Making It In America – refugees

Jane Bennett Clark

TRENDS | A healthy economy gives BOSNIAN REFUGEES a head start in their new Kentucky home.

WHEN FATIMA AND Ramo Delic landed in Bowling Green, Ky., last December, the couple’s circumstances were bleak even by refugee standards. They had left Bosnia with two suitcases for themselves and their seven children. Neither the heat nor the electricity worked in their first apartment. On the second day, baby Alen developed pneumonia. A few days later Ramo tested positive for tuberculosis and was ordered into monthlong quarantine.

Now, on a bright April afternoon, the front door of the neat, three-bedroom cottage the Delics rent for $450 a month stands open to fresh air. Alen is thriving; his lusty yell is rewarded by a quick nuzzle at Fatima’s breast. She serves Turkish coffee to drop-in guests with the easy hospitality for which Bosnians are known. Ramo joins the group after his shift at a local glass factory. Although the Delics are far from established and still do not speak English, they seem to be coping. “I think they are happy,” says Ljiljana Mustafic, who works at the refugee center that helped settle them.

The Delics are in the earliest stages of adjusting to life halfway around the world, in a Southern town whose claims to fame include a cake-mix maker and a Corvette factory–an experience that one refugee says is “like someone dropped you from the sky.” Over the past decade, nearly 12 million immigrants have had that experience, the highest number of newcomers in any ten-year period in U.S. history. Among the arrivals are skilled professionals, families reuniting with relatives and people who, like the Delics, have been designated refugees because of well-founded fears of persecution based on race, nationality, social group or political background.

The Delics were Muslims in a country once dominated by Serbs. Ramo served in the Bosnian army while Fatima tended to the children and eked out a living on their small farm. During peacetime they were unable to support their large family in Bosnia’s chaotic economy. Like many refugees, they arrived in Bowling Green alone and penniless.

At first glance, their prospects are not encouraging. Foreign-born residents are more likely to be unemployed, to live in poverty and to earn less than their native-born counterparts, according to Census 2000 statistics. Immigrants from Central America, the largest group to arrive over the past decade, are the least educated and most likely to live below the poverty level.

Better over time

YET SUCH statistics mask the good news: Most immigrant families experience significant gains over the years, approaching or equaling the earnings of the nativeborn population as they and their children assimilate. “The second generation is really the magic point,” says Michael Fix, director of the Immigrant Policy Program at the Urban Institute. Homeownership rates also improve as immigrants settle in. Although some groups succeed faster than others, all of them make headway over time.

The Bosnians of Bowling Green are a case in point. They began trickling into town in 1994, during the height of ethnic and nationalist strife in their homeland. About 2,500 strong, they are one of the biggest contingents in a polyglot Kentucky brew that includes Cambodians, Latinos, Kosovars and, most recently, Burmese. Often well-educated city dwellers back home, they typically find work within a month or two, albeit in blue-collar jobs that are several notches below their employment level in Bosnia. Where they come from, consumer credit is in its infancy and mortgages are a mystery, yet many of them manage to buy a house in a couple of years or start a business of their own (see the box on page 95).

And they’ve made their mark in Bowling Green (pop. 49,296), where 20 years ago the strongest accent was a slow-cured Kentucky drawl. In recent years resettlement agencies have encouraged refugees to bypass urban meccas in favor of smaller towns that offer plenty of jobs and affordable housing. Those efforts seem to be succeeding. Although six states–California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas–continue to draw the largest number of immigrants, the Urban Institute reports that the rate of growth in the foreign-born population is much faster in other parts of the country.

In Bowling Green, refugees are welcomed by the Western Kentucky Refugee Mutual Assistance Association, founded 19 years ago by Martha Deputy. Deputy already had hands-on experience in helping refugees, having informally adopted two Cambodian teenagers in 1979. She later opened her home to a stream of other newcomers, who literally changed the tone and complexion of Bowling Green. “Given the culture in our state, it was fairly wrenching for us,” says Vicki Writsel, an administrator with the Bowling Green city school system. In the case of the Bosnians, “this community was shocked by our arrival,” says Tatjana Sahanic. “They didn’t know anything about us; we didn’t know anything about them.”

Off to a fresh start

WHEN BOSNIANS arrive at the Nashville airport, a 90-minute drive from Bowling Green, they’re already in debt. As part of the refugee-resettlement program, the U.S. government has advanced their airfare, which can run several thousand dollars. They must repay the money, starting after a few months.

