Elvir Berbic’s family fled Bosnia when war broke out in 1992. “One day I went to school, and out of four grades—so about 80 students—10 showed up to class,” Berbic says. “They told us, ‘School is over. We don’t know when it’s going to be open. Go home. Be safe.’”
But to stay in Derventa, their hometown, was also to risk the family’s life.
“We were playing one time, and a MiG [military plane] just flew over us and knocked us all on the ground because it was so low,” he says. “There was a lot of talk about whose house is targeted, whose house is safe, whose house has a basement to hide in. My dad would guard our apartment with an AK-47 and a pistol, which is nothing when people are about to roll in with tanks.”
Adding to the threat, the Berbics were Muslim, the subject of an ethnic cleansing campaign by the Serbian majority. Before this time, Berbic, 11, didn’t even know they were Muslim.
The family drove to Croatia in a refrigeration truck, doling out soda to bribe checkpoint guards. When 13 relatives took refuge in their Croatian aunt’s one-bedroom apartment, his family moved into a nearby refugee camp, where their stay, and the war, dragged on for three years. His parents thought they would be home in a few months. Instead, they accepted refugee status and relocation to the United States.
Berbic, by then 14, and his brother had learned English in the camp. Youth, too, helped them integrate. His parents, however, had a tougher time, and have since returned home.
“It was depressing for them: no language skills; doing a job they were never trained to do; starting life all over,” he says.
Berbic earned a master’s degree and now helps other newcomers acclimate to life in Roanoke, serving as student affairs manager at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and as a volunteer for local support organizations. His brother is a doctor in New Jersey.“If you want to invest in anything, it’s people,” Berbic says. “It has to be in people. If we are investing, they will invest.”