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Refugees turning ‘haven’ into home

S.L. offers opportunities, challenges for immigrants

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Last summer Nazmije Sekiraca let herself imagine a new life. After living for nearly three months in a Macedonian refugee camp, she was granted refugee status by the U.S. State Department, and she boarded a plane that flew first to Greece, then to New York, then Colorado. A stranger in the Denver airport pointed her toward the gate leading to her last flight, to Salt Lake City.

International Rescue Committee workers were waiting, and "I was so hungry. But I didn't know the language, so I couldn't find the words to say, 'Can I have something to eat?' " Sekiraca remembered.

Along with hundreds of refugees who've come to Utah from the former Yugoslavia, Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, Sekiraca is one of Utah's new pioneers. She made the trip with few possessions, found the Salt Lake Valley sweltering in the July heat, and after a year of adjustment, she's starting to feel like this is home.

"At first I didn't feel good," Sekiraca said. "After I came, I was going to the doctor a lot. I guess I was having stress."

Unlike most other Kosovar Albanian refugees who traveled with their families, Sekiraca went alone. Her father and brother stayed in Pristina after the Serbian police burned down much of Mazgit. Sekiraca had been a high school math teacher, but her school closed as fighting intensified, and she heard that three of her students had been killed.

"I'm never forgetting the day, May 4, when the Serbians told us we had to go on the train to Macedonia," she said.

She packed a bag: one dress, a pair of shoes, a jacket and the Albanian-English dictionary she'd had since high school. The same suitcase flew with her to Utah, and the dictionary supplied her with vocabulary. When the book's not close at hand and she can't think of the right words, she uses sheer determination and exuberance to communicate.

"I love it here now. All the time since I came, I have met good people," she said. "They help me, and they understand me. I have been lucky."

The International Rescue Committee had hired an interpreter, Fasli Sadrija, who recognized Sekiraca's Albanian surname. He called to invite her to meet his family, and ever since, "they have taken care of me," Sekiraca said. "I feel, myself, like part of Fasli's family. Every Saturday, they come and pick me up and we spend the day together."

So far they've gone to Park City, Bear Lake and "the park, many times," she said. "His children help me a lot, because they speak English. Sometimes Fasli says, 'Speak Albanian,' but I tell him, 'I have to learn more English.' "

The International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services, Salt Lake's main refugee resettlement agencies, send newcomers to English classes at Salt Lake's Horizonte Instruction and Training Center. During her first months here, Sekiraca attended Horizonte from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and then worked from 3:30 p.m. until midnight. With help from the rescue committee's Aida Girardi, she found a job in O.C. Tanner's merchandise orders department.

"I love that job," she said. "But when I was going to Horizonte too, I was so tired that I made mistakes at work. My supervisor said it was OK, we all make mistakes, even she makes mistakes."

But Sekiraca thought it best to study English at home, after she'd had a little more sleep each night.

"English is not hard," she said. "For whoever wants to learn." Sekiraca studied English in high school, but in Kosovo she didn't think she'd ever need it. That thinking was "stupid, really," she said.

Edie Sidle, the rescue committee's Salt Lake regional director, heard that Sekiraca left Horizonte. "She said, 'I can help you.' Edie came every morning to pick me up and take me to IRC," where Sekiraca practiced her English by listening to instructional tapes. Sekiraca added that Sidle gave her a couple of things she hadn't been able to bring from Kosovo: pajamas and a crocheted blanket.

Sekiraca says she's feeling less stress now. She has her own studio apartment within walking distance of the job she enjoys, and she's beginning to understand some things about American culture.

"At first, I didn't know what any of the foods were. I went to Albertson's every two days and walked around asking, 'What is that?' at everything." Sekiraca has discovered a new favorite dish: lasagna. "I got the recipe and all of the things to make it," she said, adding that now all she needs is the time to cook.

Sekiraca's 37th birthday is next month. If she could be granted a wish, she says it would be for travel documents — not to move back to Europe, but only to visit her fiancé, Mustaf, in Lucerne, Switzerland. She talks with him on the phone almost daily but doesn't know when they'll be together again. Last week, Sekiraca applied for a visa in hopes of making the trip to Lucerne this fall.

"If I can go, I hope I can vacation in Switzerland and then go and see all of my family" in Kosovo, she said quietly. When she and Mustaf are able to marry, Sekiraca hopes they can make their home in Salt Lake City. "He told me, 'If Salt Lake is where you want to live, that is where we will live.' " Sekiraca also hopes to help her father join her in Utah.

Mina Mackovic also says she has found the right place for her family. With her husband, Osman; her 23-year-old son, Sanjn; and her 14-year-old twins, Sanela and Mirela, she has crossed two continents. The Mackovics first fled war-ravaged Bosnia in 1994 and lived in a single room in Poland for eight months, and then they moved to a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany, but never felt secure there.

"Every two months, they'd tell us to come and have our documents stamped. We were always afraid that they'd tell us we had to leave," said Mirela Mackovic, and her brother added that they'd had friends who were deported.

Last spring the family sought refugee status in the United States, found that the Utah International Rescue Committee had funding to resettle Bosnian refugees and finally arrived here at midnight on June 24, 1999.

Some 2,500 Bosnian refugees have come to Utah over the past six years, according to the rescue committee. In the Salt Lake Valley, a Bosnian community is growing up, with the Atlantic restaurant at 325 S. Main serving as a gathering spot. Miro and Anka Bako, who came as refugees in 1998, opened the Atlantic last year. It's been busy, and once in awhile it's the setting for an unexpected reunion.

"We found some friends from Bosnia that we hadn't seen since we first went to Germany six years ago," said Sanjn Mackovic. "We all said, 'Hey, it's you!' "

When the Mackovics arrived last June, the adults went to school together at Horizonte, while the girls spent their summer finding their way around the neighborhood, socializing and window-shopping. With quintessential teenage nonchalance, Sanela Mackovic says Salt Lake life is "OK," and that she prefers it to Poland.

When her brother says his favorite leisure pursuit is hiking, Sanela Mackovic laughs, and in scarcely accented English, says she enjoys hiking through the mall. She and Mirela Mackovic will start eighth grade at Hillside Middle School next month; last year Sanela Mackovic's favorite subject there was math, because "it's easy."

Besides being a place to take English classes, Horizonte is an employment grapevine. "Everybody talks, talks, talks" about job openings they've heard about, said Sanjn Mackovic, who found work at Salt Lake's Gateway factory. He said the job suits him and that he hopes to enroll in college computer science courses soon.

His mother, who along with her husband found a job at Daily Foods, is more emphatic about staying. But Mina Mackovic isn't confident about her English, so she looks at Sanjn, who seems to know what she'd say.

"No, we won't go back to Bosnia. The place is dead for us," her son says. Together in Salt Lake City, the Mackovics are looking ahead.

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com