P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans


Sanja Jagesic: My Journey to the United States

Sanja Jagesic

Terrorism is fueling anti-refugee sentiment in the United States and abroad. This is despite the fact that most of the individuals involved in the recent attacks in Paris are not refugees and were born and raised in Western Europe. But fear is rarely soothed by facts. Especially in a case such as this when extending a helping hand involves hard work. After all, no one can argue that integrating refugees into a culture is easy for anyone involved.

Refugees are human beings. It seems like a simple statement but the continuous news coverage and pictures of hundreds of people make it easy to forget the very human story behind each number, each statistic, and each picture.

In September 2015 a picture showed the tragic drowning of Syrian three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and the world reeled with cries for more support for Syrian refugees. The cries for support didn’t last for long. After the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, fear again reared its head, and the rhetoric towards refugees changed. Some US politicians demanded that the US suspend its plan to accept the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Obama promised to admit for resettlement.

It’s important to listen to all sides in a debate, but I am deeply saddened when I hear the arguments of those who think that it is a mistake to admit Syrian refugees. It’s difficult for me not to take these arguments personally because I was a refugee not long ago. In the early 90s there was a civil war in former Yugoslavia, the country where I was born, and because of this I spent most of my childhood in refugee camps in Germany. My family and I came to the United States through a refugee resettlement program when I was fourteen.  

I want to share my story of growing up as a refugee in the hopes of showing people that there is nothing to fear. Refugees are just regular people who have had the poor fortune of being born at the wrong place at the wrong time. Other than that misfortune, they are just people with dreams, ambitions, and wishes that are similar to our own.

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I will start the story of my life as a refugee at the beginning. This picture was taken in 1987 in Zenica, a city in what is now Bosnia & Herzegovina. I am the baby. In the picture with me are my mom, my older sister, and my grandparents. I think it’s pretty easy to figure out who is who. I only have a few memories of the time before the war started in Bosnia, but these memories are likely the same kind of memories that kids all around the world have. Most of them involve playing, swimming and eating candy.  

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In my experience becoming a refugee is a not a one step process. Most people don’t want to leave their homes to try their luck in a foreign country. At least, this was true for my parents. They planned to spend their entire lives in our hometown. When the war in Bosnia intensified and it became clear that our lives were in danger, my parents first sent my sister and me to live with my grandparents in Croatia, a region in former Yugoslavia that at this time was less affected by the war. Soon after my sister and I left Bosnia, conditions deteriorated and all borders within former Yugoslavia closed. Because of their desire to stay in their home my parents made their journey out of Bosnia much more difficult by waiting too long to leave, and our family was separated for over a year.

This picture was taken during the first step of our journey as refugees in 1993 in Kastel Stari, Croatia. I am the one wearing the orange outfit.

The first step in the journey of a refugee is the step to safety. People move to the closest location where they will be safe. But the location where you will be safe may not be a location where you can live. As I mentioned, Croatia was also involved in the civil war. There were food shortages, widespread unemployment, and masses of refugees everywhere. For all these reasons my parents decided, like thousands of Bosnian refugees, to move on to Western Europe. 

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Reunited in Hamburg

In 1994 my parents, sister and I were reunited in Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg had accepted thousands of Bosnian refugees in the early to mid-1990s and the influx of newcomers called for creative solutions to the question of where all these new people should live.

We were assigned to what we always referred to as “the ship” which had the official name Bibby Challenge. No really, that was the name. This picture was taken on Bibby Challenge in 1994, and I am sitting at the table with my mom, while my sister is lounging on the bed. We were assigned two rooms on the ship because we were a family of four. Bathrooms, kitchens, laundry facilities, hallways were shared with the other residents who shared our floor, which were roughly around 150 people. The ship housed over 650 Bosnian refugees in total. We lived on the ship for close to five years.  

We called this housing arrangement the ship for a good reason: it was a giant floating structure that was docked on a river. There was a little bridge that connected it to the land which is how we would get on and off. When the river flooded we would be stranded on the ship. One of my worst fears growing up was that the ship would tip over and sink. Luckily this never happened.

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The Bibby Challenge

Bibby Challenge is a multipurpose floating accommodation, or coastel, that was built in 1976 in Rotterdam, Holland. After spending years serving as a secure prison and detention center, Bibby Challenge was leased by the city of Hamburg to house refugees from former Yugoslavia in 1993. The coastel housed 670 refugees in 209 rooms. In 2007 it was refitted. Bathrooms were added to each unit, and the communal spaces were redesigned to feature a fully equipped gym and bars with flat-screen televisions. Most recently Bibby Challenge was used to house British Petroleum workers at the Sullom Voe oil terminal in the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, where in September 2010 it assisted in the rescue of thirteen fishermen from a burning vessel.

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Life on a Ship

I loved living on Bibby Challenge. While the tiny shared spaces were probably a headache for adults, they were wonderful for us kids. It was like living with all of your best friends.

