Coming to America: 1998

My mom took us to the doctor in Germany several times before we had to leave the country and I didn’t exactly know why. The doctor asked a lot of questions and drew a lot of blood. We didn’t ask any questions, we just knew we were going on an airplane and moving to America.  The drive to the airport was sad, it was late at night and my mom cried a lot. We said goodbye to all of the people who were like family at the center, which later I learned was a refugee camp. As we drove to the airport, I held on tight to my teddy bear and sat silently in a van filled with my family and 2 suitcases packed with what would get us through the next chapter of our lives. The flight was really fascinating; most of the people on the flight spoke all different languages and seemed just as scared as my mom. When the airplane landed they handed out green forms to all of the adults, speaking a language I didn’t understand (English). I felt like they were shouting at us to fill it out; a man sitting next to my mom helped her with the form. When we landed, we were escorted off the plane to a big, open room at the airport. We then stood in a line where they handed us a big blue folder once we reached the police officers standing in the front. I remember being really bored at the airport; I was only 9 years old and was stuck in a large open room with people who couldn’t speak to each other because no one spoke the same language.  Many hours later we were let out of the big dark room, and after they ripped our suitcases apart we were let through two big glass doors. We were picked up by our cousin I had never met before. As we walked to his car he taught me how to say “My name is Benina” in English. I loved our new cousin, he was so nice and he made my mom happy.

That is my memory of coming to America in 1998. February 26, 1998 was the day my family and I became residents of the USA; they called us “refugees of war.”

See, I was born in this small country formerly known as Yugoslavia (now split up into several countries, after a civil war) and my mom fled the country with my brother and me to keep us safe. We lived in Germany for 7 years, 5 of which we spent at a refugee camp. When I say refugee camp I mean this old school building that had dividers up in the classrooms to split all of the families up into “rooms.” One year my little brother got sick and cried a lot so they gave us an old janitor closet as an “apartment,’” it had a sink and a window which was like winning the lottery.  My mom gave us baths in buckets, in the utility sink (thinking about it now, that’s pretty creative).  Birthday parties were held in the school’s old gym and we attended kindergarten and elementary school up the street. I had a lot of friends and never felt that I was different than anyone there. All of the families were at the camp for the same reasons, simply to survive and keep their families safe. We were all different religions (it was not common to befriend someone of different religion in Yugoslavia back then) but most importantly we were all like family.

My mom, brother and I outside of the refugee shelter AKA abandoned school

My mom, brother and I outside of the refugee shelter AKA abandoned school

When we moved to Chicago it was really scary. We spoke German and Croatian, not English. We went to the center of immigration at least once a week for more doctors’ appointments and blood draws. I swear they thought we were aliens. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand and appreciate the strict process that takes place when a new immigrant comes into America. The people at the immigration center were not very nice, it was almost worse than the workers at the DMV (if you know what I mean). The center was always so packed, most of the time we sat on the floor for hours until our names were called. I learned to speak English pretty quickly; I had to because asking to go to the bathroom in your 3rd grade class speaking German was not effective. I had to show with hands and sounds to my teacher what I had to do, embarrassing life moment. We lived in a low income neighborhood that was scary at night. We had gates on our apartment windows and heard gun shots almost nightly.  After about one year of living in Chicago my mom packed us up once again and we moved, this time to Wisconsin.

Mom brother and I at a big castle park in Germany

Mom brother and I at a big castle park in Germany

Growing up as an immigrant has its ups and downs that’s for sure. There were times my family and I were discriminated against, made fun of and felt that we were treated differently and did not belong. I don’t have an accent at all, but if you heard my mom speak you would immediately know that English was not her first spoken language. I watched my mom struggle to make a life for herself as a single woman in her 3rd country that was now home. Moved away from her parents, siblings and friends, she brought her children to a place where they said all of your dreams come true. This woman gave, literally, her all for her children.  I am forever thankful to my mother and I can’t hope enough to be even a fraction of the woman and mother she is.

I am so proud to be an American; I became an American Citizen in 2008. I could have become a citizen sooner but it costs a lot of money. A lot of people have a misconception of what it means to be an American resident versus and American citizen. My family and I never came to this country illegally, we applied for and were granted American residency while we were still in Germany (meaning we can live in America forever, but had certain restrictions without citizenship – such as voting and travelling).  Remember all the blood draws and doctor appointments we had before flying to America? That was part of the application process. Becoming an American citizen is no joke, you have to get interviewed, take a history and government test, and prove you have speaking and writing abilities (which naturally, having grown up in the U.S. half of my life, was not difficult to do).  I am so grateful to this country and the amazing people my family and I have met along the way. I couldn’t imagine my life any different.  If there is one thing I would change, we would not have had to leave our friends and family back in Bosnia, Croatia and Germany. I proudly hold citizenship to two beautiful countries now. I humbly serve as a nurse at a Veteran hospital and with honor am marrying a soldier, the man of my dreams.

Until next time,