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Cover Story: Refugees No More

Ten years later, Bosnians feel at home in Cincinnati

By Saleha N. Ghani · June 22nd, 2005 · Cover Story
At her home in Westwood, Aisa Softic serves strong Bosnian coffee, using dishes from her homeland. Hospitality is a strong tradition among Bosnians -- a tradition she once maintained in spite of Serb aggression in her own home.
Jon Hughes/photopresse.com

At her home in Westwood, Aisa Softic serves strong Bosnian coffee, using dishes from her homeland. Hospitality is a strong tradition among Bosnians -- a tradition she once maintained in spite of Serb aggression in her own home.

When Aisa Softic, a Muslim woman, opened her front door, a soldier showed her his gun. Before she knew what was happening, Serbs had occupied her house and she found herself begging to be allowed to keep a single room for herself, her teenaged son, her sick mother-in-law and a nurse.

Softic lived in Bosanska Gradiska, a small city on the northern tip of Bosnia-Herzegovina, near the Croatian border. Before the war started, she had a secure job as a high school principal. She and her husband, a well-established doctor, had two children.

But in April 1992, when the Serbs began their ethnic cleansing campaign to take over Bosnia, the Softics' lives were uprooted. Aisa's husband and daughter had already fled, but she stayed back with her son to care for her mother-in-law.

Although the war took the lives of many Bosnians, Softic actually gained a "daughter." Sanja, who asked that her last name not be printed, is her cousin and former student.

Sanja graduated from college and became a teacher just after the war started. In November 1994, when she was 22, her mother died of cancer. Her father had died years earlier, and she was now on her own.

But a promise bound the two women together; Softic promised Sanja's mother that she would take care of her daughter.

"Oh yes, I care for Sanja like she is my daughter," Softic says.

It was Softic who helped Sanja come to the United States.

Both women learned English after emigrating; their exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures fill the gaps when they search for words.

"That's the good part of the story, how I got here," Sanja says with excitement.

She talks about her flight from Bosanska Gradiska to Cincinnati as though it were an adventure.

Going undercover
After Sanja's mother died, there was nothing left in Bosnia to keep her in the midst of a war zone.

"I didn't want to stay," she says. "It wasn't safe, especially if you have a nice home."

The Serbs' ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims -- a combination of forced relocation and mass killings -- made it unsafe for her to stay, and having money made her even more vulnerable.

Because Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians, regardless of religion, dressed similarly, the only way for the Serb army to know which families were Muslim was by their names, according to Sanja. Although she is a Muslim, her first and last names aren't Arabic. Her paternal heritage can be traced back to Croatia, so her surname is Croatian. Therefore she was comparatively safe.

Sanja says her first name suits her well.

"The first part, 'San,' means 'dreamer,' " she says, laughing. "That's what I am."

Because she didn't have a Muslim name, Sanja was able to help other Bosnians by traveling to nearby towns to gather documentation enabling them to leave. Most who escaped used Serb IDs.

"I was undercover, basically," she says. "Muslims were not allowed to travel."

It was common for the Serbian army to inspect buses and remove Muslims.

Sanja left in March 1995, crossing the Serbian border with the help of an Austrian friend who had a connection with the Serbs. Although it was the Serbs who were trying to conquer Bosnia, some helped Muslims escape.

Sanja left her native country using an old passport left over from the Yugoslavia republic, from which Bosnia and Croatia had seceded.

"Oh, hallelujah! I didn't have a Bosnian passport," Sanja says. "I feel sorry for those people."

Her resourcefulness also helped her leave the war-stricken country. Assertiveness and quick thinking led her to seize an opportunity at a crucial moment. Her arms wave about with excitement as she talks about the incident.

Two buses were approaching the Serbian border; Sanja was on the second bus. After the first bus had been inspected for Muslims, the driver had to wait for two women who were still in the restroom before he could leave and allow the second bus to be inspected. Sanja quickly saw an opportunity to avoid an inspection and boarded the first bus just as the two women from the bathroom were boarding. She bribed the driver with 50 German marks.

"I was behaving like nothing was going on, but everything was going on," she says. "I'm not the only one who did this. Oh, thank God for that typical woman's habit, you know, always late because of the restroom. God helped me. I was really lucky. I came illegally. It's OK though. It was really cool, you know, how I left."

