A New Beginning Makes A World Of Difference
By Laura Matteri
War broke out all around. 100,000 people were killed in the fighting. A girl and her family left everything they’ve ever known behind, including family, and moved to the safety of another country. While in Bosnia, the girl witnessed killings, massacres, and shooting of innocent civilians, including her mother. All of this happened before the age of seven.
Lejla Dobraca and her family fled Bosnia in 1993 and found relief in Germany. Dobraca’s father had been on a business trip to Libya before the war, so he and the family were separated for three years until he joined them in Germany. The Dobraca family kept their strength throughout the journeys they have made.
Bosnia is bordered by Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Its independence was established during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Its capital is Sarajevo, which is located high up in the mountains.
There were several sides of the war. Serbia supported the Serbs who were loyal to Yugoslavia, while Croatia supported Herzegovina-Bosnia. Since there was involvement from so many sides, it was questioned whether it was a “civil war” or a “war of aggression.” It was ruled a war of aggression, although the genocides were not blamed on Serbia. There were mass killings and rapes, along with the siege of Sarajevo.
Dobraca started school without knowing a word of German. According to Dobraca, going to school there was “awkward.” Used to her native Bosnian language, she entered a program similar to the American ESL (English as a Second Language), although hers was GSL (German as a Second Language). “When you’re surrounded by [German] for eight hours a day, you just learn it,” Dobraca said
Dobraca, also known as “Leki” when she was young, was seen as a “troublemaker.” She was often jealous of the attention that her younger sister got. Once, Dobraca inhaled a bean to divert the attention from her sister to her. Needless to say, Dobraca’s mother had to call 911 because the bean got stuck. Despite her issues of jealousy, she loves her family immensely.
Dobraca, her mother Azra, her father Ekren, and her sister were a close family. As a child, Dobraca was “happy”, and her best memories are of time she spent with her grandmother. Days of cooking and storytelling were best spent while her parents worked every day. An ideal day of her childhood would be “playing in the park in Germany with my friends.” Her best friends were Amanda and Anita. They met at school in Germany and still keep in touch today.
In addition to witnessing the war as a child, one of the worst memories of living in Europe was when Dobraca and her family packed their apartment in Germany when they moved to America. The furniture remained in the apartment. They just “left the key downstairs and left.” It was hard for her to leave somewhere that she knew she would never see again.
The Bosnian war ended in December 1995 when Dobraca’s were living in Germany as war refugees, so they had to leave the country. The family visited Bosnia and Dobraca said the ruins were “surreal.”
Memories flooded her mind as she went through the towns that she knew so well. The memory of her mother being shot by a sniper will be with her forever. Thankfully, her mother survived with the loss of a kidney. After the visit to Bosnia, her parents applied to move to America and arrived in Vermont in 1999.
Family traditions were always important to the Dobraca’s. They speak Bosnian at home. There are a lot of family get-togethers and their Muslim religion is important to them. Dobraca said, “I was never pushed to learn about [my religion], so I’m going to learn about it on my own time. I don’t say that I’m Muslim just because my parents are. I want to learn about it when I’m ready.”
The war had a great affect on Dobraca’s life. She feels she has no hometown; that she doesn’t belong anywhere. “I’m a foreigner in my own country.” Even with Bosnian traditions practiced at home, it’s not the same. If she could do anything right now she would “go to Bosnia.”
Life has taught her many lessons. As a student at the University of Vermont, she works two part-time jobs in Burlington. She has learned from watching fellow employees “not to bring my personal life to work.” She’s deciding between working towards a major in journalism or psychiatry.
As for social aspects of her life, Dobraca said she hasn’t fallen in love yet. She has cared deeply for some, but no “love” yet. From previous relationships, she has learned to “do what you feel at the moment. Don’t hide feelings. You are going to want to look back and be able to say that you did everything you could to make the relationship work.”
Despite the harsh world she left, Dobraca has managed to create a new environment for herself where she can thrive. Her life in America is quite different from that in Bosnia or Germany, but a home is what one makes it. No matter what’s going on, if family is present, it creates a world of difference.