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Refugees rebuild lives in Idaho

Bosnian refugee Damir Subasic

Ada County Sheriff's Deputy Damir Subasic talks about Immigrating to Boise and how Americans and refugees can better understand one another.
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Ada County Sheriff's Deputy Damir Subasic talks about Immigrating to Boise and how Americans and refugees can better understand one another.

Since he was a little boy, Damir Subasic wanted to be a cop.

That dream became reality after Subasic graduated from Boise State University with a degree in criminal justice and joined the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. Now a deputy, Subasic patrols Eagle.

The name on his uniform hints that his family hails from Eastern Europe. But most of his fellow officers — and most of his friends — usually do not learn until several months after meeting him that Subasic is a Bosnian refugee.

Subasic, 33, doesn’t usually bring up his back story. He tries not to complain. Too many of his countrymen lost loved ones and witnessed atrocities in the genocidal civil war that claimed nearly 100,000 lives, almost half of those civilians.

“I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t given certain opportunities,” Subasic said. “When things happen that upset some people here, in my head, I think, ‘You haven’t seen that much hardship if this upsets you that much.’ 

Since 1980, when the latest resettlement program started, some 19,000 refugees from nearly 50 countries have started new lives in Idaho, out of 3.2 million refugees nationwide. Ten refugees resettled in Boise from Syria in the first half of 2016, feeding criticism from groups concerned that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough to prevent extremist terrorists from entering the nation.

Refugees face challenges adapting to the culture, language, infrastructure and employment opportunities of their new homes. The challenges can vary greatly. Subasic, for example, has little in common culturally with those escaping conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, who now make up the bulk of Idaho’s incoming refugees.

But they have some things in common. First, they spend years of their life in danger or hunkered down in refugee camps. Second, they come to the U.S. and grapple with how to pay their bills while starting from scratch.

That part — finding work, advancing to better-paying jobs, saving money — is tough for most refugees, said Royce Hutson, an associate professor in Boise State University’s School of Social Work.

STARTING OVER

Subasic was 13 when he moved to Boise with his parents and two younger sisters from Bosnia, one of the Slavic republics that made up the former Yugoslavia. The war there raged from 1992 to 1995, though violence and intimidation continued afterward. The Subasic family members were Bosniaks, who were the subjects of genocide by Bosnian Serb forces.

As he patrolled Floating Feather Road in an SUV, Subasic talked freely about his family’s flight from Bosnia and the barge that carried his family across a lake under gunfire.

Subasic remembers frequent walks from his family’s apartment on Allumbaugh Street to the movie theater, where he picked up on American slang. His father, a metal and woodworker in Bosnia, and his mother, a former bookkeeper, took jobs as janitors, cleaning office buildings at night.

He remembers “looking all kinds of lost” on his first day at West Junior High School. Most of his Bosnian friends were enrolled in refugee student programs at Riverglen Junior High. He thought a boy approaching him intended to punch him. Instead, the boy introduced himself and offered to show Subasic how to find his classes.

The kindness was the beginning of what Subasic calls an easy transition — easier than those faced by refugees from non-Western countries, especially adults. When he emigrated to the U.S., he was already steeped in rock ’n’ roll and spoke English.

“I never had any conflict,” he said. “If anything, people were super welcoming and encouraging.”

Subasic worked his first job at a fast-food restaurant, starting several months after arriving in Boise. He now lives alone at the Boise home he owns, and he works out at a mixed martial arts gym four or five times a week. Subasic retains the hardships of growing up in a nation at war, but he is as acclimated as a first-generation refugee can be.

Many of the refugees he interacts with on the job or in the vegetable aisle are from African or Middle Eastern countries. They struggle with the English language and American culture. They are starting over, figuring out how to get to the doctor’s office or file paperwork to receive refugee benefits. Some fear police because of experiences back home.

“Your education and your work experience doesn’t count for anything,” he said. “You are a blank slate. You might as well be 16 and looking for your first job, except over there you were a college professor.”

Research shows many refugees struggle to make ends meet. In 2013, Hutson published a study of the financial gains made by 169 refugee families in Idaho who had arrived in the previous decade.

Increasing the speed that people move up is a target for all of us. Nobody wants to say flat wages are a good thing.

Julianne Donnelly Tzul, International Rescue Commission’s Boise director

Some earned strong wages, especially those with higher education levels. But Hutson found that most made only marginal financial gains and lived near the poverty line. Respondents’ median household income was $1,648 a month, or less than $20,000 a year.

Upward mobility was more stunted for older refugees, especially those speaking no English, Hutson said.

“The picture was mixed,” Hutson said. “They do better over time, but not a whole lot better.”

Julianne Donnely Tzul, director of the International Rescue Commission’s Boise office, said she frequently sees older refugees grind out meager livings working low-paying jobs.

“They might be stuck in fairly menial jobs, but they know their kids will go to school and go places they never could,” Donnely Tzul said. “To them, the barometer of success is opportunity for the kids.”

SECOND-GENERATION FOCUS

Olga Nlemvo fears police. The uniforms remind her of the military attire of soldiers in her native Republic of Congo, where several civil wars broke out in the 1990s.

