Amra Sarajlić comes from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She found refuge in Slovakia as a young girl who fled the Bosnian war with her family. She doesn’t have good memories of the war, but she knows all too well what if feels like to lose one’s home and security.
As a former refugee and asylum seeker, Amra works with asylum seekers today and believes in dialogue and harmonious coexistence among people of different cultures. We spoke with her about her life story.
How did you end up in Slovakia?
I come from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I was born in the small town of Šamac, formerly known as Bosanski Šamac, which is located in the north-eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the confluence of the Sava and Bosna rivers. In April 1992, a civil war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, which also affected my country.
My parents and I spent the first year of the war at home. My father was convinced that there was no reason to leave, since he had not harmed anyone. A year later, we decided to go to my aunt, who had already settled in Slovakia before the war.
As a child, I didn’t know where Slovakia was. However, my parents decided that this country would be a good choice for us. I remember the distressful journey. From Bosnia and Herzegovina, we had to get to Serbia, then to Hungary, and then we arrived in Slovakia. We made the journey by car with the help of my father’s good friends. I don’t even know what we had with us, probably only the necessary documents. We’ve been here ever since. We never thought about going to another country. Slovakia was safe for us and that was what mattered the most important.
Every year we commemorate the anniversary of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, the biggest massacre since World War II. What do you remember about the war?
I was 13 years old when the war started. I remember those times very well. The worst thing is that ordinary people always suffer the most in it, and we didn’t even think about the possibility of a conflict until the last moment. My parents often asked that if people don’t hurt each other, why should they fight each other? Why should an Orthodox fight a Catholic or a Muslim? We lived in a multicultural city where people got along well. But that suddenly changed with the outbreak of the war.
As a child, I was not aware of who was attacking whom and why. In my memories, the war is more about the shells destroying our city. I remember how often we had to run away. Soldiers came to our house at any time. I have lots of bad memories of the war, yet I still return to my native Bosnia and Herzegovina with my family and children every year. What happened was not so much about people as it was about politics.
Srebrenica is an important memento of the war in Bosnia. It is very sad that most people know so little about the massacre, while in terms of geography, the killing of those innocent men took place so close. The Bosnian film Quo Vadis, Aida?, directed by Jasmila Žbanić, tells the story of the massacre in Srebrenica. It describes very well what happened in the UNPROFOR camp in the village of Potočari, about 5 kilometres from Srebrenica, which was declared a UN safe zone, where tens of thousands of people were waiting there for their fate to be decided. This film clearly describes that war has no rules.
What is the most difficult for you about the war memories?
Even after more than twenty years, it’s still fresh. Every time I return to Bosnia and Herzegovina with my family, I meet people in my hometown who have harmed us. One cannot forget it. You simply have to live with those memories. At the same time, I want my children to know the history of the place.
The war remains within a person all their life. Even that strange aftertaste of rejection by those who had loved you before. One memory of my father’s friend comes to my mind. He was Orthodox, we were a Muslim family. Our families were friends. One day during the war, I was outside, and he was walking down the street dressed in a uniform. Overjoyed, I ran after him and called his name. But he did not react. He simply looked at me and walked past me without reacting.
When I asked my father what happened, he told me not to worry about it. He said that, apparently, his friend was in such a situation and could not act otherwise. Years later, when the war was over and I returned to my hometown, I met him again. He spoke to me, but I couldn’t respond other than pretending not to know him, the same way he pretended not to recognize me in 1992.
I understand that he must have been scared, but I was a child. These are memories that will stay with me forever. To this day, this story is difficult to process for me, even though it was a banal meeting. What must be experienced by a person whose child was killed, or their sister or mother was raped?
Someone who has not experienced war will never really understand it. Furthermore, I still have the feeling that things are still simmering and bubbling in Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the politicians. The war lives on in the people even though they function and live their lives normally.
In Slovakia, you work as the Chief State Adviser at the Migration and Integration Department of the Migration Office of the Slovak Ministry of Interior. What are your duties and responsibilities there?
Within my field, me and my colleagues are in charge of social work with people placed at asylum facilities. We provide methodic guidance for our social workers who come into contact with them. We also deal with the integration of people who have been granted international protection in Slovakia.