Sanja took only some clothes and a few books with her. After spending a few months in Novi Sad, Serbia, she moved to Austria for a year and a half and stayed with a family friend.

"For the first time I tried to relax after my mom died and after the war," she says. "I missed it -- I didn't know what I missed though. When I moved to Austria, I realized how nice (life) could be. After a certain amount of time, you don't wonder about a better life, you just take it, everything that happens."

Sanja says it took an entire week to get through the emotions of what she had been through. She was among the lucky ones; when she left, Serbs were beheading Muslims like it was a game, she says.

"You don't understand what's really happening, how tough, until much later," she says.

'They hated Muslims'
It took Sanja a year and a half after leaving Bosanska Gradiska before she came to Cincinnati. Without family members to care for, she was able to enjoy her travels in Austria and Venice.

But Softic's escape was filled with the worries that came with her obligations as a mother. She hadn't seen her husband and daughter in more than three years, so she was looking forward to having her family all in one country, in one room.

Her husband, Hussein, had fled to Austria at the beginning of the war. The Softics never thought the war would last as long as it did. Hussein thought it would be safe to return within a few months.

"I really thought the peace talks would work and make everything fine," Softic says.

Then came the night the soldiers took over her house.

"Soldier came to ask, 'How many people in this house?' " she says. "He said, 'We must come in.' I saw the weapon and I said OK."

Her face darkens, her voice dropping to a mumble as she speaks.

The first night soldiers brought women and children whose husbands were fighting in Croatia. Everyone was upset, Softic says. Reflecting the Bosnian tradition of hospitality, she cooked a big loaf of bread for the women and children.

"I didn't want them hungry in my house," she says.

A neighbor -- a Serb -- was scared for Softic's life. The neighbor gave Aisa and her son, Samr, a Serb identification card, enabling them to travel.

"She was so nice," Softic says. "She said to me, 'Aisa, if I could give you my soul, I will give it to you.' Some Serbs, they stay good people."

But Softic's stubbornness didn't allow her to give up so quickly.

"I would rather the house be set fire or destroyed than to give them my house," she says.

She also couldn't leave her sick mother-in-law alone. But after she died, staying in the midst of those who hated Muslims became hard for Softic and her son.

The young girl who had been helping take care of her mother-in-law saved Softic's life by eavesdropping on the soldiers' conversations. The girl was pretending to sleep on a couch in the house to hear what they were saying. They said they were going to call in a Chetnik to "take care of" Softic.

The Chetniks were the worst of the Serbs and stood out because of their "big beards and big hair."

"They really hated Muslims, wanted to kill by knife and they were proud to be that," Softic says.

Almost a decade later, the thought of people harboring such hatred still makes her emotional.

Softic realized her neighbor was right: Her house and her furniture were not worth risking her life, especially when the rest of her family was safe in the United States.

"I thought, why I need be here if I am refugee in my own house?" she says. "I disappeared. I didn't care for house. I left."

Aisa and Samr, who was 16, left Bosnia in May 1995, using Serbian IDs.

"I was scared to death because, if they recognize me, they could put me in jail," Softic says.

But she had no choice. Bosnia was not a safe place for any Muslim.

The escape was uneventful.

"Alhamdullilah, I was fine," she says, smiling.

"Alhamdullilah" is Arabic for "Praise be to Allah."

Aisa and Samr went to stay with a relative in Serbia while they waited for her husband and daughter, Aida, to send an affidavit allowing them to travel to the United States.

The Softics reunited at the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport on Sept. 25, 1995.

'Just to be near a school'
While Softic and her son recuperated from their long journey to safety, Sanja was still in Austria. Softic remembered her promise and immediately prepared papers for Sanja.

"There is no doubt at all, Aisa helped me come here," Sanja says.

She made it safely to Cincinnati on May 8, 1996, just before her 24th birthday.

Moving to a country where the language was foreign was tough for both women. But Sanja thinks it was easier for her.

"Oh yeah, it's a lot easier if you are young," she says. "They had to deal with the fact that they had a better understanding of what was going on with the war, you know, the fear of it."

The Softics had to leave a comfortable living and fulfilling jobs. They also left behind their culture and traditions.

"I always thought, what I want to do in another country?" Softic says. "I only speak Bosnian and Russian."