It was a heavily policed environment though. The ship had guards and you needed a board pass to get on. It was difficult to have visitors. We didn’t have phones. Because many of the refugees weren’t able to get permits for legal work there was a lot of crime.

While the housing situation segregated us from German citizens, we went to school in regular German schools during the day. This is a picture of me in the first school that I attended in Germany. I am in the third grade here.  

I loved living in Germany but there was always a bit of an anti-refugee sentiment in the general population. Often on the train or the bus you would hear people mutter things about how refugees should go home. I was embarrassed that I was a refugee and would consider it the highest compliment when someone would tell me that I spoke German without an accent or that they couldn’t tell I was from Bosnia. I was so embarrassed about it that I never told anyone in school that I lived on the ship and was always terrified that people would find out. 

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Seeing Friends Go

The war in Bosnia officially ended in 1995 with the signing of the Daytona Agreement. But Bosnia had been shattered. All we heard from those who had remained in the country during the war was not to come back and to please help them get out. Since the refugees had started arriving in Germany, the German government had developed a system where every couple of months refugees reported to the authorities and received permission to stay on or were sent back to Bosnia within hours. In this picture you can see the stickers that we would get in our passports at each visit. Once the war officially ended in Bosnia, Germany and other countries started to deport Bosnian refugees back to Bosnia. I remember that the fear of deportation was pervasive.

During a school break in 1999 I was at home, on Bibby Challenge, watching TV when there was a loud knock on the door. Outside were what seemed like many police officers. The neighbor who lived across the hall from us was with them and looked panicked. She told me to come with her to translate. We went into the room of Teta Hana, who lived right next door to us. She was an old woman, a grandmother to everyone on our floor. She was illiterate. The German police woman asked me to tell her that she was being deported that day and that she had an hour and a half to pack her belongings and leave.

I will never forget the expression on Teta Hana’s face. And I will never forget how hard it was to say the words. I felt as though I was the one deporting her. She didn’t complain or try to argue. She looked at the letter they asked her to sign and with a shaky hand drew three X’s. 

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Australia or the United States?

In the late 90s the International Organization for Migration began to work on resettling refugees from former Yugoslavia to Australia or the United States. My parents submitted an application but were uncertain that they actually wanted to go. Rumors about what life was like in America were rampant. One was that there were no good cooking pots. Another was that every house had a pool. Unlike my parents I wanted to go to the United States. I envisioned a country that was like the opening credits of Full House. There were little rolls or bread and orange juice on the table every morning.

A letter in the mail informed us that we were going to be resettled to Boston, MA and we had two weeks to pack up all of our lives in Germany. We were set to leave on May 12, my fourteenth birthday. 

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America: Land of the Backstreet Boys

This is a picture of me and my mom on the first leg of our journey from Germany to the United States. We took the train from Hamburg to Frankfurt where we would get on a plane to fly to JFK. We were all so excited. Both about going to the States and about getting on a plane for the first time in our lives. I remember imagining the map of the world in my head and just thinking that it would be impossible that in less than a day I would be halfway around the world.  Many Bosnian refugees were on the plane with us. We would all spend many hours together in a small room at JFK where our paperwork was processed before we were sent on to all corners of the US.

I had no idea what this move to the US would mean for my life. I was just a teenager and didn’t think too much ahead. I just felt excitement. My sister, who is three years older, was convinced that this move to the US meant that she would meet and marry Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys. I thought she might be right…after all, we were about to live in the same country as BSB so clearly it was meant to be. 

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The First Years

This is a picture of the first apartment building my family lived in when we arrived to the United States. It’s located in Lynn, MA.

Once we were resettled to the US I quickly realized that America was not the same in real life as it had been on television. We lived in poor neighborhoods, went to poor inner city schools, and struggled. The first three years of life in the United States were the worst three years of my life. It seemed as though now that my family was finally in a settled place, a place where we could start to build a life again, the psychological toll that the war and refugee life had brought on each of us came to the fore. It is in those years that I understood that the historical beginning and end dates of a war are meaningless. War does not end for those who experience it. It mars them for life and the memories and experiences rear their head continuously. Really, when I think of the war that I experienced in my life, I think of those first years in America. It was the first time that I was adult enough to understand the difficulties we were facing. It was a hard new beginning.

Now, over a decade later, I feel extremely grateful to the United States for taking in Bosnian refugees and helping us establish a life here. I hope that the US continues to welcome those in need despite the current anti-refugee sentiment. Refugees are people who have spent many years on arduous journeys out of dangerous situations, in difficult living arrangements, in lands where they are not welcome, without work, rights or opportunities that allow them to start anew. There are very few who would appreciate the opportunity of American citizenship more. 

Sanja Jagesic (2008 Fellow) graduated summa cum laude with honors in Sociology and German Language from Wellesley College in 2008. In 2015 she completed a PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago where she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Sanja was born in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina and spent her childhood in a refugee camp in Hamburg, Germany before being resettled to Boston, MA.

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