure him while knowing he would never play again. With his last breath, he said, “Please tell grandma I’m sorry I didn’t listen.”

We left for the United States soon after.  Nearly one in 100 people worldwide are now displaced from their homes, which, according to Pew Research, is the highest number displaced since 1951. The United States has a long history of providing protection and assistance to refugees.  As an Arizonan, I am proud to say that in 2015, our state took in 4,138 people facing persecution and fleeing violence.

Being a refugee shaped me more than I could have ever known.  A refugee is defined as a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.  But it’s a lot more than that; it is a feeling of not having a home anywhere. It is the absence of family dinners, your childhood home destroyed, your family and friends hurt or dead, your existence erased. Upon arrival in the U.S. at the age of 12, I was treated as an outsider.  On my first day of school, children threw stones at me during recess.  To come to your new home and yet again be rejected was devastating.

While these memories are a part of my transition, it was the kind acts of a few pivotal Americans that I remember most vividly.  A Phoenix entrepreneur taught my sister to drive, bought us our first car and remained an active part of our family.  When my father was hospitalized, a generous couple found a home for my family closer to the Scottsdale Memorial Hospital. My adopted Italian-American grandparents made us dinner once per week.  These were all remarkable people who shaped my life forever.  I owe who I am to the kindness of these men and women.

The journey to today was difficult. Starting a new life in a strange land whose language you do not speak and whose people may not understand you, and even fear you, is not easy. Yet people saw potential in me and supported it.  I learned English. I went to medical school and joined the military to give back. Today I share my passion for medicine with medical students and residents by teaching at a military residency program.

I am now a productive member of my community, but I could not have done it without the kindness of others. I implore you to reach out and help a refugee feel welcome in their new home; with your support they have the potential to do more for the community than one would ever imagine.