Posted on June 16, 2017
From Sarajevo to PA: The struggle for freedom and family
By Peggy Farrell
“There was no food and no jobs. The government just wasn’t ready,” said Midhat Curevac, who lived in the small town of Rogacica, about 40 miles from Sarajevo.
Amid growing unrest in March of 1992, Bosnians voted for Independence from Yugoslavia. During the turmoil, Curevac and his wife Dina left their town, and made their way to Sarajevo, hoping to find food and shelter. But, on April 7, when the United States and the EC recognized Bosnia’s right to independence, unrest erupted into full blown war. “Shelling and grenade attacks started falling.” said Curevac. “We didn’t know it would be such a long fight, longer than Stalingrad in WWII.” According to britannica.com, the battle for Sarajevo lasted 1,425 days, with approximately 100,000 deaths, more than two million people displaced, and multiple charges of genocide eventually brought against military leaders.
For Curevac, the situation became dire. In 1995, while the city of Sarajevo was surrounded by the Army of the Republika Srpska and still under siege, Dina Curevac delivered their first son Enid. “The roads were still blocked and we couldn’t get back to our hometown. At that point we were just trying to survive,” said Curevac. But amid the hardship there was hope. America had a refugee program. Curevac’s sister, Maida, had gotten out and moved to the United States. Finally, on a cold January day, when their son Enid was five, they were accepted into the program and made their way to New Jersey. “We weren’t thinking about anything, about what it would be like. We were just so happy to have a new life, a new beginning,” Curevac explained.
Life in America was difficult at first, and he struggled to find a job. “It was beautiful, but we didn’t understand anyone. We were scared about how we were going to survive. Our son was afraid to go outside,” Curevac remembered. Eventually he found a job as a painter in Bucks County, PA. During that time, Curevac was introduced to a minister named Sturgis Poorman, who ran a free, non-profit educational organizational for immigrants and refugees known as Welcoming the Stranger. “We met Sturgis, and I have never met anyone like him. He was so patient and he understood.” Curevac began taking English and Citizenship classes and said his life began to improve. “He [Sturgis] said to bring my son with me, and he found a babysitter for him so I wouldn’t have to skip classes.” Despite all the changes, the Curevacs approached their new life with courage and grace. “I remember that Midhat, Dina, and Enid came to us just after 9/11. It was an uncertain time in the life of our country. Yet, they wasted no time in getting right into serious language study. Midhat’s ability to relate the horrors of war, even with his initial limitation in English, was important for me as I tried to make sense of all that was going on at the time,” said Reverend Poorman.
According to Meg Eubank, Executive Director of Welcoming the Stranger, the organization, which began in 1999, offers free English, computer, and citizenship classes, and has taught more than 3,000 immigrant and refugee students who have come to the United States from around the globe. Eubank talked about the need for language classes, noting that according to the National Institute for Literacy, in Philadelphia there is only one class for every 5,200 foreign born residents, and only one class for every 12,100 residents in neighboring Bucks County. “Welcoming the Stranger has served refugees from approximately 25 different countries, and immigrants from 100 different countries. We not only offer free educational opportunities, but also provide resources like childcare and job search opportunities, housing and food help, and provide a community and connections to help people adjust to life in a new land,” Eubank said. She also stressed the need for support from the larger community. "In the past year alone, Welcoming the Stranger's enrollment has grown over 100%. There is a great demand for our services, and we are dedicated to continuing to offer free education, resources, and a welcoming community to our students. In my six years at this organization, I have found that Welcoming the Stranger is not just a service provider, but is more like a family. Students and teachers alike support one another like family members would, and there is genuine connection and sharing of knowledge and cultures. We hope that community members will see fit to support our work and help our global family continue to thrive."
Eventually Curevac began working as a dishwasher, then worked his way up to sous chef and eventually chef at New Jersey Hospitality (NJHA). He stressed how much his life and his family’s life changed after taking classes at WTS. He talked about how learning English helped he and his wife understand their new country and how to communicate and how to handle everyday tasks like working, shopping, banking, and talking to teachers and doctors. Mostly though, he talked about how it gave him confidence and made him feel like he belonged. “I looked forward to every Monday because going to class was the best two hours. It was a chance to learn English and meet people from everywhere. Monday classes were so relaxing because you have someone like Sturgis who understands you, and you are with people who are in the same situation with similar stories. Learning English at WTS helped us create a better life.”
Over the years, things have improved for their entire family. Curevac’s wife, Dina, went on to take classes at Bucks County Community College, then finished her degree at Rider University, and now works as an actuary for Chubb. After starting school, his son, Enid, came out of his shell, and is now in his third year of pharmacy school. “Enid was the best student in middle school and high school, and he is so appreciative.”
After seventeen years in the United States, Curevac is grateful for the skills he gained while taking classes at Welcoming the Stranger, and for the opportunity to bring his family to the United States. Two years ago, the Curevacs welcomed their second son, Rubin. “He will grow up in America, where so many people have an open mind and an open heart,” said Curevac.
Anyone interested in donating time or money can call at 215 702-3445, email at [email protected], or visit the website at www.welcomingthestranger.org.