About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of refugee Armin smiling and holding a dog in his arms who's licking his face


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Bosnia and Herzegovina


Ajla Henic Sarajlic

After Armin (48) left Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars, he “had a hard time adapting to the change in life.” Fleeing to Croatia, he spent nine months in camps waiting to see if the conflict would resolve: “We could see the hill about 500 meters away, a hill where the Croats were doing maneuvers with tanks and things like that, army maneuvers.” Armin was given the choice to seek asylum in Norway, England, or the United States; however his brother was in Spain: “Spain had a little more difficult conditions… I was always rejected from the lists until [The Red Cross] helped me.” Arriving in Spain, Armin realized that “you have to learn to speak and to join the new life that you have to live… Once I got into their lives and did the same thing they did, I didn’t feel like a refugee, I felt like one more.” Armin’s dream, beyond winning the lottery to go back to Bosnia for a long vacation, is wanting his daughter to “be happy” and not “have to go through everything that happened to me.

Trigger Warning:

full interview

Perfect. It’s already recording. Look, first, let’s start talking a little bit… Oh, okay. Now let’s start talking about the present. Now, for example, where are you? Then…
In my house.

In your house? [Laughs] Yes. Do you want to tell me a little bit about… of that house, of that apartment? How long have you been there? Who do you live with? How did it all start?
Well… I’m in Hellín, Albacete province, in Spain. I have lived in this house for about 20 years or so, since I am going to finish the payment of the mortgage in two months. Before this I lived in another rental apartments. I live with my wife and daughter. With the daily struggle, working from Monday to Saturday.

So, in the wake of that… What we’ve been talking about is that you arrived to Hellín in 1993. Well, first to La Manga, right?
September 30, 1993.

First, could you tell us about that trip? First, where did you go and how did you end up in Hellín. Well, a little bit about your past, about that refugee experience…
You should better ask your father about that, how I ended up in Hellín. [Laughs] Well, my experience was that, when the war began in Bosnia, in our area, especially in 1992 and we were there for a few months until we could go to Croatia. I went to Croatia, I spent nine months waiting for a resolution of the conflict, to see if the war ended up or if measures were taken about those in Croatia and well, I had, I spent some time in Karlovac.

How long there in Croatia?
I was in Croatia from January to October. Until September 30th.

So quite a few months, right?
I was in Karlovac until… More or less until July, August. Yes, until the end of August. And the last two months we were transferred to another refugee camp, Gasinci, because Karlovac was not a safe area.

And how did you feel during those months? What do you remember?
Those months? Well, let’s see, at my age, I was 18 then. Well, I had a hard time adapting to the change in life, but well, when… At that age, I think you always accept changes more easily and don’t see it as such a, so, so bad thing.

Sure, and…
One gets used to it. To start one and have some other activities. Assist the International Red Cross in matters of food and clothing delivery. To help.

It made you feel better, I imagine, and also to pass the time.
Yes, so that time passes faster.

Of course, of course. And then, how did you get to Spain? How was the journey?
At that time, my family, my parents were in Bosnia and my brother was in Spain, he arrived a few months before. So my idea was, thinking about a future time and seeing that the war is not going to end, or leave… He had three options because that refugee camp where I was staying distributed the refugees to all countries in the world, depending on the countries they were asking for the number of refugees that could help him. Well, I had three options, to go to Norway, England, the United States, but I requested to go to Spain since my brother was in Spain. I said, if in the future my parents will go out, where are they going to go?, to England or Spain? I mean, if the two of us are together then it’s easier. So I asked, through the people who worked for the International Red Cross, to help me, because Spain had a little more difficult conditions to accept a family that was not so close. Then I was always rejected from the lists until they helped me and on September 30 I was already on the list to go to Spain and September 30 from the Gasinci refugee camp, I went to the the airport in Zagreb and from the airport they sent to us, sent to Spain. We were in groups of 30 people and arrived in Madrid, where we were supposed to transfer the plane. I didn’t even have time to tell my brother that I was arriving. They were supposed to let him know, but I didn’t have time, because where we were there at Gasinci the conditions were quite, quite bad. They put me in a tent in a forest, at the end of a camp.

In Croatia?
In Croatia.

