Amid refugee ban, a personal story of fleeing violence for South Carolina woman

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, February 1, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — Fighting isn’t the right word. It was bloodshed.

At first, optimism led to thoughts that conditions would improve — that the fighting would stop — says Bedrija Jazic, who now lives in South Carolina. In the early 1990s, Jazic lived in Sarajevo, the capital of the eastern European country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As the former Yugoslavia began to split apart, Jazic, her husband and their young child found themselves living in a city that would fall under siege for years. It became the longest siege in the modern history of war.

“You live in some kind of denial, hoping that this is just a conflict that is going to stop very soon and you are going to be able to go back to a normal life,” she said. “Then, you start to realize that’s not happening. The conflict is getting more and more serious and there are more and more victims.”

With her city under siege, chances to escape were slim. She recalls snipers picking off people in the streets. Thousands of civilians died.

“You’re pretty much stuck,” she said. “You’re just trying to fight for your life every day and trying to survive. Then, when the opportunity comes to escape, it’s after you’ve already lost so much.”

Jazic and her family escaped after a peace agreement formally ended the war. The peace, she said, was only on paper. The fighting continued, but her family managed to escape to neighboring Croatia.

They became refugees.

“There was no way of going back to a normal life,” Jazic said. “We didn’t know whether war was going to break out again. There was great uncertainty. Our child was already 4 at the time, and we were thinking about her and what her life would be like.”

A new life

After arriving in Croatia, the family registered as refugees with the United Nations, beginning a process that lasted more than a year. It involved an interview, paperwork, a second interview, months of waiting and health screenings. The interviews were more like interrogations, Jazic said.

“For people that had gone through so much already, to be examined and cross-examined and interrogated, it felt like you are being questioned about whether your miseries are really miseries,” she said.

After a months-long process, officials cleared the family to be resettled in South Carolina. Her sister had been resettled there several months before Jazic and her family began the process.

Upon arrival in 1996, they were met by a case manager and family members. At the airport, her sister, nephew and brother-in-law eagerly waited. The reception was “really touching,” Jazic recalled.

In Sarajevo, she was an English teacher. Jazic’s first job in the United States was babysitter. Later, she got a part-time job as a receptionist for Lutheran Services Carolinas. It became a full-time job. Today, she’s the director of refugee resettlement services at Lutheran Services Carolinas.

Since 1979, Lutheran Services Carolinas, based in Salisbury, has resettled about 12,000 refugees. Jazic works out of the organization’s Columbia, S.C., office.

Suddenly stopped

On Friday, President Donald Trump announced a four-month ban on all refugees and a 90-day ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. The action shocked Jazic.

“My first thought was, ‘This cannot be happening here, in this country,’ ” she said.

Trump’s announcement, which came in the form of an executive order, led to a number of travelers being detained in airports around the country. Those detained included people who hold legal green cards.

Protests sprung up around the country as people advocated for the release of those detained. Meanwhile, an unknown number of refugees didn’t make it on a plane.

Describing her own story, Jazic said she recalled “being in this state where you can’t wait to leave.”

Jazic said Lutheran Services Carolinas had three sets of refugees scheduled to come to the U.S. next week. The refugees were originally from the Congo and Eritrea. Both countries are in Africa.

For now, the future of those refugees is uncertain. Jazic said she’s hopeful that resettlement will resume after the temporary ban. At the very least, she hopes refugees will be permitted from countries other than where travel to the United States is currently banned — Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya and Yemen.

A debate

Since its signing, Trump’s executive order attracted widespread criticism about its effects. There’s also debate about its true intent.

Trump’s administration attributes the executive order to concerns about terrorist activity in the specified areas. But his order omits countries with direct links to major terror attacks in the United States. Most of the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, for example, were from Saudi Arabia, which is not on the ban list. In an interview on Fox News, former New York City Mayor and Trump adviser Rudy Guliani said Trump called him to ask how he would be able to legally create a ban on Muslims. The Trump administration and lawmakers who favor the ban say the executive order doesn’t represent a Muslim ban.

Whatever the reason, Lutheran Services President and CEO Ted Goins says there is no significant danger to the U.S. from refugees. Goins says most people aren’t familiar with the difficult vetting process that already exists.

“Most people don’t deal with it on a daily basis and don’t understand what a refugee is and how that differs from an immigrant,” he said, citing people who may have overstayed a visa. “Refugees, these are people who have been in a camp for years just waiting on an opportunity where they can be safe and free. … These are people who are running from ISIS, running from the Taliban, running from a dictator.”

Although he doubts it will be read by the president, Goins sent a letter to Trump just before the president signed the executive order.

“Refugees are forced to leave their homes to escape death or persecution,” Goins wrote. “They come to the U.S. after already extreme vetting and with the full approval and invitation of the U.N. and the U.S. government.”

The United States has always been a humanitarian leader, he says in the letter. Refugees are entrepreneurial and become members of American society quickly, Goins wrote.

Of Lutheran Services’ refugees, 80 percent are gainfully employed within six months, according to statistics provided by the organization. In one year, refugees are considered permanent residents and encouraged to seek citizenship status within five years.

During the previous federal fiscal year — October 2015 to September 2016 — Lutheran Services Carolinas resettled 460 refugees and proved additional services to 167 others. In recent years, the organization has helped resettle refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Bhutan, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Jazic said the process facing refugees today is nearly identical to her experience in the 1990s. Trump has said he wants “extreme vetting,” but Goins and Jazic said the process is already “extreme” enough.

Changes to come?

Trump and his advisers have made public statements that indicate changes might be coming in the executive order, including allowing people with green cards into the U.S.

North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress strongly oppose Trump’s executive action, and some Republicans question it too. Rep. Richard Hudson, R-8, said he supports Trump’s actions but wants to clear up confusion for green-card holders. On Monday, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., joined two Democrats in advocating that Iraqis who helped American soldiers in combat receive an exemption.

Mary Ann Johnson, Lutheran Services’ community relations director, said staff and volunteers have scrambled to keep up with changes as they rapidly occur.

For now, Lutheran Services Carolinas employees and volunteers are focused on refugee-related work to help those already here. Four months from now, Jazic said she hopes to continue helping refugees escape persecution in all its forms.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to correct the number of refugees that Lutheran Services Carolinas has resettled since 1979.