Once in Kentucky, “they’re taken to an apartment, the utilities are turned on, and it’s ready to go,” says Deputy. Essentials such as food, furniture and a pot to cook in are covered by community contributions and an allowance of about $300 that each refugee receives through the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The refugee community itself now helps welcome new arrivals from Bosnia. “Most people who have arrived in the past few years have family here,” says Elvira Ramic, a caseworker at the refugee center. Sponsoring relatives are expected to share housing for a month or so, freeing up funds that would otherwise go for rent and furniture.

Refugees are also eligible for cash assistance. Those who can work right away usually take advantage of a grant program that offers incentives for becoming self-sufficient within 120 days of their arrival. The program provides each family $1,000 a month in cash and other benefits for four months. Newcomers are expected to take English classes in exchange for assistance until they find work, and most are employed within a month or two.

A step backward

LJILJANA MUSTAFIC, a Serb married to a Muslim, fled Bosnia with her family in 1994, after mixed marriages became politically untenable. Back home, Ljiljana was a doctor and her husband, Mirzet, a lawyer. “We had a decent life. We made decent money,” she says. In Bowling Green, both Mustafics found work in factories. Mirzet started as a laborer at Woodworking of Mid-America and has moved up to a supervisory position. Ljiljana polished furniture at another woodworking plant, but moved on to other jobs in search of higher earnings. She ironed socks at a hosiery mill and washed dishes at a restaurant before becoming an employment counselor at the refugee center.

Such jobs are typical of the opportunities available to immigrants in Bowling Green, where a robust economy leaves manual jobs begging. The average starting salary for people processed by the refugee center is just under $8.50 an hour. “Immigrants are filling jobs young Americans don’t want anymore,” says Chris Guthrie of Trace Die Cast, a local factory. In fact, many refugees are filling more than one job. In addition to working at the factory, Mirzet Mustafic has moonlighted as a dishwasher and a cook.

Professional positions can be hard to come by, especially when recertification is involved. Ljiljana landed a job as a physician’s assistant and hoped to reestablish herself as a physician, but that proved impractical. “I gave up because I didn’t have money to stay home and study,” she says. “I still have to pay the mortgage, still need money to pay the bills.” Ljiljana is bitter, not toward Americans but toward the antagonistic groups in her homeland who forced her out. “Someone took from me my family, parents, sister, job, my kids’ future–everything,” she says.

Employers who hire new immigrants try to ease the transition by providing translators and offering seminars to explain the ins and outs of personal finance, such as ATM cards, automatic deposit and even checking accounts. The process can be puzzling to people whose experiences have made them suspicious of banks. “Basically, we believe in cash,” says Ankica Marijanovic, who left Bosnia in 1997. “Each of us had savings accounts. With the war, we lost everything.”

Bosnians have also had to adjust to the idea of consumer debt, unheard of in their homeland until a few years ago. In Bowling Green, Marijanovic asked a co-worker to co-sign her first loan, a layaway plan for new mattresses. That led to the family’s first credit card, which paid for a trip to Florida and generated a pile of credit card solicitations when they returned home. Now Marijanovic uses the cards like a born-to-borrow American. “I promised myself I would pay them off,” she says.

As for employer benefits, concepts such as health-insurance premiums and deductibles are Greek to people coming from countries with government-sponsored coverage. Life insurance is similarly an alien concept to immigrants from cultures where the extended family, employer or the state is the traditional fallback. In Bosnia, employers typically pay funeral costs and other expenses for workers, says Marijanovic. “If you have a husband who dies, the company will give you money to support your kids.”

Financing the dream

LAST SPRING, just two years after leaving Bosnia, Nasveta and Hamdija Mujakovic purchased a house in Park Hills, a development in the suburbs of Bowling Green. Their brand-new home boasts a cathedral ceiling, a color TV, a computer–and, taking up half the master-bedroom floor, a sheet of pastry on its way to becoming pita.

Such anomalies reflect the swift progression from Old World culture to suburban homeownership for many area refugees. “People who came two or three years ago are now buying houses. Some are ready to buy after eight months to a year,” says real estate agent Tatiana Ponomarenko, who emigrated from Azerbaijan in 1990.

Hard work and a booming economy have helped pave the way. In Bowling Green, typical middle-class homes generally cost from $85,000 to $100,000. That’s within the reach of most blue-collar families with two working adults, especially if, like native-born residents, they take advantage of government-sponsored loans with competitive interest rates and little or no down payment required. Under the Kentucky Housing Authority program, a family of four earning less than $40,000 a year may qualify to buy a new house for up to $99,000 in the Bowling Green area.