Because there were a lot of people or because they no longer…?
Both things. That camp was a little more crappy. Let’s talk about it clearly, it was more crappy. It wasn’t like in Karlovac, there were a lot of people and they were waiting for us. So people, the first to go, had some houses, those setup houses, that could be there. But the last ones we arrived was put in these military tents in a forest at the end, and from there we could see the hill about 500 meters away, a hill where the Croats were doing maneuvers with tanks and things like that, army maneuvers.

Of course. So, do you think that then, once in Spain, the conditions changed? Right? In the refugee camp, at least? [Laughter].
Yes, I don’t know if for the better, for the better, but they changed.

[Laughter] And what were your first feelings in the country when you arrived?
Well, when I arrived I realized that what a lot of people don’t expect… You don’t think until you get there is: what am I doing here if I don’t even know what they’re talking about? I mean, but you don’t plant yourself in a country, you think we all talk, we all understand it, but we don’t. I mean, when we arrived in Madrid, the people… Because I had a little command of English, because they pushed me, they said: “You go with them and speak with them, because we don’t understand anything”. We were 30 in the group. Fortunately, a group from UNHCR, here in Spain, was waiting for us, together with the translators, interpreters who helped us… And then they told me at one point that they were going to the La Manga campsite, where it was like the headquarters to welcome the refugees and that I was staying in Madrid because they saw my brother who was waiting for me to take me somewhere else already. Then I separated myself from the group, my brother was waiting for me with another person who was from the same town, from Hellín, and I came directly from Madrid, once in Spain, I came to live and stay in Hellín.

Oh okay, then directly from Madrid to Hellín, okay, then you barely passed through La Manga, the La Manga campsite.
No, no. Not me, I went straight to Hellín.

Directly to Hellín. And what were your first ones too…? I don’t know, what did you think of the town in the beginning? Also, did you miss your house, your family…
When I was on the road, I saw that everything was going to change quite a lot because of the issue of … I mean, it was all… There were no trees, there were no forests, to all the landscapes that I was used to in Bosnia, there was nothing. It’s all, everything is flatter, all apparent. And the first question I asked my brother is: where are the trees, where are the forests And he said: everything changed quite a lot, the landscape.

So, as you said, mentioned before, of the first challenges you encountered, it could be that it was the language, right? Learn Spanish…
Yes, yes, of course. You realize that in order to aspire to something, to learn that conditions have already changed, you have to learn to speak and to join the new life that you have to live.

Sure, yes, yes. And of those challenges, do you remember anything other than, that you considered it to be that way, difficult when you started your new life in Spain?
Well, more or less when we arrived we realized that we were in a flat six people and I was already number seven…

Of course.
It’s just that life is going to be quite different and that we have to fight every day. Look for a job. If you have a hard time or you don’t have a hard time and you have to work the same. Because those conditions and the aid, there wasn’t any help, the only help you can have is through your hands to earn your bread. And that’s what we were doing.

Of course.
After a week, they looked a harvest job for me, in a nearby town called Tobarra. And yes, I also spoke to everyone for the anecdote. [Background noises and voices]

What were you saying Armin? That then, as soon as you arrived, they found you a job? You found work.
Through friends because it was grape season and well, if I was interested, harvest, to have some money. As I said, yes, I went to harvest without knowing how to speak or say hello. And that was all. It was an anecdote after the other, a different experience of them talking to each other and me, I simply worked. As I didn’t undworkerstand what they were talking about… Well, I worked.

And at that time do you consider…? [Interruption] No, no, keep going. It’s okay, tell Nadia what…
[Talks to someone else].

So, one of the questions or something that we also consider when doing the interviews is if all, all these feelings or everything you experienced, how do you think it could affect your life today? For better or for worse. And also those challenges, if they have also become, something that… In something positive. Well, if it has given you some courage, strength, all your experience. How do you think you look at life, at the world?
You can… You can do that, thinking about what is positive, being able to think negative, you can interpret it as… In my case, I always see that it is something positive, it is something that had to happen to me in life. I think it’s something that it’s written, that we have to come, at that moment and all this. And I had to come here. I am a person I believe the destiny and destiny was to have to end up here, with which I always see positive things. It’s something that ultimately strengthens you and prepares you for life. That what other people started doing when they were 27, 28, 30 years old, I had to do it when I was 19, I came here. And at 19 well, you have to earn your money, set up your life… There was no one left to help you. Then our parents came there and we had to help them, all that, but I see it as positive. I think that today I am the way I am because all this has happened and made me realize that I have to look for life in this way.

