CAMH is working closely with its partner organizations to expand local, national and global efforts on refugee mental health, as Canada begins to bring in 25,000-plus refugees from Syria. CAMH staff are also sponsoring a Syrian family and sharing their personal stories…
When CAMH employee Ksenija Hotic sees stories and images of refugees fleeing their homes in Syria and many other countries, it is personal.
Ksenija, along with her parents and her younger brother, escaped the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. They were refugees in Travnik, Zagreb, Ljubljana and Berlin before coming to Canada — sponsored by 10 Canadian families who guaranteed their first year of settlement here. Today, Ksenija, who works in CAMH’s Corporate Services, is expressing her experience in words and photography. She is hoping to make a difference and to help others who are living through what she experienced as a young girl.
This is her story.
If you can try to put yourself into the shoes of a refugee — if you can feel the terror, the hunger, the hope for something better one day — I was you. It’s surreal to think back sometimes, and realize that this was my childhood and my parents’ life.
I remember the instant my childhood was stolen from me in Bosnia. I was 11 years old. It was 4 a.m., September 9th, 1992. My dad shook me awake: “We’re leaving,” he whispered.
I grabbed my teddy bear and my Garfield pillow, but he shook his head: “No, you can’t take those, we are just taking ourselves. We have to go.”
Our town had been under fire since April 1992. We slept in clothes and running shoes. We had no water or electricity and lived in fear of not knowing whether we would see tomorrow.
My mom and I would walk to get water at a nearby spring because we were less likely to be targets than Bosnian men including my dad and brother. Otherwise, the four of us didn’t leave each other’s sight. I saw local men being assaulted inside a bus and on the street. Many were taken to concentration camps.
We slept in storage lockers in the basement; on nights when we actually slept in our apartment, we could see homes that were being set on fire, one by one.
Until 1992, we had a normal and fulfilling life in Bosnia, which is in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia was a multicultural hub very much like Canada. We had a healthy economy, education system, culture and community. My dad taught Russian literature and Serbo-Croatian language, and my mom was Director of the City’s Social Work Office. We took care of our neighbors, we played freely, we travelled. We never imagined a war, or that we would be targets.
On that day in 1992 when my dad woke me up, we were supposed to be travelling on a secure convoy to escape my hometown of Kljuc. But soon our bus convoy was stopped and we were forced outside in a wooded area. We were attacked and robbed – I had a gun pointed at me and a man demanding I give him my watch. I was one of the lucky ones who made it out of those woods.
We ran for about 30 kilometres through woods and a mine field as well. I remember being so thirsty, and being separated from my parents. My dad and mom had stayed back to help a friend carry his elderly mother in a blanket. We made it to Travnik, but every time we thought we were safe, we were on the move and vulnerable again, from a gymnasium, to a library, to a boat on the Adriatic Sea, and finally to a bus shelter in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
If you can try to challenge some of the myths and fears about refugees, and understand that we are human beings, I was you.
In Zagreb, my dad had gone to try to sell his wedding band to get some money for us when he ran into Ana, a student who had previously rented an apartment from my grandmother. Ana took 11 of us back to live in her one-bedroom apartment for a few weeks. I remember gazing around a beautiful park in Zagreb — it was the first time I felt safe.
Our journey continued to Ljubljana and then to Berlin, where we initially stayed in a shelter; I think it was for people with drug addiction. After that, we stayed in a school gym, very similar to the old gym in the Community Centre at CAMH. A woman there heard my mom was a social worker, and our life changed when she met us. She found us rooms in an old hotel and helped us obtain assistance, so my brother and I could go to school. A month later, we moved to a small home in Eastern Berlin, and lived there until we came to Canada. The owners of that complex, which housed other refugees, were so kind, we thought of them as our grandparents. We are still friends – they come to visit us in Canada, and we visit them in Berlin. We were given a choice to enter Canada or Australia, and chose Canada as we had some family here and friends who were able to help us be accepted.
If you can try to empathize with people who have lived this journey, and use that feeling to help others, I am you. Or you could have been me.
Within about a week of arriving in Canada, my parents found work, and my brother and I were in school. It was a rocky road for the first few years but we were safe.
Since then, my parents never wanted to talk much about our experience. “Let it go,” they would often say. But over the last two or three years, I’ve started to deal with it by remembering, and writing about it, in an attempt to understand it. It’s important to share the truth, and we are all opening up a bit more as a result. It’s a heavy burden if you internalize it.
I also want to help others. I have a passion for documentary photography, so I have donated proceeds of much of my work to refugee organizations. When I visited Havana recently, it reminded me of my hometown, Kljuc, before the war. I saw young and old people in good health and living in safety. I saw people repairing things that were broken. I saw people taking care of one another. This inspired me to create an exhibit about memories.
I am taking 22 of my favourite images from Cuba to exhibit next year in Berlin, Sarajevo, and in my hometown, I hope. The number 22 signifies 20 years since the end of the war, and one year each for a beginning and an ending. It’s time to complete the circle, and heal , in a way that is meaningful and telling and beautiful. Because there was beauty, and there still is. I have a website for my photography and you can feel free to get in touch with questions about the exhibit.
With this story, I ask you to try to put yourself in the shoes of a refugee. The hope and eagerness for a better life that my family had – this feeling allowed me to share my story today. I hope it will bring you more insight into the current refugee crisis. Massive refugee displacement is a global crisis, but very much an internal battle for anyone caught up in it. War is more than the absence of peace. It is the presence, and the violence intrusion, of everything that does not allow a person to live as a human being without constant fear.
If the tables were turned, and you were in my shoes, I would want to help you, your family, and anyone else that I could — because I was you.
Learn more: Through Ksenija’s father’s passion for fishing and the great outdoors, this video also explores connections to the family’s former life in Bosnia.