Dragana Zaimovic

Interview conducted with Dragana Zaimovic on December 6, 2017 at Kentucky Refugee Ministries Office in Lexington, Kentucky.  Student interviewers were Tedi Hawkins, Chris Paz Vasquez, and Talaya Thurman. 

Dragana Zaimovic shares her story of being a refugee with student interviewer Chris Paz Vasquez.



Chris:  Today is December 6, 2017.  My name is Chris Paz Vazquez, and I am conducting an interview with Talaya Thurman and Tedi Hawkins.  We are interviewing Dragana Zaimovic who came to the United States as a refugee.  This interview is for a research project on former refugees living in Central Kentucky on behalf of Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, a school in Lexington, Kentucky.  The interview is being monitored by my teacher Lisa Henry.

Chris: Okay first question what is your age?

Dragana: What is my name?

Chris: What is your age?

Dragana: I am 62 year old.

Lisa: Wow, you don’t look like it.

Chris: Hmm, where were you born?

Dragana: I was born in umm Bosnia one of the ex-Yugoslavian Republic.

Tedi: What was your family like?

Chris: What was your family like?

Dragana: In Bosnia, my family… uh, I had a husband. I was married for ten years.  We did not have a children.  Umm, I had a mother and brother and all other extended… umm… family members that were living in the same country.

Tedi: What was your best childhood experience?

Dragana: Oh well we have all lots of great childhood uh childhood experience.  I think one of the, my umm best experience be going to umm vacation like summer vacation with group of uh the children.  I don’t know how you call them maybe like scout girls, scout boys except it was different in my country.  We were not separate.  All the boys and girls would be in the same organization, and uh we one summer I was a part of the trip and we were on the Adriatic Sea for two weeks living in the like kind of the boarding system like boarding school.  So we had our schedule getting up in the morning.  Uh, we have the flag in the morning, to get the flag at night.  Uh, oh, the programs all the daily activities and games.  So, this is one of my best childhood experiences I can think about -- beside being free and playing outside during the summer and stealing neighbors’ fruits.

Everybody: (Laughs)

Talaya: Did you attend school in your home country?

 Dragana: Yes, yes I went to school.  Um, I went to elementary school and high school, and I went to college.  And I have degree of in a travel and hospitality management and uh that was my dream job to be travel agent or organize the trip to visit country and other countries that was what I was able to achieve in my country.

Talaya: What caused you to come to the United States?

Dragana: Well umm, as I told you prior this interview, umm we my husband and I were basically forced to leave our country.  We could not stay there since we did not belong to the clean ethnics place, and we were supposed to leave.  So we belong to the two different, umm, ethnic groups, and during the time before I get here in 1992 until 1995, there was very bad war in Bosnia between those ethnic groups.  And since we were the mixed marriage, we did not belong to any of those groups.  We were forced to flee our home and find a safe place we could live in.

Chris: Umm, can you describe some of your experiences in your home country?

Dragana: Uh, what kind of experiences… well, I have a wonderful life in my country. I live in my country until I was 38 years old.  So all my childhood was like every happy childhood at this time.  Umm, I went to school.  Umm, we have the free education so I was able to get my college degree.  Umm although my mother was working in a factory – she was a single mother, but but my brother and I get chance to achieve and reach our goals when it comes to education. Umm young age… we’re also were something normal like in your age here in high school in like every high school.  That’s how we live.  Umm get married… uh, met my husband uh, couple years prior we get married although we knew each other.   Umm, we both like uh sports.  We like the hiking.  We like the climbing and skiing.  Uh so this is how we after… uh, before we get married and after we get married, how we spend our free time going to ski.  We like the snow skiing as well as water skiing because in my country we have a beautiful mountains, and even, umm, long time ago 1984, we have winter Olympic games in the capital of our republic.  So we were really proud and loved too.  Life was good and we planned many different things to achieve, but unfortunately, because of the law and the political situation in our country and the region we just couldn’t.

Chris: Did you family come with you?

