Starting over in America

Refugees: A Bosnian family learns, works and adapts to a new life in Columbia.

February 05, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Tatyana Kulalic sits by the window in her Intermediate I English class, slowly dragging her finger across the words in a school newspaper.

Her lips move slowly, mouthing the words "calendar" and "new year." The rest of the class -- mostly Korean and Chinese immigrants -- mimics the teacher's pronunciation and diction.

At 33, Kulalic is struggling to master a language she last studied in grammar school in Bosnia before the country disintegrated into bloody ethnic warfare in the early 1990s.

English class at Howard Community College in Columbia is another part of the often baffling puzzle of U.S. culture that Kulalic and her family must master if they are to survive and flourish here. Refugees fleeing a life of deprivation and danger, Kulalic, her husband, Nusrat, and their 2-year-old son Isak are struggling to root themselves in suburbia, an environment as strange to them as Sarajevo would be to an American.

Distances between their Columbia apartment and employers, shops and schools force Mrs. Kulalic to face the intimidating prospect of learning to drive. With relatives and close friends half a world away, the couple must join the day care merry-go-round. Figuring out how things work -- what's appropriate, what's not -- is tricky.

Nusrat Kulalic, 43, once left his grocery bags unattended at a Safeway for more than an hour while he went home to get a cart. On a recent visit to a cafe in Ellicott City, he refused a cup of coffee because smoking was banned. "In Europe," he says solemnly through an interpreter, "no cigarette, no coffee."

Living in Columbia since early December, the Kulalics are among a recent wave of Bosnian refugees settling in Maryland. Since 1993, 357 have been placed throughout the state by refugee resettlement agencies such as the For- eign-born Information and Referral Network, known as FIRN, the Columbia nonprofit group that placed the Kulalics.

While these refugees are like many others seeking a better life, Bosnians are more likely than other groups to face serious challenges, says John Fredriksson, assistant executive director of International Refugee Service of America, known as IRSA. They have "a higher degree of trauma because of the ferocity of the war in that country," he said. "You're talking about people who perhaps were interned in detention camps where they were tortured, or women whose husbands were shot and their children raped."

In the United States, a general trend is for refugees to be settled in the suburbs. That puts them closer to employment, but it also cuts them off from the advantages of cities, such as a larger ethnic community and services that would afford a smoother transition into U.S. society, immigration officials say.

"It feels strange to be here because everything is new, but we are happy," Mrs. Kulalic says haltingly while sitting on a donated sofa in the living room of the family's neat apartment. "After the war in Bosnia, we are happy because we can breathe now. We feel like it will be OK. But we are still afraid that we will fail here."

Starting over anywhere in the United States was preferable to Bosnia.

Though the country's civil war ended in 1995, the Kulalics had no food or water and little money. Tatyana once sold a sofa cushion on the black market to buy a few groceries. Nusrat could not find work as an industrial welder, and his wife nearly died of tuberculosis, spending four months recovering in a sanitarium.

After the war, both feared ethnic persecution. Mrs. Kulalic, who is a Serb, and her husband, a Muslim, felt like outcasts in Bosnia and in Croatia, where the couple lived with friends for eight months in the ancient town of Split before coming to the United States.

"All through the war, we didn't move anyplace because we were hoping that things would be better," she says. "But everything was destroyed and we couldn't go back to Bosnia. We had no future."

FIRN found them housing and, within 10 days of arriving in the United States, Mr. Kulalic had a job in a Columbia factory. The former welder now makes glass vases. As refugees, they were given a federal start-up grant of less than $1,000, free health care, food stamps and other temporary welfare benefits. In a few months, the benefits will decrease and the Kulalics will be on their own.

During the Christmas season, the Kulalics received donated gifts, including a bicycle, toys, a videocassette recorder, a fishing rod and tools.

The Kulalics acknowledge that adjusting to the American way of life has been tough.

Mrs. Kulalic had to learn how to take the bus to class twice a week. Finding child care for Isak has been confusing and exasperating. On a recent trip to Target and The Mall at Columbia, they were awed at the sheer quantity of products.

She has to learn how to drive. "In Bosnia, a car is a luxury," she says, laughing. "And it looks very scary."

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