A Light in the Darkness

The Heroism of a Bosnian Refugee

By Frederick H. Lowe

Zumreta Kunosic recalls the day she left her home in Sarajevo. She says it started out like any other workday. Dressed in a blouse and skirt by 6 AM, she was preparing to go to work at Eletroprivreda, the city’s electric company, where she’d been employed for 11 years as an engineer. Her two children–Alma and Danko–were awake but still in their pajamas, when someone knocked on the door.

Kunosic found a woman standing in her hallway, flanked by two soldiers. The woman ordered Kunosic and her children to vacate their apartment immediately. The soldiers didn’t display guns, but they didn’t have to: word had already spread throughout Sarajevo that people who resisted orders had been shot and even killed.

The eviction occurred on a summer day in 1992, the first year of the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it happened with frightening speed. “My daughter couldn’t even get her teddy bear,” says Kunosic. Her husband, Nenad Princip, had been prevented from living with the family because Sarajevo was already divided along ethnic lines, with various groups shutting off sections of the city. He was Serb and she was Bosnian. Their children were mixed and no longer welcome in the building.

In a matter of minutes, Kunosic went from middle-class professional to refugee. But since arriving here in 1993, she’s emerged as one of the leaders of the city’s growing Bosnian community. And as a result of her work, she was named Refugee Woman of the Year in 1997 by the Atlanta-based Refugee Women’s Network.

“You can cry all day or laugh all day,” Kunosic says. “I was hoping all the time that we could return home. I had no intention of coming to America. My family has lived in Sarajevo for 400 years, and I was the first to leave. When I realized I couldn’t return, I decided to do something to help my people.”

She has helped her countrymen living here by assuming two roles: coordinator for the Bosnian Refugee Center and founding member and executive director of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian American Community Center. Both organizations share a small office on the third floor of the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a building at Sheridan and Lawrence that houses Travelers & Immigrants Aid and several other immigrant groups. Later this year, the two Bosnian centers will merge and move into larger quarters in Rogers Park donated by Loyola University.

The goals of the two organizations are the same–serving the Bosnian refugee community. With 15,000 currently living here, 17 percent of all the Bosnian refugees in the U.S., Chicago has the largest Bosnian refugee community in the nation. Most reside in an area along the lakefront, beginning in Uptown and continuing north into Edgewater and Rogers Park.

The newcomers have already had an impact on the area. Bosnian youngsters work at the Dominick’s supermarket at Broadway and Norwood, and ten public schools have hired interpreters to handle the influx. At Heritage Books & Music, an Afrocentric bookstore near the Granville el stop, two Bosnian-to-English dictionaries are prominently displayed in the shop’s window next to the latest works by African-American writers. “I can’t get them in fast enough,” a clerk told me.

Another 2,300 to 2,500 Bosnian refugees, coming primarily from Germany, are expected to arrive in Chicago this year, says Edwin Silverman, chief of the bureau of refugee and immigrant services at the Illinois Department of Human Services. With the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995, German authorities ordered some 300,000 refugees who had fled there to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. “That is pretty impossible,” says Silverman. “For many refugees, their homes have been destroyed, or other people are living in them. There is very little work, and many Bosnians can’t return because they are in mixed marriages–Bosnian-Serb or Bosnian-Croatian. Those unions are no longer accepted.”

Chicago became a popular destination during the war because local hospitals were among the first to participate in the U.S.-sponsored Medical Evacuation Program. The city was once home to the nation’s oldest Bosnian mosque, constructed in 1908 at Halsted and Willow. (The congregation later relocated to Northbrook.) But even with the mosque, the number of Bosnians living here remained small–Silverman estimates 300 families–until the war.

The Bosnian Refugee Center is an agency created by the Illinois Department of Human Services; it finds apartments for wounded or disabled Bosnians who don’t have families in the area and helps refugees to find employment or even to open small businesses. The Bosnian and Herzegovinian American Community Center offers auxiliary services that the BRC and national resettlement agencies don’t or can’t provide. These services include registering refugees to vote in elections back home, assisting the elderly, sponsoring cultural events and after-school activities for children, providing psychiatric counseling, and cosponsoring a Bosnian newsmagazine called Zambak.

The wide variety of offerings available through the community center is a reflection of Kunosic’s vision. Tom Robb, director of development for the Bosnian and Herzegovinian American Community Center, says, “If it weren’t for Zumreta, we wouldn’t be offering Bosnian refugees such extensive services.”