The issue of refugees is omnipresent. People all around the world constantly keep losing their homes due to various conflicts. What do statistics tell us about migration in the world?
Data for 2021 shows that up to 89.3 million people worldwide are displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or other world events. This is the largest number since World War II and twice the number recorded ten years ago.
Looking at these numbers from the point of view of Slovak statistics, we should add that in 2021 our country registered 370 requests for asylum and only 42 people received international protection. Meanwhile, 9% of asylum seekers in Slovakia were women.
You have mentioned that women on the run are vulnerable. You also come into contact with them within your job. What helps you build mutual trust?
In 2021, most women that we registered came from Afghanistan. Others were from Yemen, Cameroon, Congo, Yemen and Libya. When we meet them for the first time, they are usually very tight and shy. Just the fact that they meet another woman who has been through something similar and is from a similar cultural background, even though I don’t wear a hijab, helps us to melt the ice and build mutual trust. They are suddenly more relaxed in our mutual conversations.
Within the migration office, we try to have as much contact with the incoming foreigners and asylum seekers as possible. We try to be humane and direct to them, so that they do not hesitate to contact us at any time. We regularly hold meetings with asylum seekers in the premises of our office. However, I also experienced situations where new asylum seekers were afraid to enter the room because they did not know what we wanted from them. They still had some doubts even after they realized that we had really been inviting them for an informal conversation and we had really been interested in their problems. This happens because people tend to perceive the official authorities as rather restrictive. We are not used to officials being there to provide service and help.
What would help our society to learn to accept diversity and to promote a constructive discussion?
One of the essential things is that people need to stop distinguishing one another on the basis of one’s origin. Looking at the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, we see that the reaction of the population towards helping refugees differed vastly. Of course, this reaction was also strongly influenced by to the negative statements of politicians concerning Syrian refugees, while in the case of refugees from Ukraine we were more open to help.
When we resettled 149 Assyrian Christians, we found out that we had a serious problem to provide accommodation for such a small number of people. I personally visited several municipal offices where the mayors and deputies refused to help despite the fact that the Assyrians were of the same religion as the majority population. The officials didn’t care because the refugees were from a different cultural background. The fact is that only a third of the resettled Assyrian Christians actually remained in Slovakia. The others returned to Iraq because they did not feel accepted here.
How do young people from the majority population react to the issue of refugees with whom you work?
Young people are influenced by myths and stereotypes about migrants, even though in our mutual discussions we realize that they are not based on facts. For example, some of them claim that migrants take our jobs, but then they find out that they either do menial work or got their jobs based on their education and qualifications.
When we talk about criminal activity, they suddenly realize that they have not seen any statistics concerning criminal activity conducted by migrants and that they do not even know what base their judgements are based on. It is the same with the Roma. This is precisely why I consider education and sensitization of young people to be very important from an early age.
Do you encounter any obstacles or negative reactions because you are a foreigner?
I encounter various reactions. I don’t wear a hijab and I’m not covered, so many people do not know what cultural background or which country they should connect my name to. Moreover, I am a Muslim woman who does not look like a typical Muslim woman.
I sometimes discuss my faith with others. It even happened to me during negotiations at higher levels that some people expressed negative views about Islam in an inappropriate way. When I explained to them that I am a Muslim, they suddenly became silent and felt very embarrassed. In many situations, smiling helps me because it brings people together and breaks down barriers. A smile helps me to gain others’ trust.
What do you consider the most important?
Respecting oneself and respecting others regardless of where they come from. In some situations, we may perceive people as migrants who came here and have nothing, but in a few years, they can prove to be highly beneficial to our society.
Amra Sarajlić (1979) comes from the town of Šamac, formerly known as Bosanski Šamac in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She works as Chief State Advisor at the Department of Migration and Integration of the Migration Office of the Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic. After she had arrived in Slovakia with her family, she underwent the entire asylum procedure and successfully integrated into Slovak society. She graduated from the Department of Social Work at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Prešov. After completing her Master’s degree in 2003, when the Slovak Republic faced a large number of asylum seekers, she began working as a social worker at a residential refugee camp with 700 inhabitants. Since 2006, she has been working directly at the headquarters of the Migration Office in Bratislava.