Ogi’s story starts in 1992, in Doboj, a city in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. That was when Bosnia/Herzogovina was still a part of Yugoslavia and was just about to enter into a war to break away from it. Ogi was only nine, and says he doesn’t remember the details, but Ogi’s story and his life are a direct product of a most important moment in the history of Bosnia. In the spring of 1992, Ogi and his family took a trip to Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, taking with them only a couple of suitcases of clothes. “My parents told us we were going on vacation,” he said. But his parents were not sure whether it would truly be a vacation, or if they would return to Bosnia. It was only ten days later that it became apparent they would not be going back, for all the borders into and out of Bosnia were shut down, and the family was not allowed to go back home.After a few months in Croatia, Ogi’s mother found work in a dental lab in Germany and moved there ahead of the rest of the family to get a start on a new life. Ogi remembers calling his mother from Croatia one day when he was home alone and sick. “I was so lonely; I just wanted to talk to my mom.” So he picked up the phone and dialed his mother’s work in Germany. Using all the German he knew, “bitte,” and his mother’s name, he managed to get her on the line.
It was only a few months before he, his father and brother moved to Au in der Hallertau, near Munich, Germany to be with his mother. The experience was horrible, said Ogi. “We had nothing. We only had a few clothes, no furniture, no home, and we didn’t know the language.” To make matters worse, after being in Germany a short time, they realized they had gotten there through the efforts of a woman who didn’t have their best interests in mind. Ogi said, “she would employ illegal (and legal) Bosnian refugees and all the money would go through her and her husband – she controlled everyone’s housing, documents, visas, everything.” And so Ogi and his family were only left with a few dollars a day to fend for themselves.
It was the school Ogi attended that helped out the most. “I remember I didn’t have a winter coat for a while until someone from school donated one.” His first Christmas in Germany, he didn’t understand why he was the only one in class receiving money, and many, many other gifts. He realized later that the money was not meant for him, but for his whole family. The generosity of this school did not end at Christmastime. For it was this same community that helped Ogi’s family establish their house, supplying them with furniture and other household items. But best of all, it was his school community that helped his family and all the other families break away from the woman who had brought them to Germany, and bring her and her husband to court.
Adjusting to life in Germany as a refugee was not easy. When he first arrived, he knew nothing of the language, and so finding friends was not easy. Ogi lived in a neighborhood where there were many other Bosnian refugees, but relationships with other Bosnians were often strained at best. His parents’ nationalities were mixed, and being neither entirely Serb, Croatian or Bosniak (the three main national groups of people living in Bosnia at that time), many other Bosnians would react violently if they knew. On the other hand, Ogi grew angry against the national prejudice other Bosnian’s exhibited. He saw the hate, the rage and the fear that accompanies the violence of prejudice, and he made a conscious decision to be different. But he also made a decision to separate himself not from the people, but rather, from the fear that motivates such behavior.
But Ogi’s journey wasn’t over in Germany; nor was it over when the war in the Balkans ended. After the war was over, Germany began deporting refugees back to Bosnia, regardless if they had a place to go back to or not. Because Ogi’s parents were of mixed nationalities, they knew it would be too difficult to return and live a peaceable life in their old country. They learned of an organization that would help refugees from Bosnia who were in “mixed marriages.” This organization would send families to the United States, Canada or Australia to begin their lives again. Ogi’s family chose the United States since they had friends who had moved to Cleveland, Ohio. So Ogi’s family waited a year for an envelope to arrive in the mail telling them when it was their turn to take a flight to the United States. The year wait was horrible for Ogi. He knew he would be leaving the place he was beginning to think of as “home.” Every day, he would look in the mailbox to see if the letter had arrived. He began to slide in school, angry he was leaving his friends and everything he knew again, angry that he had to start all over again. His parents had a hard time dealing with that year too. The path that Ogi and his family were on was out of their control.
Ogi’s last weeks in Germany taught him something about time. As his departure approached, Ogi found himself looking at everything around him, realizing it would be the last time he would see it for a while. “When you know you are leaving a place, you feel the power of time. You know the time to leave is getting closer and you stare at everything you want to see and remember and you smell anything that will keep reminding you of the place you lived,” Ogi said. And since leaving Germany, this awareness of time has stayed with him.
Ogi and his family flew to Cleveland, Ohio with only birth certificates for documentation. They were met by a host family, who helped them to secure the proper documentation and allowed them to stay in their home with them. “These people were like family to us—like parents,” Ogi said. They helped them with every phase of settling into and establishing their new home in Ohio. Ogi went through the same things in the United States as he did in Germany—from being thrust into a country with a different language and culture, to thinking about making new friends. But Ogi made it.
Ogi’s story, on one hand, has a happy ending. His family was able to adjust quite well to the United States. Ogi went to college and graduated with an engineering degree; his brother is a successful photographer. His parents are doing well in Cleveland. But Ogi’s story—a story of a life interrupted by violence—will not end. The war in Bosnia is a part of his life now, as it is a part of anyone’s who has experienced war or violence firsthand. It will continue to define him, even after many of the memories have faded. My intention is to preserve some of those memories, the good and the bad. When I heard part of Ogi’s story, I knew it was a story worth telling, a story that is not supposed to be forgotten. It is not only a part of Ogi’s history, but it is an important part of the history of the United States, of Bosnia, of Germany, and even of the world. We, who live relatively safe lives, should know these stories.
And so I asked Ogi if he would mind if I wrote about his story in this blog. He said he wouldn’t mind. He hoped I or someone else might learn something from his story. And it’s not surprising—this desire of his that someone might learn something; for it seems that Ogi’s resilience comes from his love of learning, and his love of learning enables him to press forward into the future, putting away those things in his past which have embittered so many others. This is something Ogi learned to do on his own, despite the opposition against him, and it’s something he continues to strive for. And so Ogi’s story is a journey of peace out of war.