By Katie Zdunek
The chandelier-lit living rooms fills with a burst of laughter that drowns out the Bosnian reality show, “Couples”, on the large TV across the living room. A framed Quran clock hangs above. Damira Ibresevic, 24, tilts her head back and continues to laugh for a moment, as her mother tells her about the role her aunt, Fata Ahmetovic, played in their decision to move to Bowling Green.
They sit close together on the black leather sectional in the living room. Side by side, their features are noticeably different. Damira’s straightened, black hair falls almost to her waist-line, while her mother wears hers in a long, low brown ponytail. Adevija, 55, has dark brown eyes. Her daughter’s green eyes pop against her olive complexion and dark hair. Damira’s nose more closely resembles her father Muharem’s, who sits alone at the head of dark-speckled marble dining room table 20 feet away. The women share the same smile though. Full lower lips hide their bottom row of teeth as they smile. They exchange a few words before Damira is ready to translate.
“We could have stayed in Germany,” Damira says with a chuckle. “That’s why I’m laughing. Because my aunt showed us a picture of Lampkin Park, and we were like ‘Oh my god. It’s so beautiful over there.’ We didn’t know how Bowling Green actually was.”
Ahmetovic, who had been living there for two years, later sent her brother’s family a video of the park. She told them that the cost of living was cheap. The descriptions and the picturesque views she shared gave them the impression that it was a big and beautiful city. She was persuasive.
The Ibresevics were forced to leave their country during the ethnically motivated conflicts of the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995. They were shuttled on buses to Croatia, where they then made their way to Germany in 1995. They’d been living in Germany for two years when Ahmetovic convinced them to move to Bowling Green. They flew in to New York in 1997. though Adevija couldn’t remember specifics, she said their time in the city was brief because they were trying to get to their destination.
Damira was 4. Her brother, Saban, was 18 and her sister, Ermina, was 15. The children gradually adjusted. They picked up the language and attended traditional schools. For her parents, the lifestyle and cultural differences were more difficult. America was not home.
“It’s better now than it used to be,” Damira says, talking about the size of Bowling Green, as she translates for Adevija. “If we knew, we would have stayed in New York or moved to a big city. Chicago or something. We wouldn’t have stayed here. For them, after living in a big city in Bosnia, this is basically country for them.”
Home was Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia. There they had a three-bedroom house with a small garden of flowers in the front. It wasn’t as nice as their home in America, but their life before the war was better. They were close with their neighbors, who would visit the house often. There, Adevija said that she and Muharem didn’t feel the limitations of language barriers: the felt more freedom to go to restaurants and shops and talk to people.
“They always say it’s better over there than it is here, mostly because of the language barrier,” Damira interprets for her mother. “Here, wherever they go, they have to have me or one of my siblings, if they’re ever here.”
Saban and Ermina are both married with children. Saban is in Atlanta, with his wife and three children. He has two boys, Sanel, 11, and Anel, 2. He also has a daughter, Anela, who is 9. Ermina lives in Chicago with her husband and her 6-year-old daughter, Amela.
Ermina visits when her daughter has holidays breaks from school. She comes to visit their parents and tends to stick to the house. Saban is in Bowling Green more often. Damira says that her brother visits about every two weeks. She says when Saban visits, he sees their aunt, uncle, and other family members.
“The people he sees the least are my parents,” Damira says with a laugh. “He’s here for everyone!”
Damira pulls up pictures and videos of her nephew, Sanel. In a video from Thanksgiving, Sanel hovers over a plate, picking up and eating corn kernel by kernel. She laughs, scrolling through her iPhone to find another video.
The Ibresevics have been celebrating Thanksgiving for several years. It’s a holiday that Damira has integrated into her family. Though they’re Muslim, they plan to have Christmas this year, but not as a religious holiday.
“I wouldn’t say we celebrate it,” Damira says. “Not like the American people. It’s more like a family holiday.”
When Damira talked about her family’s experiences post-Bosnia, she said their lives began in America. For her, that’s an accurate statement. She graduated from Warren Central High School, and afterwards, studied business at Western Kentucky University for a year before she decided to withdraw. The focus of her life now is work and family.
“I should have went, I regret not going,” Damira says the week after Thanksgiving about college. “Then again, all the money and all the stuff that I would have to pay. I’m OK with my job. I like it here. It’s not like I struggle here.”
She sits at the tall, reception desk toward the back of the lobby at Tony Rhoades State Farm. The white fireplace behind her is decorated with red and white stockings bearing the names of employees. Several tiny Christmas trees sit on end tables scattered around wing-backed chairs in the middle of the room.