Learning a new language at a late age was frustrating. When she first came, she felt all of the education she had acquired in Bosnia had been a waste.

"There is that saying, 'You can lose everything but your knowledge,' " she says. "But that sentence is not true for refugees."

Softic had spent the previous two decades in a job that demanded a high level of education and respect from the community. But in the United States she had to start from the beginning. While she was re-educating herself, she made a living cleaning houses and working as an aide at a nursing home.

The refugee program that most Bosnians participated in provided free language classes at Traveler's Aid downtown for six months, along with food stamps and a monthly allowance of $360. When Softic began working, she practiced her English by listening and interacting with Americans.

By 1999 she earned a teacher's certificate at Cincinnati State College. After studying special education at Wright State University, she was able to resume her teaching career. She started substituting for special education teachers.

"It was a good place for me because I was handicapped, too," Softic says. "If you can't communicate, you are handicapped."

She now teaches special-ed students at Breyer High School in Mount Healthy, where, she says, she loves her co-workers and students.

"They care for me," she says.

A few years ago Softic passed her U.S. citizenship test and her new colleagues threw a surprise party with a patriotic theme.

"I never thought I would be teacher again," she says. "I wanted even to be a bus driver, just to be near a school."

The Softics live in a two-family house in Westwood. Their daughter and son-in-law pay the rent and Aisa and her husband take turns babysitting while the others work. Aisa and Hussein use their income to support their son Samr, who is in medical school at Wright State University.

"I don't want him to have loans," Aisa says.

Although she is satisfied with her life here, she says her husband still has frustrations. Hussein was a doctor in Bosnia but found that two decades of experience wasn't enough to qualify him to practice in the United States. He would have to overcome the language barrier and then re-establish himself as a doctor by taking the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination and complete residency again.

At his age, Aisa says, he didn't want to start his career over. Instead he now works second shift at a car factory, making car parts.

"He is happy he has a job though, alhumdullilah," Aisa says.

Sanja has been leading a very different life. She doesn't have the same obligations as Aisa, who has two children and two grandsons to support -- and be supported by.

Sanja has been taking online courses through Everglades University in Fort Lauderdale and this summer will earn her bachelor's degree in aviation management. While trying to land her dream job in the United Nations' aviation unit, she plans on earning a master's degree.

'I was so scared'
Aisa Softic invites a reporter and photographer to taste Bosnian coffee and to eavesdrop as she and Sanja reminisce about life before and during the war. She serves coffee in dishes she brought back during her last visit to Bosnia.

The coffee, brewed strong, is served in a small cup called a "filjan." She showed her blue and white "dimije," which was part of the Muslim garb in Bosnia, worn for special occasions.

When Sanja and Aisa are together, the strength of their bond becomes obvious. Sanja says Softic is like a second mother to her.

"I like her blue eyes," Sanja says. "Gosh, I don't know why. Maybe my mother had blue eyes, that's why."

As they talk about life during the war, they break into conversations in Bosnian, double-checking their recollections with one another. Bits and pieces of Bosnian culture come together as they remind each other of the past.

Softic's face lights up when Sanja begins to talk of mutual acquaintances and shared memories. Softic was the principal at the school Sanja attended.

"Everybody liked Aisa," Sanja says. "You couldn't be rude to her."

A smile spreads across Softic's face when Sanja mentions her old school.

Once the war started, the Serbs began making it difficult for Muslims to work. The years of dedication to the school didn't mean anything to the Serbs who fired Softic. The passage of 10 years hasn't made the memory any less painful. She recently had a dream that she had met one of her colleagues; it was as if she had never left.

Softic went to school one day in December 1992 and saw a message on the board saying that anyone who didn't have a brother, son or husband in the Serbian army must leave their jobs. She thinks the rule was created to get rid of her.

"I don't know how people can change their minds overnight," she says. "We were friends, then they fired me. They kicked me out of school for nothing."

Softic returned to Bosanska Gradiska a few years ago and met some of her old colleagues, who admitted they were wrong in firing her.

But not letting her work wasn't the only pain her old co-workers had caused. When Softic was preparing to leave Bosnia, she went to the school for a letter stating her son had completed high school. But the Serb teacher refused.

