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Providing refuge to those fleeing their homeland – The Mercury News

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The call came with sudden urgency. Armina Husic was told that if she wanted to escape she had to leave immediately.

Husic, a mother of two, had just sat down for coffee in the living room of her home in Sarajevo that morning in 1995. She was not thinking of giving up her life in Bosnia and Herzegovina when the call came.

But the siege of Sarajevo had reached almost four years by then. This would continue the following year before the capital was spared the atrocities of a civil war that targeted the predominantly Muslim population.

Husic reunited her children, then 9 and 4, an 8-year-old nephew and a 15-year-old brother, and began a life-changing journey that ultimately ended in the South Bay where she feels still in painful emotion after having fled his native country.

“We weren’t planning on leaving,” said Husic. “You have to make that decision on what’s best for your children and to save lives. “

Husic, 57, has spent the past quarter of a century using the experience of his escape from Sarajevo to help refugees arriving in California. She is associate director of the San José-based Center for Torture Survivors, which has helped more than 4,000 refugees from 78 countries adjust to new life in the Bay Area.

The center is part of the Asian Americans for Community Involvement, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to serve marginalized and ethnic communities in Santa Clara County.

This summer’s chaotic images of desperate Afghans at Kabul airport seeking to travel to the United States and elsewhere have heightened the need for agencies such as the uprooted ones attempting to reestablish their lives in a foreign land.

In September, Santa Clara County government officials announced that they planned to assist around 300 Afghan refugees during the year.

“Refugees need a space when they arrive to process their trauma,” said Husic. “Going into uncertainty is a trauma in itself. If it is not addressed early, their integration is more complex.

Donations from Wish Book will help center staff find housing for newcomers as well as support counselors and case managers working with refugees.

While basics like food and shelter are important, Husic said the path to assimilation must meet the emotional needs of refugees in culturally sensitive ways.

The mental health component is critical to resettlement, said Nelda David, who runs the refugee clinic at Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center.

The San José County Clinic looks after the immediate medical needs of refugees, including vaccinations, testing for all infectious diseases, and general physical exams.

David said more than 50% of refugees suffer from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of having fled everything they have known.

The county’s 13-year partnership with the center has become a model program for addressing this often overlooked part of integration, David said.

“They are really experts in this field,” she added of Husic and his advisers. “The refugee journey is different. Trust is a big deal. Having an interpreter on the phone is not the same as having that person right in front of you.

One of the most effective parts of the center is the diverse staff that Husic calls “Our Little UN”. They have advisers from Afghanistan, Iran, the Philippines and Syria.

Many speak the language of angst after crossing a rocky bridge from oppression to survival, having left their story behind for new stories.

When Husic arrived in San José in the mid-90s, she was told to forget who she was and what she did in Bosnia.

“There are only low-paying jobs here and few types of work,” Husic recalls.

The situation did not deter a woman who went through hell from going to California.

Siege of Sarjevo

They called it the tunnel of hope. During the siege of Sarajevo, a half-mile-long tunnel gave the stranded capital a lifeline to the outside world.

During much of the siege, from 1992 to 1996, the narrow tunnel was the way in and out of Sarajevo as Serbian snipers in the hills fired indiscriminately at the townspeople.

According to reports, nearly 14,000 people were killed during the siege, including thousands of civilians. By 1995 Sarajevo had become a skeletal city as Serbs and Bosnian Serbs slashed churches, mosques, office towers and other buildings with rockets and artillery shells in strategic positions in the cities. Surrounding Dinaric Alps.

“People have been deprived of all this normal life to move around in this concentration camp,” Husic said. “While you were not killed by bullets or grenades, many were affected by the lack of food, electricity and water.

Husic worked for a large trading company in the old town district next to a famous cathedral with its twin spiers and rose windows.

Just months after the war began, Husic visited his stepfather near his office. Ten minutes later, mortar shells hit a market where she was located, killing 22 people queuing to buy bread and injuring more than 100 other victims.

The carnage occurred just blocks from where a Serbian nationalist murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in 1914, an act that sparked World War I.

Husic heard the explosion at the bakery just as she entered her office building.

“The sound never goes away,” she said three decades later.

Husic ultimately decided to flee when her parents and in-laws insisted that she bring the children out of the war-torn town. Her sister stayed behind to take care of their parents, who did not want to leave.

The journey began shortly after the call. It took hours to get through Sarajevo safely just to reach a meeting point near the camouflaged tunnel opening. Civilians had to obtain permission to pass through the tunnel under the UN-controlled Sarajevo airport.

Husic’s group had to wait for hours as a battle ensued over the city. The Bosnian army used the tunnel, built in 1993, to transport wounded soldiers to hospitals.

Once they got their agreement, Husic and his companions crawled through the tunnel which was no more than 5 feet in its highest parts. The 800-meter hike took an average of two hours.

Freedom, however, was not on the other side. Civilians fleeing the conflict then had to climb 4,928-foot Mount Igman, the unpaved road of which had become the main supply route to Sarajevo.

By 1995, Serbian forces knew about the artery, forcing Husic’s group to find a local guide to take them up the mountain, which a decade earlier had served as the ski jumping site for the 1984 Games in Sarajevo. Husic, then 19, had danced at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in happier times.

Now she made her way up the mountain through the mud on a rainy morning with her youngest child begging to come home.

What’s worse, she thought at the time: bullets, rain, mud? “At some point you can’t even breathe,” said Husic.

They finally reached where the buses were waiting to take them to Croatia. His sister and two friends had helped Husic get to the starting point. They didn’t have time to say goodbye in the rush to board an overcrowded bus.

Husic and the children spent six months in Split, Croatia. An aunt from Cupertino helped her and the children get to the Bay Area through a refugee program.

Husic restarted his life while learning to speak English fluently and not knowing how to access available services.

She worked on an assembly line in a technology company and then at the University of Santa Clara as a computer scientist. All the while, Husic also helped other newcomers navigate the system as she began to figure it out.

“We tried to figure out how we could create a place to help other refugees,” Husic said. “It has become my mission.”

She co-founded the not-for-profit service agency for Eastern Europe in South Bay. Husic, who speaks five languages, then spent two years in the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. She has worked at the Center for Survivors of Torture since 2001.

The job is not just a job for her.

“People are so resilient no matter how difficult it is,” said Husic. “Humans are finding a way to survive, and that’s something that gives me hope.”

It is the hope that she transmits to the next arrivals.


THE WISH BOOK SERIES
The Wish Book is an annual series of The Mercury News that invites readers to help their neighbors.

TO WISH
Donations will help the Asian Americans for Community Involvement Center for Torture Survivors provide clients with assistance for the first month of rent, furniture and essentials like food and clothing, as well as counseling and other services. Objective: $ 25,000.

HOW TO GIVE
Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com or send the coupon by mail.

ONLINE SUPPLEMENT
Read more Wish Book stories, view photos and videos at wishbook.mercurynews.com.