She began working as an administrative assistant at the Scottsville Road office three years ago.
She helps translate for Bosnian customers, processes payments, and assists agents. She enjoys her work and wants to become a licensed agent in the near future.
Damira says she’s fortunate to have found a job in a supportive work environment. Because her parents have difficulty with English, she has to be available to help translate. Since her father works full-time in Franklin, Kentucky, at Packaging Unlimited, her mother relies on her for transportation as well.
“If she goes to doctor’s appointments or something, I need to translate, I need to drive,” Damira explains. “She does have her permit but she’s scared to drive. And they’re really good with me being out and going to help my mom. There’s places where you can’t really even take a day off for yourself.”
Damira says her parents are conservative. They don’t want her to drink or do drugs. She says their views on political topics differ. She lives with them and she has a midnight curfew.
“Yeah, that’s my life right there,” she says with a laugh. “Twenty-four and still, you know.”
Eventually Damira would like to move out on her own. For the time being, she feels she needs to be close by to help her parents. She mentions her mother’s health issues broadly, but leaves it at that. She’s close to her mother, and says her mother is supportive. Adevija wants her to find a guy that’s good to her and treats her right, Bosnian or not. Damira says she would prefer to meet an American guy.
“I’m not putting Bosnian guys down,” she says quickly, “but the way that they treat girls is not OK.”
Between work and family responsibilities, Damira says she enjoys going to the gym. When she’s not at the gym, she says she’s at home in her room. She loves shopping. She says she used to shop in Charlotte Russe all the time. The store manager got to the point where he would recognize her when she came in and he’d show her new merchandise that he thought she’d like. She says her mother lectures her about her spending habits. Adevija wants her to be more responsible with her money.
Work is her life. Damira says she doesn’t really have friends, besides one. She mentions a lifelong friend, Arnela Gibanovic. When she can, she says she likes to hang out with Gibanovic. The girls met in kindergarten and have been friends ever since. Damira says they had a falling out a few weeks ago over a disagreement about Gibanovic’s boyfriend, but have since made up.
“I don’t think our relationship is going to get like it used to be. We used to always be together,” Damira says.
Though she doesn’t have many close friends her age, Damira says she’s close to people in the office. She views one of the agents, Joyce High, as a second mom. High is someone she can talk to about guys, personal problems, and things she feel like she can’t necessarily reach out to her parents about.
The next day, High, 66, sits at her desk in black slacks and a white polka dot blouse. Her short brown hair grazes her shoulders and her blue eyes squint slightly behind silver-framed rectangular glasses. She says she’s had some personal things affecting her day, but she still smiles and engages in conversation.
She has worked at the Scottsville Road office for seven years. The Louisville native has been living in Bowling Green for 10 years with her husband of 46 years.
High remembers Damira being shy and bashful when she started working at State Farm. Over the years, she’s seen her young coworker grow. She says Damira seems more confident and happy.
“Because she used to be not very secure with the person she was. And I find her being much more so now,” High says.
She’s never met Damira’s family, but from what High has experienced in being part of her life, there’s a lot on her plate.
“She has to be there whenever anything happens. If it’s doctor’s offices, or anything, to where she can make sure they understand what’s going on,” High says. “It’s just a heavy load for a child.”
The amount of independence and separate personal identity that most girls Damira’s age have and get to experience are harder for her to attain with her current responsibilities and circumstances. She says Damira has expressed a desire to move out on her parents’ house, but it isn’t financially feasible for her to do so. She doesn’t have the strong friendships to where she’d have the ability to move in with a friend and split rent either. Besides taking care of her parents, Damira is very loyal to her job, High says.
“I think her job is pretty much her life,” she adds.
Although Damira says she doesn’t have any memories of her life in Bosnia, High believes it’s something that still affects her to an extent.
“Whenever you’re in conversation about her coming here or things like that, she almost becomes sad thinking about how it was and then happy about how it is now,” High says.
Over the years, Damira has become someone High genuinely cares for. She grins as she talks about Damira’s personality. It takes her only a moment to think of her best trait.
“She has a beautiful smile,” High says, beginning to grin. “The first thing that catches me with her is when she smiles. She just throws out that smile and it’s like, ‘Oh! Hi!’”
High believes if Damira studies to take the test to become a licensed agent, she’ll be successful. With Bowling Green’s large Bosnian population, there’s a market where her fluency in Bosnian and English will be an advantage.
“I really hope to see her one day be able to become an agent and expand her horizons to bigger and better things. And I think eventually she will,” High says with a smile.