'I Want To Say Thank You'
25 Years Ago, UWHR's Nadina Pupic And Her Family Left Their
War-Torn Country For The Shenandoah Valley.
I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and when I was 5 years old, a civil war broke out in my country. What followed were three years of ethnic cleansing, genocide, murder and systematic rape of the Bosniak people.
My family, which included my parents and my younger sister, lived in Doboj, which was occupied very early on.
We lived in constant fear.
We did not have running water or electricity.
My dad was forced to be a human shield for the Serb Army and we did not see him for months at a time, nor know if he was alive.
Some family members were murdered, some taken to concentration camps. My elderly Nana was raped by a young Serb soldier.
At times, we went without real food, having to resort to animal feed or expired, maggot-infested dry goods.
One day, in early 1995, when my dad was allowed to come home, my parents devised a plan for us to escape. The plan included my father going back to being a human shield and us getting on a bus, with minimal belongings in tow.
We were so scared.
From stories, we knew those bus rides sometimes led to immediate death or, even worse, a concentration camp. We were also scared for my dad. My parents had a plan, and a safe word, but no one knew if we would ever see each other again.
One night, while standing guard (without any weapons), my father heard the Bosnian Army yell the safe word my parents agreed on. He then knew that we made it across safely.
A few nights later, with his white underwear in hand, my father walked across the large mine field that separated the two sides. It’s funny to think that we had any luck on our side back then, but my father made it across, unharmed. After a few days of interrogation by the Bosnian Army, we all reunited in Zenica.
We spent a few years as internally displaced refugees and, after the war ended and an agreement was formed, it became clear that my family no longer had a safe home in Bosnia.
My mom was Muslim and my dad was Catholic, but before the war they always just viewed themselves as Bosniaks. The war changed all of that and after the United Nations and the United States brokered the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in 1995, it created an incredibly messed up three-part governmental structure that included all the ethnicities with a rotating president. This made it incredibly hard to find a safe place to live, let alone thrive.
My parents, but especially my mom, were determined to provide us with a better life and better opportunities. She spent months filling out paperwork and we attended lots of interviews and were eventually granted entrance into the United States as refugees.
On Feb. 17, 1998, we left Bosnia. Our destination to be Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Why Harrisonburg you might ask yourself?
To get here, we needed a support system, a network of help, an organization that would guide our transition. And that was all made possible by Church World Service office in Harrisonburg and the amazing people of this community.
When we arrived at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport on a super tiny airplane on Feb. 18, 1998, we were greeted by the fine folks from Church World Service.
They set us up with a local church that became our sponsor. (Shout out to the Linville Creek Church of the Brethren in Broadway.)
We were set up with an apartment in Timberville and my sister and I enrolled at Plains Elementary School. My parents got jobs at the local poultry plant. Eventually my father got his driver’s license for the first time and my parents were able to buy a car all within the first year of arriving here.
Church World Service and this community saved our lives. Not only that, but you also all provided us with support, love and a safe place. My sister and I both graduated from Broadway High School.
She went on to Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va., on a partial basketball scholarship. I attended Blue Ridge Community College and eventually transferred to Mary Baldwin University in Staunton.
We are who we are because 25 years ago this Valley became our home and for that I WANT TO SAY THANK YOU!
United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County