That’s how the Mujakovics purchased their house. Their joint income from the Trinity Glass factory, where each works a shift, fell within the housing-authority limits for financing on their house, for which they paid $95,500. It’s a far cry from the abandoned house they once took refuge in back in Bosnia, which was across the river from hostile Serbs.

Buying a home in the U.S. poses different kinds of logistical problems. To qualify for a mortgage, Bosnians need an earnings history (unavailable in that disordered society) and a credit record. In Bosnia, many people live in rented apartments. Those who do own a home either inherit it or use savings, and the elbow grease of friends, to build one on their own.

Travel debts, along with credit acquired since their arrival, have helped refugees establish credit histories. Some lenders are willing to review utility bills and rent receipts to determine payment patterns, and will consider as little as one to two years’ worth of earnings. With relaxed lending standards, even immigrants without permanent-resident status can qualify for loans.

Foreign panache

OVER THE YEARS, Bowling Green’s downtown has lost much of its business to Scottsville Road, a busy artery on the outskirts of town. In a spread-out community with no public transportation, cars are essential. “This is a nonwalking town,” says Ankica Marijanovic. Recent census figures showed Bowling Green to be about 700 people shy of qualifying for metropolitan-area status, which would have made the city eligible for subsidies for a public-transit system.

Lacking mass transit, new arrivals must rely on cabs (fares are initially subsidized by welfare programs) or carpools with more established immigrants who have bought their own cars and acquired licenses to drive them. Refugees smile at the recollection. “I didn’t have a driver’s license in Bosnia,” says Marijanovic. “When I took the driver’s test, the examiner was so scared she was pale in the face.” Without a track record, immigrants pay a premium of 20% to 25% over the standard rate for auto insurance.

Even for people with wheels, life in America’s busy, sprawling culture can be lonely. Back home, Bosnians socialized along crowded downtown streets or over barbecued kebabs on apartment balconies. “The first impression when we came here was disappointment,” says Biljana Kevric, a teacher’s aide who arrived several years ago. “There was no life in the town or other things we had lived with all our lives, like cafes and people in the middle of the street.” Although Bosnians and native Bowling Greenians say they maintain cordial relations, each group tends to socialize separately.

Nevertheless, even lifelong residents have grown accustomed to hearing unfamiliar languages on the streets and in the aisles at Wal-Mart. “There’s a general openness to the immigrant community,” says Thomas Russell of Western Kentucky University, who is conducting a Harvard-based study on religious pluralism in the area. The university itself recently held a series of flag-raising ceremonies to recognize the 50 or so countries represented at the school. Bosnia, with 41 students, is one of the largest contingents.

In an area where many of the residents have spent their whole lives, immigrants have brought a touch of foreign panache. “The kids who were born and raised in Kentucky are getting quite an education by meeting kids from other countries,” says Deborah Highland, a reporter for the Bowling Green Daily News. If there’s resentment toward the Bosnians, it remains below the surface.

The Bosnians themselves miss their lost professions and distant families but don’t regret trading bloodshed, persecution and despair for a brighter future. Says Ljiljana Mustafic, whose children are A students in the local school system: “If nothing had happened over there, I wouldn’t have wanted to come here. I was happy living in Bosnia. But my kids will be Americans, and my grandchildren will not speak Bosnian.”


About 20% of small businesses in the U.S. are begun by immigrants like Robert Stupar. Stupar, who comes from a mixed Serb-Croat family, left Croatia in 1994 to come to Bowling Green, Ky. At first, life in America “felt like a vacation,” he says. “For two weeks I was not aware. Then reality hit me. I’ve realized, gosh, I need to start working and fighting for myself.”

Stupar found work first as a baker and then at a restaurant. In 1997 he hooked up with Zeljko Simic, an immigrant from Bosnia. In the U.S. they merged their capital and expertise to start the Brickyard Cafe, near Bowling Green’s downtown. For seed money, Stupar and Simic put together savings, bank loans and a personal loan from several local businesspeople, and did much of the work renovating their redbrick building, which was once a home.

Their efforts have paid off. On Friday nights you can wait 45 minutes for a seat in the Mediterranean-style cafe. “Before, we had one Taco Bell,” says Bill Perkins, a local mortgage broker. “It’s good to get some international flavor in a small Southern town.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group