Bosnia Civil War refugee helps immigrants

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Amela Muftarevic fought to keep her children safe during the Bosnian Civil War. When she got to America, she helped other Bosnians do the same thing as a caseworker.

In the summer of 1992, Amela Muftarevic was working as a pediatric nurse at a medical clinic in Sarajevo, Bosnia. While Muftarevic was at the office, there was a nearby bombing.

Muftarevic and the rest of the staff did their best, but with the lack of equipment, people were dying before their eyes.

“There were so many people that we didn’t help,” Muftarevic said. “There was no way that we could take them to the hospital and people [were] just waiting on the floor and dying.”

Muftarevic gave up everything she knew in her city of Sarajevo when the Bosnian War began. With five minutes to pack, Muftarevic took her two young children along with necessities for the kids.

Amela Muftarevic holds a striped shirt in front of the Sebilj replica in Bevo Mill. It was one of the few articles of clothing she was able to take with her when she fled Bosnia during the Bosnian Civil War. Photo by Christine Tannous.

This was the start of many sacrifices she made in order to give her children a promising future in America. Muftarevic went on to help other refugees as a social worker in the resettlement process.

Muftarevic is the mother of Webster alumna and admissions counselor Mirela Muftarevic.

“… I always think about the fact that my mom, two months after she turned 30, fled her city,” Mirela Muftarevic said. “That’s absolutely crazy … to think that I’m the age she was.”

She left Sarajevo with a neighbor only known in passing, with no prior plans of leaving.

At the checkpoint on the way out of the city, Amela Muftarevic was stopped by military personnel and taken at gunpoint to a holding building.

The captors were going around the building killing and raping women and children held hostage.

“I prayed to God that they did everything to me but not my kids,” Amela Muftarevic said.

She and her kids were kept there for a day-and-a-half without food or water.

Despite tensions rising between Bosians and Croatians, Muftarevic and the children were driven to Croatia and sent to a camp for refugees.

The family was placed in a wooden cabin with a dirt floor. There was a large rat living there.

Amela Muftarevic refused to sleep there. She ended up sitting on the grass that night until a woman approached and offered for Muftarevic to stay in her cabin.

Her son was 7 years old while Mirela Muftaveric was just 2 years old at the time.

Amela Muftarevic was able to leave the camp by bribing a police officer. She rode a bus for six hours to get to a cousin’s vacation house.

“We had no documents, I was scared for my life,” Amela Muftarevic said. “They would put us in a concentration camp if they found us.”

Once they were safe at the vacation home and with new documents, Amela Muftarevic raised her kids in Croatia for 18 months.

The rest of Amela Muftarevic’s family was still in Sarajevo. She had no idea who was still alive and who did not make it. Amela Muftarevic struggled not knowing if they would ever be reunited again.

“I was even thinking of killing both my kids and myself. I tried to, but in the moment I changed my mind,” Muftarevic said.

On Feb. 2, 1994, Amela Muftarevic and her children were accepted by the United States as some of the first refugees from Bosnia. Settling in New York, Amela Muftarevic adjusted to the new environment quickly to meet the needs of her children.

She went to school, insistent on learning English. Meanwhile, Amela Muftarevic noticed the children losing their Bosnian language and becoming more comfortable with English.

Amela Muftarevic’s husband was still in Sarajevo at the time along with other family members and the only communication they had was through the telephone. Direct communication with the kids and their father was becoming harder and harder.

On a Christmas Day phone call, Mirela Muftaveric tried to tell her dad what she got from Santa.

“All I knew how to say in Bosnian was ‘I got’ and I said in English ‘Santa gave me a lion,’” Mirela Muftarevic said. “He didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Amela Muftarevic and her daughter Mirela Muftarevic stand in front of the Sebilj replica in Bevo Mill, which has become known as ‘Little Bosnia.’ The Muftarevic’s immigrated to the U.S. during the Bosnian Civil War in the ’90s, eventually coming to St. Louis because of the large Bosnian community here. Photo by Christine Tannous.

Amela Muftarevic decided letting her kids completely lose the Bosnian language was not a choice.

She wanted them to stay in touch with their roots and communicate with family back home. In order to keep them fluent with the language, Amela Muftarevic made a rule.

“As soon as you enter the house, I don’t want to hear one word in English,” Amela Muftarevic said to her children.

It was difficult, but it worked in the end. Both Mirela Muftarevic and her brother were able to maintain their skills. Their father was able to join the family in New York soon after.

Amela Muftarevic’s education was recognized by the U.S. and she had the opportunity to enroll in a three month licensed practical nurse (LPN) program to get another nursing job. She turned down the offer due to her trauma from war.

Instead, Amela Muftarevic interviewed for a job with Lutheran Family Social Services of New York. She attained the position of a caseworker for refugees like herself.

“After I left [Bosnia], I said that I will never ever be a nurse again,” Amela Muftarevic said. “[Being a caseworker] was a way to help people but not to be a nurse.”

Amela Muftarevic worked for the same agency that helped her with the resettlement process. In fact, she worked alongside her own caseworker.

For close to a decade, Amela Muftarevic listened to the refugees’ stories and shared her own personal experience in order to help families transition more smoothly. She later accepted a job as preventive healthcare representative advocating for proper medical care and health screenings for refugees.

“From time to time, [the memories] come back,” Amela Muftarevic said. “I think to myself, ‘That has passed, we survived.’”

Muftarevic and her family made the transition to St. Louis around 2006 because of the Bosian community in South City. They still live nearby.

“I hope you will never understand [the trauma of fleeing war]. That’s my wish for everyone,”  Amela Muftarevic said.

To read more stories from the Gateway to Little Bosnia special project, click here.

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Morgan Smith
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