Dragana: My husband and I and my mother came here.  My brother --  I only have one brother -- and we were separated.  He has to flee earlier, and he and doctor living in uh Europe in the Netherland, Holland.  Uh, but my mom stay with me so she came here with myself and my husband.  Two years after we arrive, my husband’s two brothers with their family were able to come to join us so they also live here in Lexington.

Tedi: Umm how has living in the United States changed your life?

Dragana: Well, drastically umm life uhh in United States is good life as much as we can call good life.  Uh it was hard at the beginning.  It was very very hard because of the cultural differences because of the language.  Language was the biggest and hardest part of umm my adjustment process because I didn’t speak any English when I get here.  So being… you don’t have a choice to do a job like this or job in my field or a job that I was skilled and knew how to do it just because of the language barrier.  So in the first four, five years I have to do uh all the entry level jobs -- doing the dishes, the housekeeping, the restaurant and other stuff to survive, to pay bills.  Life in the United States is well uh… no really this is consuming country.  This is something that I don’t like because everything is about, uh, in general is like about material thing and stuff more than about uh friendship, family, social gatherings which I used to do in my country.  So it is really really hard for us to adjust in such an isolated life when we get here.   Neighbors do not knock on each other’s door or come for coffee.  Kids don’t play in streets.  People don’t walking in a town.  Uh, that was big shock for me when I went first time in downtown and saw no people.  And I said, where the people are?  So yeah, this is… this… it’s a really… I used to this right now because I’ve been living here 23 year.  But it’s… it’s still hard and I’m still trying to expand my neighbors at least to know each other and to be more comfortable with each other and more having more you know social gatherings.  This is something that I miss in this country. [11:26}

Tedi: How old were you when you first came?

Dragana: I was 39 years old when I get here so... not young (laughs) for starting new life, but my mom was 59 when she get here and… it was even much more difficult for her than for myself and my husband because of age and because of education in general and the language.  But she still alive, and she’s still learning English.  She still attending ESL classes even today.  You know?

Lisa: Umm, after you mastered English because your English is very good did you consider going back to school to get your hospitality degree here?

Dragana: No, no I did not have time for this, you know?  Uh, when I get this job in uhh like 17, 18 years ago, uh it I find my place in the job like such in this job, and I find that I have the heart to be kind of social worker as well helping other especially helping the people that were in the same situation as I was and my family.  And uh, so it took a while to learn English, and I know I get the compliments and I’m still learning English. I’ll probably learn English until end of my life… until I read a number of books that  I read in my own language, I will never consider myself learned in English which will probably never be case (laughter).

Chris: Have you visited or planning to visit back home?

Dragana: I went first time back 13 years.  So I left my country in1992 and 2004 uhh I get chance for first time to get back to my country.  And it was really hard and painful, and it took me a while after I get back to put myself together and go through this grief, you know? Because at first the moment we get here, I did not have a time to grieve cause you know we had just to survive here as well.  We had to immediately go back to work to pay the rent, to buy the car, to be able to go to work, to pay the bills.  So it’s just a regular middle class working machine that’s haven’t had a chance, you know, and have to work two jobs to be able to afford the other stuff.  Uh… so I you know when I didn’t have time to grieve.  I suppose I was nostalgic for a while, but when I went back first time 2004 it was really, really, really painful because at that  moment I realize  what I have lost and how everything is different  and that there is probably no way back there.   So... 10 years later I just accept the fact that I really don’t belong anymore there and cannot go back.

Lisa: Umm, after you left Bosnia, were you placed at all in a refugee camp or did you get immediate asylum in the US?

Dragana: Umm, no.  We actually fled Bosnia, and we went to Serbia, which is the neighboring republic in which I had a family, and we were waiting there for... about two and a half years to find a host country.  So it was not refugee camp.  We also were able to work and you know like not legally work, but because we have the family members and friends and of course the same language and everything.  So both my husband and I were doing similar jobs -- waiting to find a permanent country, uh, a country that will accept us.  Because even being in Serbia, we, we were legally there but we could not work.  We were just the refugees so yeah.

