Struggling to succeed Perseverance: Bosnian refugee is determined to make a life for herself and her family after years of heartache and turmoil.

October 08, 1997|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Dzevdana "Jenna" Alic is talking enthusiastically about a recent scholarship award, work and children when her eyes suddenly fill with tears. She is surprised and embarrassed.

"I don't have time to think about what I've been through," Mrs. Alic, 42, a Towson University student, explained in her apartment.

But sometimes the Bosnian refugee's struggles catch up with her: lost dreams, displacement, a new culture, separation from her husband, and worries as the caretaker for an ailing mother and two children -- one of whom has Down syndrome.

The breakdown is rare, however. Despite the setbacks, Mrs. Alic remains upbeat.

"I'm always thinking these things are happening somewhere else," she said. "I don't want to put a burden on the people around me. It's my destiny."

"Her disposition and her outlook are so positive," said Nancy Gonce, a member of the Towson branch of the American Association of University Women, which has given Alic a $600 scholarship. "She has the attitude, 'You have to keep going.'

"She is the type of woman we were looking for. We support women who are going to make a difference."

After four years in the United States and two years in Baltimore County, Mrs. Alic's life is moving forward.

Her husband, Hasan Alic, was allowed to leave Sarajevo and join the family three years ago, providing additional financial support. She found a part-time job with the Baltimore County school system, helping Russian adult students.

Her main goal is to graduate in the spring with a bachelor's degree in English and be certified to teach special education by the next year.

"Given her personal life, I'm impressed how she keeps it all together," said James Cook, associate professor of English and Mrs. Alic's adviser. "I like having her in class. She's an unforgettable person. Nobody forgets Jenna."

Mrs. Alic also qualified for a federal Pell grant that covers part of her tuition. But as she said, "It's never enough."

Sitting in her living room recently, she pushed her chestnut hair ,, behind her ears as she told her story in a lilting voice. Her English is polished.

She was an English major at the University of Sarajevo when her studies were interrupted by the civil war that tore apart her country. She and her husband were forced to leave a five-bedroom home that was destroyed by 13 grenades. They moved into a cramped apartment with relatives.

They sent Mrs. Alic's mother, Halima Hodzic, and their toddler son, Nedim, to a house on the Adriatic coast for safety. Soon the couple was trapped in Sarajevo.

"I lost everything," she said. "I lost photos or anything to prove I existed."

Then, Mrs. Alic became pregnant at age 37. Money and food were scarce. She survived on milk and occasional fruit her husband bartered for cigarettes.

With the help of family, Mrs. Alic was able to gather her son and mother and get to Croatia to deliver a baby girl, Lamija, affectionately called Mia.

"I had a feeling something was wrong," recalled Mrs. Alic, who heard nurses talking about the newborn's abnormal eyes after the delivery. "It was a shock to me."

Besides having Down syndrome, Mia had two holes in her heart. Doctors did not want to treat her life-threatening illness, Mrs. Alic says.

"She was dying. They said, 'She is not worth to live.' "

The desperate Mrs. Alic came to the United States through a refugee relocation program because she had a great-uncle living in West Virginia. Within a month of the family's arrival -- without Mr. Alic, still in Sarajevo -- Mia successfully underwent surgery.

But then Mrs. Alic's mother, 67, who does not speak English, needed two angioplasty surgeries and her daughter's support. Mrs. Alic, after taking vocational courses, was working as a secretary to support the family.

"I really needed [my husband]. I was alone here," she recalled.

Mr. Alic, 42, finally joined the family -- and eased his wife's burden. They relocated to the Baltimore area so he could work making machinery parts at a cousin's shop in the city.

They decided to live at Donnybrook Apartments in Southeast Towson on the recommendation of a friend who lives in the complex. In the past two years, the apartments off Burke Avenue have become a haven for nine Bosnian refugee families, many relatives of the Alics.

"It is a good, safe neighborhood," said Mrs. Alic, who often walks to her classes at TU when her temperamental 10-year-old Dodge Reliant acts up.

The couple's former middle-class life, where Mrs. Alic was a hotel manager and Mr. Alic worked in marketing, is different now. But they hope to apply for U.S. citizenship next year.

"I love my country," Mrs. Alic said. "But I want to feel safe."

Today, their son, Nedim, is 8 years old and a third-grade student at Pleasant Plains Elementary School. Daughter Mia is a smiling, bouncing, 4-year-old dynamo.

For now, the family lives in a comfortable but crowded two-bedroom apartment. Two flowered couches surround a television set. A computer workstation takes up a corner in the dining room. Space is at a premium.

"I need a three-bedroom," Mrs. Alic acknowledged. "But I cannot afford it."

On a recent morning, Mia, who attends an afternoon program at Halstead Academy, sang and danced to a Barney videotape with her cousin, Dinka Hodzic, 3, and insisted on having a Coke for lunch.

"She is very socialized," said Mrs. Alic, cuddling and kissing her daughter. "I want her to have an active life."

But she added wistfully, "I always dreamed I would have a girl who would go to the dance club."

At 12: 45 p.m., Mia cheerfully boarded a school bus, waving goodbye to her mother and grandmother. But Mrs. Alic's afternoon was not free.

She headed to Towson University's library to study.

"Sometimes, I'm so tired," said Mrs. Alic, who is juggling 16 credits. "Sometimes, I say, 'Why do I need it. I could watch movies all day.' But then I say, 'I will finish.' "

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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