An average of 70 people visit Kunosic’s office every day seeking some kind of assistance. As a result, she and her coworkers sometimes work 12 to 15 hours a day. The air in the office is heavy with cigarette smoke. Kunosic, a handsome woman with magenta colored hair and an engaging smile, sometimes puts her head in her hands as though she’s fending off a headache. When asked if the smoke bothers her, she replies, “No, it’s my high blood pressure.”

An elderly woman bundled in an ankle-length green overcoat walks up to her desk. After the two women chat in Bosnian, Kunosic turns to me and says, “This 67-year-old woman was illiterate in her own language, but now she can read and write in English because of the help she received here.”

Kunosic especially empathizes with other refugee women. “I feel a special need to help women who suffered during the war,” she says. Later, Tom Robb tells me about a mother and daughter who are receiving help through the center. During the war, “they were raped 10 times a day over 100 days” by Serbian troops, says Robb. “After they were raped each day at a nearby Serbian controlled concentration camp, they were sent home. They had no money and no place else to go.”

Kunosic recalls that she had no idea of what awaited her family after being evicted from their home. She withdrew money from a bank account and called a friend who helped her arrange passage to Austria. Once in Vienna, she lived with her children in a large gymnasium housing 300 other Bosnian refugees. One day she discovered that members of the Sarajevo Philharmonic were also living in the gymnasium and persuaded them to give concerts for the others. “Others were capable of doing what I did, but they didn’t do it,” Kunosic says. “It was very depressing living in the gymnasium. Once you became a refugee no one even asked your name.”

But the divisions that forced their departure had followed them. Her fellow refugees became hostile to Kunosic and her children because of her marriage and her children’s mixed ethnicity. “They didn’t accept us,” she says. “Even the people who continued to talk to me felt uncomfortable speaking to me in front of the others.”

Kunosic moved her family to a Vienna suburb after finding work doing odd jobs for a wealthy elderly woman and the woman’s son. The family moved into the woman’s house, but not long afterward Danko was beaten by a group of neo-Nazi youths on his way to school. For several months, Kunosic says, he had to change his route to school daily to avoid them. As soon as she could, Kunosic moved her family back to Vienna, renting an unheated basement apartment with a dirt floor. She also volunteered to work at the International Red Cross, partly to get messages to her husband, who was still in Sarajevo and didn’t know his family’s whereabouts.

Through the Red Cross, Princip was reunited with his family in Vienna. They were granted permission to emigrate to the U.S. in 1993. Once in Chicago, Kunosic began working part-time for the BRC before becoming a full-time employee. Her family now lives in Skokie.

Kunosic says she realizes that these stories are part of yesterday’s news and that Bosnians must prepare for their futures in this country. Recently she helped bring together officials from Loyola and the University of Sarajevo to sponsor a Bosnian Student Center in Rogers Park. It will help Bosnian high school and college students whose education was interrupted by the war, by offering English-language and computer classes and career and academic counseling. It also will serve as the only U.S. outpost for the University of Sarajevo, which is currently rebuilding. During the war, 78 percent of the school’s structures were destroyed or heavily damaged, and some 50 percent of the university’s faculty members were killed or forced to flee the country. The agreement is considered a major success for the Bosnian and Herzegovinian American Community Center, which initiated the talks.

Now Kunosic has set her sights on tackling another pressing issue facing the Bosnian refugee community. “We’re facing a major communications problem,” she says. “Bosnian children are learning to speak English at school, but when they return home, they have difficulty talking with their parents, who only speak Bosnian. I have to find a way to get more parents into English-as-a-second-language classes.”

If there’s one weak link in the resettlement process, it concerns children. Younger children adjust fairly quickly, but teenagers have a more difficult time. Kunosic remembers that while living in Vienna, she and Alma, now 12, cried almost all of the time, but Danko never discussed his feelings. “I felt guilty because what was happening to us was robbing him of his childhood. I wanted him to have the opportunity to dream and hope, but it seemed as though those dreams and hopes were being destroyed,” she says.

Still, they’re some of the lucky ones, Kunosic says. “My husband and children are healthy, and we’re all together. My children weren’t like other children put on buses and taken to camps without their parents.”

At one point I show Kunosic a photograph of Eletroprivreda, the place where she used to work in Sarajevo. The picture of the burned-out building is in the book Sarajevo: The Wounded City. She stares at the photograph, touches it, sighs, and closes the book.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Zumret Kunosic photo by Dan Machnik.