From Sarajevo to Seattle

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SeaTac, July 5th 2012,

Borka Paponjak, Resettlement Program Manager and Immigration Specialist, discusses how her family flew away from war-torn Sarajevo to resettle in the mountainous American northwest.

Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest.  The sun beats down on, each ray catching another color of the flowers speckled throughout the serene backyard of Borka’s beautiful SeaTac home.  While relaxing on her patio, Borka Paponjak - an elegant and flirtatious Bosnian – starts to share her story with us.  Borka’ story is quite unique.

A light breeze gently passes over the grass as Borka starts recounting her journey. She immigrated to the US as a refugee, with her husband and their two children Ivor and Sara, they were 12 and 5 respectively. Borka resettled to Seattle in 1997 in the midst of the war devastating Bosnia, which forced her to flee Sarajevo. “Before the war”, Borka said, “Sarajevo was the most beautiful city of the world”.  In 1997, Bosnia was still divided by ethnic conflicts and life started to be dangerous and unpredictable. After applying for refugee protection, Borka and her family found a refuge in Washington. Borka’s mother joined the family few years later. They never returned to Bosnia.

When we moved to the U.S., we didn’t know much about life in Washington” Borka said. TheUNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the agency in charge of her resettlement, picked a destination city for her family.Borka’s family flew away from war-torn Sarajevo to resettle in the mountainous American northwest.  Having worked hard to build a new life and success in the U.S. as evidenced by her beautiful home and backyard, Borka still recounts that she was “very lucky.”

Hundreds of refugees resettle in WA State every year. Regardless of their level of education or professional experience, many of them struggle finding a well-paying job. Integrating into the new culture is also intimidating for refugees, especially for those who arrive with very limited English or literary skills.  Despite these challenges, upon arrival, Borka formed a close relationship with her resettlement caseworker and a few months later was offered a caseworker position herself with the IRC (International Rescue Committee), one of the top refugee resettlement agencies in the country.  Borka never took this opportunity for granted.  Ever since, Borka has been fully dedicating her time and energy to help WA-based refugees.

Because of the current economic woes and complex socio-cultural variables, resettlement is challenging for refugees.  Being forced to flee from your country is a traumatic experience. Fortunately, Borka came to the US with valuable skills that helped her transition. In Bosnia, Borka studied English Literature, and her ability to speak English fluently helped her find a job very quickly.  Still working with the IRC, Borka has transitioned to a new role as the Resettlement Program Manager and Immigration Specialist. Borka’s voice fills with passion as she describes her job as “very rewarding.” As an Immigration Specialist, she helps refugees obtain a green card, apply for citizenship, and reunite families who have been torn apart by the resettlement.   She believes that the most important needs for refugee populations are free ESL classes, childcare (allowing parents to work), and naturalization classes.  When faced with tough situations for newly arrived refugees, Borka likes to remind herself that “things have changed a lot” for the better compared to 15 years ago. The IRC is also very active in promoting refugees’ talents and cultures. She describes successful annual local events such as “Artvocacy” where refugee artists can showcase their work to the public.

Borka’s mother, who communicates great warmth and hospitality without knowing any English, serves some delicious homemade Zeljanica, a Bosnian specialty made of flaky dough, spinach, and cheese.  With the fragrance of the food filling the scene, Borka recounts what she misses the most from Bosnia: the beautiful seaside, Bosnian food, such as Cevapi, and the open affection of Bosnian people. “Bosnia is a loving nation,” she said, “In our country you have a bunch of friends and neighbors just walking into your place at all times of the day. They just stopped by for coffee.” She did want to leave behind nationalism, which she associates with some of the attitudes during the Bosnian conflict.  For this reason, Borka avoids belonging to any groups that based themselves on the basis of religion or ethnicity.  Along with her family, she has been able to find a new diverse community.  Soon her younger sister will also join them from Bosnia, adding another missing piece to her life in Seattle.

As a way to keep alive some of her dearest memories, Borka asked her talented and handy husband to reproduce a miniature version of a bridge from Sarajevo, which she misses very much. A beautiful wooden bridge now gracefully adorns her garden, symbolizing both her past and her journey to a new life in the U.S.

Regardless the challenges she has had to face in her life, joy and enthusiasm seem to emanate from Borka’s personality. When asked what person inspired her the most she mentioned her 20 years daughter Sara, who is currently studying marine biology. “My daughter is dear to my heart.  She is beautiful.  She is down to earth and wise beyond her age.” Sara calls her mother and grandmother everyday just to catch up on the day.  Sara surely took her sense of care from her mother.

Through her job, Borka witnesses heartbreaking stories of hundred of refugees who are fighting to rebuild their lives. Nevertheless, inspired by her own story, Borka is still full of hope.  She sees the “United States as a land of opportunities for hardworking people.” Borka learned to give back and to move forward in her life. With a laugh, Borka concluded her story by telling us: “Take it easy, one day at a time. Relax and enjoy your life!”