Talaya: How long have you and your husband been married?

Dragana: Before we get here or?

Talaya: Yeah… before you got here

Dragana: (Laughs) So umm before we get married 11 years before we get here and umm 24 years umm of our marriage I lost my husband in a car accident.  He died on his way to work umm, and it was about our tenth anniversary here in Ameri- in the United States.  We just get settled like okay, we are not working anymore now two jobs.  We’ll have every other weekend off for us, and this has happened to us.  So this horrible tragedy has happened so I have to…  But I was married all together 24 years.  It will be 35 now.  Yeah…

Tedi: Um, what was your house like back at your home country?

Dragana: In my country, well umm my husband and I were living in apartment uh that we get for free -- which is not such a thing here.  Umm, because we were both working, and we could get apartment that we have to pay rent of course monthly rent but this was our apartment. Mmm, my husband’s family had have two homes.  They have a house in the town, and they have the little summer house or weekend house umm in the country about 2o miles from our town.  My mother as I told you worked as a labor worker in the factory. She was a single mom but she also had the apartment given to us by government where my brother and I were raised.  It was just normal house -- maybe smaller than here probably much smaller because we not used to such space because we did not have enough space.  The country was small so we didn’t have space, yup.

Tedi: Did you have any pets?

Dragana: I did not have a pet. I always wanted a pet.  The first pet I get when I was a refugee in Serbia.  Uh, the neighboring kids just one day brought me a little kitten they said, “This is for you.” So it was really the leave the pet over there, but I do have a pet now.  Uh I have a my second cat that uh actually just came to me.  I don’t look for them.  They come to my door both times.  (Laughter) Yep. Yep.

Chris: Is there a favorite food you miss?

Dragana: Well I don’t miss any food because I can afford it,  and I know how to cook, and uh I can, I am cooking my food.  So we have our traditional food for which we can buy all the ingredients here so this is not different, and I’m cooking so but I’m developing the uh taste for different food.  That’s what I like about this country, you know?  I get the opportunity to like oh look at this beautiful Indian food that tastes so great.  Never thought that I would be able to eat this but when I try first time, yep yep.  And actually I learned to eat Nepali-Indian food through my Nepalese client that are cooking the same to get those spices and everything which I really enjoy because I like to eat.

Tedi: Did you have like grocery stores?

Dragana: Yes.

Tedi: Oh.

Dragana: Yes, yes, yes.  In my country -- I don’t know how much you know about you’ll have to google a little bit -- uh, it was in the south Europe. So you know we have everything like you have here not such uh advanced or big, but pretty much everything, you know?  Like our society, you know?  We didn’t live in refugee camps when I was living in Bosnia.  We had TV and dish not dishwasher uhh washing machine and didn’t have a dryer. So you know at the time now we have a dryer but when I was living there we had to hang the clothes outside.  But, yes, grocery stores everything as your  grandparents probably were  -- going to buy bread and milk everyday which we don’t do anymore in this country like we used to but its time consuming but it’s different yup.  (21:59)

Talaya: Did you play any sports in high school?

Dragana: In high school I played… table tennis, and it was one of my high schools favorite sports, but no I have the recreational sport like Skiing, or the backpacking and hiking, that was my sport that I enjoyed all my… Is that what you like to?

Lisa: I love to hike. Have you gone to Red River Gorge?

Dragana: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Lisa: Good, good!

(Group laughs)

Tedi: I forgot what I was going to say.

Lisa: Any other questions? I do want somebody to ask that big question at the end.

Tedi: Wait which one?

Chris: Yeah I was going to save that one until the end.

Tedi: This one?

Lisa: Yes.

Tedi: What do you want people in Lexington and Kentucky to know about refugees?