"I was shocked," Softic says. "I was devastated. He just said, 'No!' "

Her voice quivers and her fists shake in anger.

"I only wanted legal document that said the truth," she says.

An instant later a smile returns. In Cincinnati, her son enrolled at Western Hills High School and a few signatures from the parents satisfied authorities that he had already completed high school.

"Alhumdullilah, everything was just fine," Softic says.

She struggles to subdue her disgust for the Serbs by praising God and being grateful for each happy moment, but the memories of her last few years in Bosanska Gradiska still haunt her.

Serb soldiers used to get drunk at night in their fort, which was a short distance from Sanja's house. She could hear them at night when they would be loud and drunk, she says.

"Oh, it was picnic for them," she says.

The soldiers would grill meat and drink while Muslims found themselves brewing one coffee bean at a time, learning to make butter the old-fashioned way and processing milk in order to drink it.

"I know people who ate grass, eating cat because they didn't see meat for days," Sanja says.

When the Serbs were drunk, they would go into the streets and shoot their guns. They would use any excuse to kill Muslims; a Serb who lost a drinking game would be "punished" by having to kill Muslims, the women say.

Sanja describes an incident in which a drunk Serb accidentally shot into the house of another Serb. When he realized his mistake, the soldier killed himself.

"Look at that, Serbs killed Serb families and killed themselves," Softic says.

Sanja remembers a night that she, Softic and others from their neighborhood spent hiding in a cornfield after hearing that a Serb soldier had lost a bet and was about to take it out on the Muslims. Softic was scared to leave her mother-in-law alone.

"That night, you would hear crying and you didn't know if it was nothing or if it was everything," Sanja says.

"Oh, I was so scared," Softic says.

During the winter of 1993, their neighborhood didn't have electricity for 40 days. Life had slowed when the war started, Sanja says.

"Every day was like the one before," she says. "No one was working."

They would try to go to sleep early to pass the time, but found it hard to sleep.

"We would put wood near the doors just to hear if someone would come and kill you," Softic says.

Softic's most painful memory in Bosnia came when her mother-in-law died. She needed documentation from a hospital in order to allow a burial. She rode her bicycle to the hospital where her husband had worked for 20 years. But a Serbian doctor refused to give her documentation. Without it, she could not have a proper funeral for her husband's mother.

Her voice rises in anger. Even though she was wearing a scarf to show that she was in mourning, no one was paying attention to her at the hospital.

"No one was serving who needs to be served," she says.

The doctor who refused her made fun of Softic's husband.

"He laughed and asked (if my husband) was busy with agriculture," she says.

Spiritual awakening
Before the war, Bosnia was part of socialist Yugoslavia, where religion was taboo. Everything belonged to the government -- all of the factories, everyone's houses and cars -- and education was paid for, Softic says.

"I was happy," she says. "I didn't know a better life."

But she never liked the fact that she had to hide her faith. Many Bosnians were only Muslim in name. In order to pray, she'd close the doors and draw the curtains on all of the windows. During Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, she had to hide the fact that she was fasting or risk losing her job.

"If you are teacher, you cannot go to the mosque," she says. "A high school teacher once lost his job because he went to the mosque."

But during the war, Softic says, her connection with God helped her survive.

"I prayed a lot," she says. "I even had dream of what direction to travel in, what street. It was like real. I thanked Allah. He told me that he saved me."

She knew that at any moment a Serb could kill her, so whenever possible she performed wudu, Arabic for "ablution," a ritual act of purification that Muslims do before praying.

"Everything was happening, but on the other side I was close to God," she says.

Now Softic has a job that she enjoys and spends free time with her two grandsons. With her son following his father's footsteps into a medical career, she says she's waiting for her reward from God.

"I only want paradise," she says. "I know Allah has plan. I want to follow this plan."

The house that the Serbs had confiscated has been returned, but not before its contents were looted. She has returned to Bosanska Gradiska a few times since moving to Cincinnati. Her sister still lives there, and Softic says she wouldn't mind staying in Bosnia for a few months each year after she retires.

But traveling to Bosnia is not on the top of Sanja's list, even though she hopes to find a job that enables her to travel.

"I'm not so attached to the country because I don't have close family members there," she says. "I'm attached to the memories, but after what I saw (during a visit) in 2002 I'm happy I left in time." ©



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