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Hanging On

Fatima Vejzovic And Remzija Sabic Came To Hartford After The War In Bosnia. Now, They Keep Bosnian Crafts Alive And Try To Rebuild Their Lives.

January 18, 2007
By ADAM BULGER, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer

While Fatima Vejzovic was hunched down, working on the crude-looking loom her husband made, one of the 30-odd people in the audience gathered around her gushed about how cute Vejzovic was. Frankly, she was adorable. Wearing her traditional Bosnian headscarf, hard at work on her homemade loom, the 59-year-old refugee looked like a Life Magazine photo come to life.

Despite her limited English, Vejzovic was very charming to speak with. Her speech seemed to have a borderline sarcastic, offhand delivery. It made her words, spoken in Bosnian and told to me through a translator, even more jarring.

Vejzovic is originally from the Northeastern Bosnian town Vlasenica. There, she and her family lived and worked on land they owned. Until the violence between the Bosnian Muslims, the Serbs and the Croats broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, Vejzovic and her family lived self-sufficiently, without incident.

“Before the war started we owned a farm and land and worked for ourselves. We didn’t need to buy anything. We made everything for ourselves,” Vejzovic said through her translator, Lejla Mustabasic.

She said they made clothes from the wool of the sheep they kept. But by the time she and her husband left their farm, she said, “everything was burnt.”

Before the war, Vlasenica was mostly ethnically Muslim. In 1992, the town was taken over by Serb militants. Several hundred Bosnians Muslims were killed in conflicts, and a prison camp called Sušica was established near the town. Sušica operated from June to September of 1992. Eight thousand prisoners were allegedly kept there; the conditions were reportedly deplorable, with rape, abuse and overcrowding allegedly the norm. After the camp was closed, mass graves were found at the location. In 2003, Dragan Nikolic, the Serb commander of the camp was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Vejzovic left before the camp was established, but still suffered devastating losses.

“I can’t even count who I lost in the war,” Vejzovic said, explaining that half of her family was killed. “My brother, my father and all of my children.”

She said later: “The Serbian aggressors took everything. We had to come to the U.S. Now we’re OK here.”

She’s lived in Hartford for five years, and she said her adopted hometown is markedly different from her homeland.

“Only the weather is the same,” she said.

Remzija Sabic, 40, another Bosnian woman, didn’t wear the traditional scarf, and spoke very softly.

Sabic lives in Hartford with her daughter, her only surviving close relative. The rest of her family was killed in a single day. She is one of 700 Bosnian Muslim war widows the Institute for Community Research estimate lives in the Hartford area (there were about 1,600 Bosnian refugees in Connecticut in 2000). An audience member asked Sabic where she found the strength to go on.

“It’s only because of my daughter,” Sabic said.

Vejzovic and Sabic were displaying traditional woven and knit crafts at the Hartford’s Institute for Community Research.Their presentation, which featured their homemade Bosnian crafts, was the last event in the institute’s Weavings of War exhibit, which closed last weekend. The exhibit featured works created by people in war-torn lands. The textiles on display were a reaction to the violence.

The Bosnian art was different from the works displayed in the institute’s gallery. The Bosnian crafts displayed — woven rugs and knitted works such as socks, hats and decorative pieces — are examples of traditional art that survived the violence in the country. The other works on display, from places like Peru, Chile and Afghanistan, were reflections of conflict.

While piles of knitted works were stacked on tables throughout the room ready to be sold and worn, the rug on the loom during the presentation was unfinished. Vejzovic said a rug of its kind takes a month to complete.

Like much of Bosnian culture, the rugs and knitted works were a blend of Eastern and European influence. The decorative crochet style works are similar to styles from southern European countries like Italy and Spain. The rugs are from the Turkish tradition, a holdover from the hundreds of years the Ottoman Turks occupied Bosnia.

Bosnians first came to Hartford as refugees in the mid ’90s, while the war was still going on. Since arriving in Hartford as refugees, the Bosnians’ situation has changed. In the last decade, the community has adjusted to life here.