Dragana: Well… I want people in Lexington… for those that don’t know, I want people to know that refugees are here because they have not had the choice to stay in their home. They are looking for a new beginning.  They are starting the new life from scratch. I’m working with refugees, and I know from myself that others are hardworking people. They will accept and adjust very easily to this culture and this system, and accept the stuff that is good. I do advise them to keep part of their culture, including the language when it comes to raising children. Because this is a benefit, to know two languages. So refugees are just in general looking for you know a new life. Hardworking, I work as an employment person today, and I have every day people on the door, “Can you help me find a job? I want to do.”  It doesn’t matter the education, or the skills, or working experience, refugees understand that they you know, have to do any job and they will. Also, they are willing to pursue education as well. So all our refugees’ children are going to school. You probably have some in your school, maybe?  Yep.   So, refugees are just ordinary people who need a little bit of help at the beginning when they get here, and they need friends and they need people that understand that they are the same as you are except language difference and a little bit cultural difference.

Talaya: Before you came here, what did you expect it to be like?

Dragana: To be here? I really did not… have any plan what I want to be. I knew about this country before I get here. I was not like, shocked or disappointed of the stuff. Uh, the only things I wanted here to have chance to work and be independent and be on my own. So, that was my goal and my husband’s goal.  We want to go in country where we will not live on the welfare and where we will get opportunity to go to work immediately, because at the time many other countries, like European countries in which we probably could be qualified to go… did not have… did not give the opportunity to refugees to go to work right away. They would have to be like two years and whatever. Umm, a special center when they are going to go to school to learn the language. Which today I think maybe it’s better opportunity for some people especially when it comes to the language, to get the chance to go to school for two years and not to work, but have of course financial support and place to live. But, uh, I never was a fan of such of things, you know?  Well, I say I don’t want to be dependent on anyone. I want to do everything on my own, and this country… this is the choice and opportunity for everybody.  And this is why we chose America -- although we probably could be qualified to go into Canada which has a different program and a different social system. In this country refugees, uh, can go, and they want to do, and they will go to work right away and take care of themselves without almost any assistance.

Talaya: How is your relationship with your mom?

Dragana: With?

Talaya: Your mom.

Dragana: Well…

(Chris laughs)

Dragana: You’ll see when you get sixty and your mom get eighty. Great! (laughs)  I’m still afraid of my mom by the way.

(Group laughs.)

Dragana: From generation the way, the way how I was raised, because my mom I told you was single mother who was really strict and tough. We had to listen and she was in charge all her life. So here, coming here everything changed for her as well because she was so depend of me and my husband. So we had sort of a crisis.  There was a bad period of time because she felt so depend of us that she didn’t like it. But, great… my relationship with my mom is great, I mean sometimes we fight but most of the times we’re good.

(Group laughs.)

Dragana:  She is uh 82, so she’ll be 83, and she still try to help even though she’s not in best health.  But she cook and clean and appreciate what I have done for her.

Talaya: In your home country, did you ever celebrate any holidays?

Dragana: Yes.  Lots of holidays.  Uh, it’s almost like here.  We have our Independence Day which was July Fourth as well, the day we fought the Nazis in the Second World War. Uh, we also have the day of our republic which is November 29.  We had a Labor Day which was May 1… International Workers Day which we don’t celebrate this here.  We also had the uh, March 8, the Women’s Day… it’s also International Women’s Day, and we celebrate, uh, uh, the [UNKNOWN STATEMENT] in my country.  I don’t know it’s different now.  We celebrate the New Year.  Religious people celebrate Christmas.  Religious people from the Muslim side celebrate their own umm religious holidays like Eid, Ramadan.  Everybody likes holidays.

Tedi: Do things cost more here than they do in your country?

Lisa:  Umm, is the cost of items more in your country?  Like for basic stuff?

Dragana:  It’s really hard to compare.  Uh, probably no, probably no… you mean like the cost of living? Or…?

Tedi:  Like everyday items?  Food?

Lisa: Gasoline

Dragana: Well, I mean.  I really don’t know how the situation is now because I haven’t been there for long time.  Comparing with the salaries there and income, it’s probably more expensive, less affordable.  Let’s say it this way – less affordable because here we have the you know we make more money, and we have the option to buy the cheaper stuff more than probably in other countries.  You know we have all those Chinese made stuff.


