Shortly before Mahira Patkovic was born, her parents were being held as prisoners.
They were fleeing their hometown after their house was burned to the ground. While trying to flee to a Bosnian stronghold — as Serbian forces controlled 70 percent of the territory — they were in the town of Vitez when they were captured by Croats.
When Mahira was born in 1992, it was in the middle of the Bosnian War. For this corner of the world, it was a confusing time, fueled by strong ethnic beliefs and religion. In the middle of the conflict, like many other young families, were the Patkovics.
The following timeline showcases Bosnia from the years 1908 until present.
The Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) wanted a free and independent Bosnia while the Croats (Croatian Bosnians) and Serbs (Serbian Bosnians) wanted Bosnia for themselves, respectively. The Serbs went on an ethnic cleansing campaign to create a “pure” Serbian state.
Anyone who opposed of this vision was cut off from food, utilities, and communication.
When her parents, who are Bosniaks, were captured, her father was shot, leaving his arm unable to function. They were only let go after being rescued by the American Red Cross. Mahira noted that she does not know all the details, as she never really asked her parents for more information simply because she doesn’t want to know.
“Basically they kept them prisoners,” Mahira said. “My dad was locked up in a school, and my mother was locked up in a house. They were forced to do things, such as cook for them and clean for them. My dad was abused there, people were killed there, thank god my dad wasn’t. They did such horrible things to the people who were captured.”
Mahira was malnourished because she wasn’t getting enough food. Her mother, desperate for anyway to save her, caught wind of a program that was giving baby food away.
By foot, her mother traveled the distance necessary to get Mahira the food she so desperately needed. When her mother wasn’t taking care of Mahira, she was taking care of her husband who was still recovering.
Mahira’s story is one of many that Bosnian refugees brought with them to the United States in the late 1990s, looking for a life that would be better than the country they call home, but can no longer recognize what it has become.
The conflict began in 1992 after Bosnia was recognized as an independent country, due to the fact that the three main groups in Bosnia, the Serbians (Serbs), Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats (Croatians), were still fighting for territory.
The Bosniaks wanted an independent Bosnia, the Serbs wanted to stay in Yugoslavia and the Croats wanted to join an independent Croatian state. The Serbs targeted the Croats and Bosniaks in a campaign for ethnic cleansing.
Mass executions, concentration camps, rape and sexual violence were prevalent during this time. An estimated 100,000 people (80 percent Bosniak) were murdered and more than two million were displaced. Bosnian Serbs committed ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks and Croats by killing, imprisoning and raping with the hope that this would drive them out of Bosnia so that they could claim the land for themselves.
Even though Mahira was young when the Bosnian War was happening, she still recalls a rather strong memory of this time that she can still clearly picture in her head to this day.
“I remember sitting in a room with my mother,” Mahira said. “It was a room filled with women, and she was holding me on her lap. We heard a knock on the door, and all of these soldiers came. They said ‘Oh, we got them! They’re in here.’ I remember this, I don’t even know how old I was.”
The women were in Mahira’s house for a gathering. What was supposed to be a time for the women to talk and relax turned nightmarish in a matter of seconds.
The screams pierced the air and shattered the silence like glass.
“The women started screaming and panicking, they made us get out of the house, I don’t even know where this was,” Mahira said. “ They made us walk on the street, we had no idea where they were taking us. We saw my dad in the distance, and my mom told a soldier ‘Oh, that’s my husband. I want to go talk to him.’ Thank god my dad was standing with someone that he [the soldier] knew, so he let us go. Then they took the rest of the women. I don’t know what happened to them, or where they took them.”
Throughout the war, Mahira lived in abandoned houses with her family, like the one she was living in when the soldiers made them leave. After the war ended, Mahira and her family lived in other abandoned houses because their own town was not safe yet and everything was destroyed.
Then, they moved to a house in Bugojno and lived there until coming to the United States in 2002.
Ibrahim Rosic, Director of the Learning Commons at Mohawk Valley Community College, remembers what life was like during the war.