News stories from the mid ’90s paint a picture of a struggling, alien community.

“It’s been some time now that the Bosnians have been getting as much assistance as when they first came,” said Sister Maris of Jubilee House, an organization that has been instrumental in resettling refugees in Hartford.

Steve Walsh, who has worked with Bosnian refugees through nonprofit group the Connecticut Coalition of Mutual Assistance, has seen the circumstances of immigrants improve.

“They’re buying houses, they’re getting better jobs, they’re improving their English and talking about getting their citizenship,” Walsh said. He added that area Bosnians are no longer centralized in Hartford, noting that many Bosnians he’s worked with have bought homes in suburban towns like Wethersfield and Rocky Hill.

Glenn Ruga, the president of the board of the Massachusetts-based Center for Balkan Development said the same upwardly mobile trend was true for Bosnians throughout America. Ruga said Bosnians from urban settings have assimilated into American society easier than refugees from rural areas.

“Generally, Bosnians that come from Bosnian cities have done fairly well,” Ruga said. “Those that come from more rural areas have a more difficult time integrating. Just because they’ve come here with less skills and the cultural differences are much greater than people from Sarajevo or the other larger cities in Bosnia. They’re much more cosmopolitan.”

Ruga said that younger Bosnians have an easier time assimilating into America, mostly because they’re able to adapt and adopt the culture faster.

“Language is a huge issue. If you can learn the language, you can integrate. It’s usually easier for younger people to learn the language,” Ruga said.

The Bosnian women at the presentation illustrated the divide. Translator Mustabasic was in her 20s and spoke several languages including seamless conversational American style English despite having been in the states for only four months. Vejzovic, who’s lived in America for years, speaks little English.

“Head no good,” Vejzovic joked, in English, pointing to her forehead.

Because of her difficulties with the language, Vejzovic is unable to find work in America. She works on her traditional crafts — knitting and weaving — because, she says, it’s a peaceful task that consoles her.

Even though the purpose of the event was not commercial, the Bosnian presentation represented one of the surprisingly few opportunities to buy handmade Bosnian crafts. Advocacy Project, an international civil and human rights group, said Bosnian crafts aren’t available partially due to lingering effects from the war.

“The cost of exporting from Bosnia is extremely expensive. Customs duties are unbelievably expensive to ship things [to America],” Advocacy Project Outreach Director Stacy Kosko said. “Bosnia is still recovering from the war. The cost of living in Bosnia is extremely expensive.”

Bosfam, short for Bosnian Families, was one of the earliest reconstructive programs during the war, and is still operating today. Advocacy Project partners with them.

“Bosfam started at the same time as the war. Munira Hadzic, the director of Bosfam, was a principal at an elementary school in Srebrenica. There was a camp set up for the refugee women, even before the massacre, and wanted to offer something to the women to keep them busy, to keep their minds busy,” Kosko said.

Bosfam is still active; their Web site features pictures from a runway fashion show which includes knitted bikinis.

“For Bosfam to compete on a western market is very difficult. People say they can get the same carpets for half the price from Turkey. It’s something we’re kind of struggling with,” Kosko said.

“They make this stuff — hats, mittens and bags — and there isn’t really a market for it. We’re trying to assist with that. We’re trying to find venues for marketing these. We’ve really only begun to think of this,” said Lynn Williamson, the director of the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program.

The people who work with Bosnian women locally are working to get a commercial push behind Bosnian crafts.

Nolifer Haider, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, has displayed and sold locally-made Bosnian crafts at local Rotary clubs and other civic organizations. Kate Othwell, who teaches English through Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services, set up a rudimentary Web site, katerothwell.com/crafts.html, where Vejzovic and Sabic’s crafts are available for sale. Socks, rugs and cleaning services are available through the site; believe it or not, the site is the first result in a Google search for Bosnian rugs. All proceeds from the site go towards Vejzovic and Sabic.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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