Bosnia to Bowling Green: Finding a Place to Call Home

Aug 11, 2021 | Spotlight

By Emma Austin

Every time she enters her Bowling Green home, Gina Dzelil stops to take off her shoes and sees a framed photograph hanging on the wall above her alarm system control panel.

The photo is of a small, gray, two-story house with a rusty-colored roof and faded blue gutters. A line of trees with tall, skinny trunks sits behind the house; the branches create dark shapes against the clear sky. A barbed-wire fence runs along the edge of the photo until it reaches a path in front of the house, where the sharp wire is interrupted by pink and yellow flowers.

When she looks at the photo, Dzelil is reminded of the place she was born: Foca, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“It just kind of grounds me, you know?” Dzelil says, looking at the photo. “That’s where you come from, and that’s why you should be happy with everything you have today. It just kind of puts things in perspective.”

Pointing just beyond the photo’s edge, Dzelil identifies Drina, a river that makes up a large portion of the border between Bosnia and Serbia. In the next room, a heart-shaped stone sits on Dzelil’s coffee table, more than 20 years after Dzelil picked it up from the edge of Drina near the house in the photo—20 years after Dzelil and her family were pushed out of their home and country by the Bosnian war.

Before the war began in 1992, Bosnia was one of six republics comprising Yugoslavia. Bosnia’s declaration of independence in 1992 led to the war over territory which lasted for more than three years.

Together, Bosnian Serbs and Serbs from the Yugoslav Army joined forces to “ethnically cleanse” eastern and northern areas in Bosnia, which were near Serbia. The Bosnians, who were predominantly Muslim, were targeted by the Serbian armies because of their religion. Muslim families like Dzelil’s were in danger and were forced to either escape the country or stay and risk their safety.

“Being a refugee is like being homeless,” Dzelil said. “You don’t have anything. You don’t know where you’re going. You’re just running away from war, and you’re running away from being killed.”

Dzelil and her family became refugees when she was 10 years old.

She was outside with her brother, age 6 at the time, who was riding his bike around their house. She went inside for a moment, then heard a loud, unfamiliar noise. A grenade had just flown over her roof.

“I remember my neighbor storming into the house, running and screaming and dragging my brother in,” Dzelil said. “I remember because my neighbor never yelled, never screamed.”

Dzelil remembers the sound the grenade made as it flew overhead. She remembers the panic she felt in the moment of knowing her brother was still outside but not knowing if he was OK.

Those were the moments in which Dzelil realized for the first time she was living in a war zone.

In the following days, Dzelil’s mother prepared her and her brother for what they would need to do if the Serbian soldiers captured their parents. Her mother tucked a roll of money into the chest pocket of Dzelil’s overalls to use in case she and her brother got separated from their parents. If they capture me, get your brother and start running, her mother told her.

“The Serbian soldiers would go to the houses and they would kill people,” Dzelil said. “They would rape the women and kill the men.”

Within days of the grenade, Dzelil’s father told her family they needed to leave Foca immediately and head for Montenegro, a bordering state.

On that day, Dzelil watched her mother go straight to the bedroom and open a drawer where she kept the family photographs, which she collected in a stack to fold up inside her tunic.

When she saw her mother do this, Dzelil went to get two shoe figures off the top of the television set to take with her—characters from her favorite cartoon. As she was running to get into the car with her family to leave, one of the shoes fell and broke.

During their escape, Dzelil never got separated from her family. They made it together safely to a town called Nikši?. Seven days after arriving, Dzelil’s father decided to go back to check on his parents, who had stayed behind.

“I remember I was sitting there crying, begging him not to go,” Dzelil said. “Not because I didn’t think that he was going to come back—I thought he would return—I just didn’t want him to leave for seven days.”

Dzelil’s father didn’t return, and he never made it back to his parents, either. They later learned he was captured, imprisoned and killed by the Bosnian Serb army. He wasn’t involved in any political party; he never committed any crimes; he never fought for one side or the other.

He was captured because of his Muslim faith.

His body was thrown into a mass grave with more than 350 other bodies, where his remains wouldn’t be identified until fifteen years later.

Dzelil and her family stayed in Nikši? for a month, thinking her father would return. When they realized he wasn’t going to come back, they left Nikši? for another town nearby, where they lived for about six months. From there, Dzelil traveled to Denmark, to Poland, to Berlin.

During those years, Dzelil’s mother did everything she could to find her husband, Dzelil’s father. People would offer to sell her information that ended up being worthless.

“It’s need; it’s desperation,” Dzelil said. “Any kind of information is positive. You’re just trying to know what’s happening.”

In Germany, the Bosnian refugees were treated like second-class citizens. Dzelil felt like an outsider who was looked down on.

In Bosnia, Dzelil’s mother had worked as a school psychologist, a respected position. In Germany, her family lived off government aid. Her mother could occasionally get a job cleaning homes or offices to earn a little extra money.