Of course, you think it gave you maturity, don’t you? It made you, the experience made you grow very quickly.
Quite a bit earlier.

Yes. That, that youth. Do you think you still enjoyed your youth?
Yes, yes, quite a lot. I keep my memories of my youth and I had a lot of good times. Some bad, few, but almost all of them are good. Of friends, of youth, of family, of sports, of everything. I mean, I have a lot, a lot of positive experiences.

And have you reflected over the years, for example, on your refugee status? For example, when, as you say, when you’re young, you accept that at 18, the changes are coming, but I don’t know if over time you might have wanted to, well, you wanted to, you’ve reflected on it. Or have you ever…
No, I haven’t reflected on that because once I got into their lives and did the same thing they did, I didn’t feel like a refugee, I felt like one more. With my friends who were next to me, that had go to work on Mondays, on Tuesday, Fridays life itself. Then, going out, going out and having fun with friends. I didn’t feel like I was in refugee life, but yes, you think sometimes as well. We must not forget where I come from and everything that happens and who I am. But I didn’t feel that way to think about refugee life and everything. Not anymore, because… Well, the first four or five years until you don’t… Until you don’t become fully involved in life fully, maybe more, but then no longer.

And for example this is more personal, but when… Or the first time you returned to Bosnia, when you return to Bosnia, it always happens with many refugees who say that there are already two identities or even one, right? I mean that…
Yes, but it was a strong mix of emotions, because you who already remember everything you experienced there before that, although it was nothing like before, because you are already someone else, I am no longer that child who came out from there before, because until before and after there are two different people.

How would you explain that? For example, it’s very nice.
The life that makes you spend moments maturing,overcoming difficult times, and when you go back there you want to go back to being the boy who played in that park, next to my house, on that football field, next to my house. But that was the past, the past that will never return.

So you have a lot of emotions found there, on one side and the other. But you must always think with your head that this was the past and the present and the future is something else.

Yes, that’s true, well… It’s just that everything you said about this, Armin, is very nice. We, as this is called “Project A Thousand Dreams”, right? Because they interview, they take pictures, they intend to interview a thousand refugees all over Europe. So what is always asked before we finish the interview is… About a dream. A dream that you could have, that can… It can be a very difficult and complicated question, but it’s something we always want to be added at the end of the interview. If you could say, “My dream is… “, because already then you…
I don’t know. My dream… It’s… Mmm… Actually, I have a lot of things. So I was thinking what it could and would like it to happen, but right now the priorities are your daughter to grow up, that she is happy, that she enjoys, that she doesn’t have to go through everything that happened to me, which is what every father wants. That she doesn’t suffer what I went through, that she doesn’t lack anything that we lacked… And my dream… I don’t know, I never though about what my dream is but… I don’t know, go back one day to enjoy more time out there, but other than the 15 days of summer, 15 days… More time there to be able to dedicate myself more to that, but of course, now I don’t see it… My dream is to won the lottery and come back there and that I don’t have to think about work and that I can dedicate myself to my family, to myself and to everyone.(laughs)

But it’s nice. So we have like two dreams, the first dream, which is for your daughter to grow up in peace, right?
Above all, especially that he grows up in peace.

May she grow up in peace and…
Let the war not be repeated. Although we already have one here lurking and knocking on our door, I hope it doesn’t get any worst.

And the second one you said then having more time to perhaps be able to connect more with your country and not in the 15 days of vacation that they can give you from work. Yes, I understand. From the interview, I don’t know if you want to add anything. I don’t know if you think maybe we’ve left something in the inkwell of the experience you’ve been able to have? Anything you want to mention about being a refugee or…?
Well, I don’t know, a lot, a lot of anecdotes, some from which, what a refugee does when he wants to see the sea and he goes with his brother to see the beach and doesn’t even wear his swimsuit to the beach. He didn’t know what would he find there. Well, nothing, and like that, many other things.

Lots of anecdotes during, while you’re learning the language, right? There are anecdotes to tell later.
A lot.

I think youth helps a lot. So a lot of strength, right? For example, what I see this interview conveys are many strengths. As a result of experience.
You always have to pull forward and what is in the back stays behind and what comes for you, you have to take it as it comes and pass it in the best possible way. Otherwise not… Living on memories doesn’t bring anything good. In the end, it sinks you.

Yes, that’s true. Well, Armin, thank you very much for the interview. I’m going to cut now.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.