Nlemvo, who speaks French, said through an interpreter that she never understood the politics that led to bloodshed, including the deaths of her father and two of her brothers. She recently found out that her mother and sister, who she believed were dead for the last 17 years, are alive in the Congo.

Nlemvo, now 46, and her husband, Marcel Mpassi, were among the 133 Congolese who resettled in Boise in 2012. More refugees from the Congo settled in Boise that year than from any other nation.

The couple’s refugee application was accepted after they and their four children had lived for two years in a refugee camp in a forest. Food was not a certainty.

A girl the family took in was not allowed to come to the U.S. because she was not a blood relative.

Mpassi, an electrician in the Congo, went to work at Usful Glassworks, a Boise nonprofit that puts refugees and other disadvantaged people to work turning wine and beer bottles into drinking glasses. He now earns a little more at a job at a sign-making company, Signs 2 Fit, in Garden City.

Nlemvo, a seamstress in Africa, worked part time at a hotel before starting a day care business in her home.

The family owns a home built with the help of Boise Valley Habitat for Humanity. The couple’s fifth child was born here. The parents don’t expect to increase their income much, Nlemvo said.

“I’m old,” she said in French through an interpreter. “Even if I go to school, it’s difficult for me to memorize and to learn. I’m here for my kids. I want to have a good future for my kids.”

Her oldest, daughter Paule Garcel Mpassi, will return to Boise State for her sophomore year this fall. She is studying international business.

MEASURING SUCCESS

Financial gains don’t paint the entire picture when gauging refugee assimilation, Hutson said.

Many refugees lived in fear for years. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Poverty by U.S. standards is an easy life by comparison to what many refugees had before.

Bhutanese refugees are among the poorest and least educated of those Hutson surveyed, but they reported the highest quality of life.

In contrast, the Iraqis he surveyed were the most well-educated. Many were college-educated and had worked with U.S. military or State Department. However, more Iraqis reported PTSD symptoms, and they were far more likely than Bhutanese to report dissatisfaction with life here, Hutson said.

“The Bhutanese are very grateful for being here,” he said. “Conditions in some of those camps were pretty austere. Even if they are living in overcrowded housing and not making much money, conditions are vastly better than in their home country.”

Subasic watched soldiers plant mines on bus lines in Bosnia and saw people hiding from soldiers. His family avoided many of the horrors of the war by resettling in Germany for three years before being forced out. Germany harbored Bosnian refugees only until the war officially ended, Subasic said. They returned to find their home bombed, the roof collapsed amid evidence that prisoners had “been lined against the wall and strafed” in his parents’ bedroom, he said.

The war was officially over, but his father still received threats. When the family left for good, soldiers stopped the car at frequent road blocks, pointing rifles at the family.

All of that was “relatively mellow” compared with what his surviving countrymen endured, Subasic said. He understands how freshly relocated refugee family members could be content to keep their heads down and avoid attention.

“You have to rebuild your life up,” he said.

CHANGED PERCEPTION

Subasic said his own family shares concerns about terrorism. But his own story — and survival — feeds his belief that the U.S. should keep an open mind about refugees.

“[The backlash] is natural when you mix cultures,” Subasic said. “People will bunch refugees into that one type of person that doesn’t have the same values, that doesn’t value human life the same way. But you have to let people’s actions speak for themselves.”

There’s intent to cross the divide of otherness. Sometimes people do it gracefully. Sometimes not. But the fact that people try at all to me makes Boise different than other areas where refugees resettle.

IRC Director Julianne Donnelly Tzul

Subasic said his interactions with Middle Eastern refugees as an officer — including with several affluent Iraqis living in Eagle — remind him of his own journey. He said refugees and their neighbors need to work through their discomfort to get to know one another.

“Say a refugee moves in and doesn’t talk to people,” Subasic siad. “He keeps to himself. He’s almost secretive. Of course the whole neighborhood is going to talk about him. But is anybody going to talk to him?

“No. It doesn’t work that way. And that’s what’s going on.”

AMERICAN DREAM

Subasic’s father worked several jobs before landing work at a Boise company that makes metal parts, a return to his prewar career. His mother now works at a deli. Both parents continue to work as professional cleaners part-time.

The family remains close to Bosnian friends who resettled here in the 1990s, but its support network has grown outside of that enclave, he said. The family, which had savings, stopped receiving food stamps and refugee benefits in its third month after resettling, a point of pride for Subasic’s parents.

If I were to somehow fail, I’d be spitting in the faces of my parents. The sole reason they left their country was so their kids wouldn’t get killed and have a chance to have a good life.

Bosnian refugee Damir Subasic

The family bought its first home in the early 2000s and upgraded to a larger house several years later. Subasic’s two sisters also graduated from college. They now work white-collar jobs.

The family’s climb to financial security took work, but more than that, it took opportunity, he said.

“If you are willing to put in the work, the American Dream is still very much alive and there for you,” Subasic said.

“You can make it here. You just have to keep grinding away at it. If that means starting small and cleaning offices and building from there, then that’s what it means.”

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