World Refugee Day
June 20 is World Refugee Day, dedicated to raising awareness about refugees throughout the world, a day on which I inevitably always look back on the formative years of my life.
In 1991, my family and I were forced out of our home in Croatia because of our ethnic origin, and we began a life of exile, torn from everything known and dear to us and forced to swim in the uncharted waters of life as a refugee. Our lives had been changed drastically; a life of abundance had become a life of misery.
We found ourselves exiled to Serbia, where only nothingness awaited, where a kind word was an unattained luxury, and where the word “refugee” was a stigma in other people’s eyes.
Life eventually regained some semblance of order, and we managed to gather enough strength to embrace this new chance at a normal life, new home and a new pathway presented to us. Yet the feeling of being trapped like an animal in a zoo, forced out of our natural habitat into this new life, new environment between new borders had never left us.
Ten years were spent wondering if there was anything we could have changed, if there was anything we could have thought or believed or known otherwise, that could have prevented any of it. I remember feeling helpless; feeling and knowing that external factors, people and politicians can alter and govern your everyday life.
This early life experience led me to start my professional career as a human rights activist, in the non-profit sector of Bosnia, a country that was still tending its own wounds from a civil war that had torn the once great nation of Yugoslavia to bits and pieces. Working in Bosnia was a great life and working experience, where every day I met people whose life paths were very similar to my own - people who lost everything, homes and even their loved ones. These people needed help in executing their rights and understanding while trying to continue with their lives. There, I was in a position to call upon violation of human rights, and most importantly – never to feel helpless again.
At the USC Shoah Foundation, I’ve been privileged with helping the victims of genocides share their powerful stories that demand to be explored and shared, so that people are able to see the faces and hear the voices of those who witnessed history, allowing them to teach and inspire action in future generations against intolerance, bigotry and prejudice.
Every refugee has a story to tell. On this day I hope the world becomes more aware, if only for a day, of the countless refugees and displaced people uprooted from their homes, and the struggles they endure wanting desperately what everyone else takes for granted. We go on with our lives, we move to other countries, change continents even, but the sense of displacement and loss stay with us forever.
Emina Vukic, refugee, 1991-2000.