After spending six and a half years in Berlin, Dzelil’s mother chose to bring her family to the United States, where they could get education, jobs and independence—they wouldn’t have to rely on the government to survive. One year after applying for a refugee visa, Dzelil’s family was sent to Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“In the United States, believe it or not, you don’t feel so much like a foreigner,” she said. “Comparing it to Germany, people in the South are very welcoming, and very, very nice, and very, very, very inclusive of the foreign community and refugees.”

After settling in Bowling Green, Dzelil’s family finally learned what happened to her father. A wrist watch, along with DNA testing, identified his body in a mass grave at a concentration camp.

“He saved us, and he saved our lives,” Dzelil said as she recounted her father’s decision to take his family out of Bosnia and return to save his parents. “He risked his life for his parents, and unfortunately he didn’t make it.”

She knows she speaks with an accent; she never worked hard to lose it. Bowling Green is her home, but Bosnia is where she came from and is a part of who she is.

She visits every year, and she travels around the world, too, but she always returns to Bowling Green. She won’t live in the Bosnian home in the photo again, but she plans to renovate it, maybe to use as a summer home.

“We moved so many times, trying to find a home,” Dzelil said. “After you find a peace and you find a community, you feel safe and comfortable; you don’t want to leave that.”

This sentiment has kept Dzelil in Bowling Green for nearly 18 years. She graduated from WKU in 2004 with a business management degree and currently works as an accountant for a business owned by a Bosnian American, a job she says she is comfortable and confident with.

Bosnian-Americans make up a significant portion of Bowling Green’s population. It’s a close-knit community, Dzelil said, and they’ve integrated well.

“Every Bosnian person here has some kind of story,” she said. “Mine is unique on its own. There are people who really have experienced torture during the war—criminal torture. Cruel, cruel stuff.”

Brent Bjorkman, Kentucky Museum director, has been collecting these stories in an ongoing project through interviews with Bosnian Americans and their families, learning their histories and culture, which he plans to compile in an exhibit for the 2017-2018 International Year of Bosnia at WKU, featuring Dzelil’s father’s watch.

“In field work, you start to talk to people and ask: who could help me with this? Who should I interview next?” Bjorkman said. “Gina’s name always came up.”

A goal of the exhibit is to tell the stories of the Bosnians in Bowling Green through their eyes, and Bjorkman said Dzelil’s and her mother’s willingness to open their lives to him has been crucial to telling one part of Bosnia’s complex history.

Bjorkman will be travelling with seven other WKU faculty members to Bosnia this summer in the fourth annual Zuheir Sofia Endowed International Faculty Seminar, led by Dzelil, associate professor Jerry Daday and assistant director of international programs Addie Cheney. The annual trip sends faculty to a different country each summer to prepare for the following year’s International Year Of program.

“I feel much closer to what I’m about to embark on because I know the Dzelil family,” Bjorkman said. “I’m this outside guy that’s been changed by what I’ve heard.”

Cheney met Dzelil through Dzelil’s sister-in-law long before planning for the faculty trip to Bosnia began. During her friendship with Dzelil, Cheney said she learned parts of her story in pieces. Dzelil’s experience and connections made her the perfect candidate to be a co-leader of the program, Cheney said.

“She’s a person who brings a lot of lightness and joy to a situation, even when it is without a doubt incredibly dark and traumatic,” Cheney said.

Dzelil was appointed by Mayor Bruce Wilkerson to the Bowling Green Human Rights Commission four years ago. She also is a member of the International Advisory Council, which was initiated by the city five years ago, and represents the Bosnian-American community.

The International Year of Bosnia will be the first year the program focuses on a country with a substantial population in Bowling Green. Cheney said she hopes the program will strengthen WKU’s ties with the city’s Bosnian-American community. The large presence of Bosnian-Americans in Bowling Green is a “perfect example” to Cheney of why programs like the International Year Of should exist.

“Students need to have a global understanding,” she said. “They need to realize that the world is connected and have some awareness of diverse cultures. If you understand to some degree the interconnectedness of the world, I think you can apply that knowledge in other situations to be successful.”

Dzelil said it wasn’t just her father who sacrificed his life for his family—her mother did, too. She never remarried, and she did everything she could to keep her children safe and comfortable.

Now, Dzelil sees her mom several times a week, and often visits her brother, who lives with his wife in Nashville. When they’re together, her mother often cooks Bosnian meals, though Dzelil rarely cooks Bosnian food for herself. Bosnians don’t often use canned or frozen foods, so Dzelil uses fresh fruits and vegetables as often as she can to cook into her American recipes, like a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

She leaves small reminders of the place she came from around her home: a photograph of her with her father when she was 5, a copper džezva used to make traditional Bosnian coffee, the heart-shaped stone she picked up outside the small gray house. A single suitcase sits in the garage, full of letters and magazine clippings from her high school days.

Red, ceramic boots her mother has kept decorate the living room mantle, not unlike the pair Dzelil dropped in her garage almost two decades ago. Several pairs of high heels sit on bookshelves in the guestroom upstairs.

“They’re kind of my thing,” she said.

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