“Living in Bosnia during the war was a living hell,” Rosic said. “There was no household in my place that did not lose someone. Besides living in fear of getting killed or hurt, there was a food shortage. No electricity, no running water, no basic necessities.”
When Mahira was eight years old, her family left Bosnia and arrived in Utica. The war ended in 1995, but due to the fact that her family was held as prisoners of war, the Red Cross granted them refugee status in order to come to the United States.
She remembers the process of obtaining their visas to enter the United States taking a long time — over a year or two.
Like Mahira, her friend Ajla Sinovic, also a former refugee from Bosnia, remembers the visa process taking a while. Her family was able to gain access to come to the United States through an immigration lottery.
This was made possible through the Immigration Act of 1990, as the Diversity Visa (DV) program was created, allowing 55,000 immigrant visas to be made available with the attempt to diversify the immigrant population in the United States.
“They asked very specific questions, right down to the minute you were born,” Sinovic said. “I remember falling asleep in my parents lap during the interview process, which would take hours at a time.”
Sinovic’s family left because the environment was difficult to support their family.
“After the war, my parents had three girls to take care of and no job,” Sinovic said. “Going back to our village and farm was no longer an option because it was occupied by people we fought against. People were settling in houses that weren’t burned to the ground.”
When Mahira left Bosnia, she remembers leaving from her grandmother’s house and seeing everyone wave back at her as the van taking them to the airport drove away.
“The whole town gathered to say goodbye to us,” Mahira said.
The only items Mahira’s family arrived with were bags given to them before they left which contained documentation and legal work. Mahira, Ajla and Ibrahim’s stories, while all different, include the similarities of arriving with next to nothing.
Mahira’s family and Ibrahim were both helped on their arrival to Utica by the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.
“The refugee center went above and beyond for my family,” Mahira said. “But not just for my family, but all the other families that they helped also. They help set up your food, everything. Starting from nothing and working you way up is not that easy, but they help you with that.”
Coming to an entirely new country comes with difficulties, especially for a child who just wants to fit in with her peers. Learning a new language, culture and way of life was difficult for Mahira, but she knew that it was all for the better.
“My parents saw that there was no opportunity for us in Bosnia,” Mahira said. “Their biggest motivation for coming here was for me and my siblings.”
Rosic was injured during the war when he stepped on a landmine, losing his left leg and severely injuring his right.
“At the refugee center, I learned some basic English and met wonderful people who helped me get acclimated in a new environment,” Rosic said. “Because I did not speak English well and my disability, I could not get a job that pays well. The only option I had at that time was to go back to school. I started my educational journey in Fall 2000 at MVCC at the age of 35.”
Rosic credits the refugee center in being part of his success.
“In Utica, we have the best Refugee Center whose dedicated staff work so hard to build a community of support for incoming refugees,” Rosic said. “Both Utica and the Refugee Center have had a significant impact on my success.”
Why Mahira is Here
Today, Mahira is a 2016 graduate of Utica College with a degree in international studies. She plans on returning to Utica College next year to obtain an MBA in economic crime and fraud.
“I’m here because I want to make a difference, I want to get a good education and have it mean something and have a career where I am making a difference,” Mahira said. “I’m here to make a positive impact on not just my peers and family but on my community. So that instead of them seeing a negative view on refugees and immigrants, such as them feeling like we are coming here and taking things away from them, I’m here to show them that that is not the case, we are here to work together, and to make not just Utica but the whole country better together.”
Mahira’s family has completely adapted to American life, and calls it their home.
“They have adapted to this life very well and are very thankful for it,” Mahira said.
Mahira’s parents still live in Utica today. Her 16-year-old brother is currently attending high school and works a part-time job. Her 26-year-old brother currently lives and works in Vermont.
Mahira hopes to educate and give back with her degree, hopes to someday return to Bosnia to give back and try to bring stability.
“I want to do a job where I know I’ll be making a positive impact,” Mahira said. “I have big hopes and dreams for humanity, and I believe in the good in people. I hope to one day have an impact on someone, or even be apart of helping to bring world peace. These are huge goals, but I’ll take them one step at a time.”
Maggie Reid is a junior at Utica College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.