Talaya: I have one question.

Lisa: Okay.

Talaya:  Okay.  I really just forgot it. (Laughs)  I for real don’t know what I was going to say.

Dragana:  You forgot your question?  How come? (Laughs)

Lisa:  I have a question for you. Uh, umm, I have a friend who teaches in Sarajevo, and umm they have been directed not to teach about the war and the atrocities that happened. I’m just curious, how do you feel about that?

Dragana: Right now, she’s there?  I really don’t know because I really, really try to not be so much involved in the political situation there.  I’m still disappointed in what’s happened with my country. So they are not teaching about the war at all?

Lisa:  They are not supposed to teach about the war or the genocide or anything in…

Dragana:  In Sarajevo?

Lisa: Yep.

Dragana:  In a public school?

Lisa:  Mmmhmm.

Dragana: Hmm.  I don’t know.  How can you not teach about war?  This is history.

Lisa: Right. 

Dragana:  I mean you cannot just avoid the history.  Uh, I don’t really know.  I don’t know.  Maybe the ones from one part are not supposed to teach about the history of the other part.  Or they just can’t concentrate to teach about… because Sarajevo is the capital, and it’s still mixed but it’s predominantly Muslims too.  So I would be surprised that they are not teaching children, because it’s nonstop in the public about Srebrenica genocide, you know what the Serbs did to the Muslims during the war.  I am assuming that.

Lisa:  I think that what she told me is that they are trying not to cause conflict in the classrooms between the two ethnic groups.

Dragana:  But probably because it is very fresh. So, yeah, and it’s still divided.  All those kids try very hard for people to get together, but you know it’s fresh.  It’s been 25 years, but people remember.

Lisa: Right.

Dragana: I really don’t know about… umm… I’ll check.  I’ll really check.  I mean I have my first cousin who lives in Sarajevo, and I went to visit last time I went to Sarajevo, and I could see the difference but I know Sarajevo is a predominant Muslim city definitely.  Uh, but you know you could see the woman with the burqa actually – which was never the case before I left the country -- but also at the same time the woman with the shorts and miniskirts.  So I feel like it’s totally free, but I don’t know.

Talaya:  If you weren’t made to move here, where do you think that you’d be in life if you were back in your home country?

Dragana: Did I…?  If I?

Talaya:  If you weren’t made to come here, where do you think you’d be in life back in your home country?

Dragana:  Well, probably, if I did not come here… Is this your question, if I did not come here, what I’m thinking how my life would be there?

Talaya: Yeah.

Dragana: Of course I do.  I’ll probably have some children or child I didn’t have.  Uh, I’d probably uh because of the situation uh I would probably be uh retired by now.  Maybe next year.  Uh, which good luck here. (laughs) Uh, umm, well, enjoy my retirement.  Well, get chance, be much happier.  I will.  Not that I’m not happy here, but I will be much happier, and uh, have more satisfaction uh less uh grief.  Uh, and not feel the missing and even guilt sometimes because you are not there.  Umm, my family members are dying.  I cannot go there.  My grandma died.  I could not go there.  She died in ’95 so there’s no way… my mother’s mother or my uncle, so it’s not like if I was there, I would be there to help and to support, you know.  I cannot attend any wedding of my cousins or my nieces or my nephews.  This is what I’m missing, and I think if I was… if I was there my life would be much… uh… hmm, fuller.

Tedi:  So you’re still not allowed there?  To go back?

Dragana:  I am.  Yes, I am, but it’s to be allowed and to can afford it is also very different things.  Yeah.  The time off, tickets, travel, the cost of the planes, you know?  Not many people can afford it.  Yep.  Yeah.

Lisa:  All right.  Great.  Thank you.


Dragana Zaimovic stands with student interviewers Talaya Thurman, Tedi Hawkins, and Chris Paz Vasquez.