Patience & Community: Coping with War

An Interview with Samir & Elvira Mustafic

Words and image by Katy Mitchell
Editing help from Emily Mitchell

I visited Samir and Elvira Mustafic in the immaculate home in which they live with their twin son and daughter, Ahmed and Ijsa. Upon arriving, I was greeted with a delicious crepe and Turkish coffee. “This is the way we drink coffee. It’s a huge part of socialization. Back home you don’t ask, you just make it, serve it, and you have to have it,” Elvira said. As Samir put it, “Community is a huge part of the culture, and I think you see that a lot in immigrant communities.”

This culture of community support was crucial to Samir, Elvira, and their families during the war that tore Bosnia and Herzegovina apart in the 1990s. Faith, too, helped the community cope with the unfolding terror. Samir told me: “There is a concept in Islam, a very important concept of patience. The Arabic term for that is sabar. It’s basically believing that what happens to you, happens for a reason, and you really should show patience and things will work out.”

Samir and Elvira met as high-schoolers on the bus, travelling to a nearby city for school. “So we were travelling together, and fell in love,” Samir said. This was 3 years before the start of the war. Both are originally from Bužim in northwest Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We grew up in that town, fairly uneventful childhoods, normal stuff. And then war comes and changes everything,” Samir told me. Though the two were separated by war, Samir returned following the end of the conflict and reconnected with his lost love. The couple were married in 2001, and Elvira joined him in Portland on Christmas Eve, 2003.

The Bosnian War took place before I was aware of the world. It was too recent, and perhaps too violent, to have made it into my school curriculum. In America, we don’t much talk about this modern tragedy that resulted in the deaths of over 101,000 people. Most of those killed were of the Bosniak ethnic group, often called Bosnian Muslims, in the first European genocide since WWII.

It is difficult to understand where the sort of hatred that leads to ethnic cleansing can begin. “We were raised in a community where you just have to respect everyone regardless of their backgrounds… And then you end up having one side killing [the] other side for some reason. And then you start, just, dealing with the fact that you have a friend whose parents, or even him or her, decided to [start] killing us for God knows what reason. Because we are different in I-don’t-know-what way,” Elvira said.

The violence began in the couple’s teenage years. “The war really started and people were killed around us. My brother was killed, he was 25 years old. Samir’s family was torn for real. And I can say that in those situations, in those traumas, you just have this enormous love of neighbors, and community just comes together.” After the death of her brother, Elvira’s friends and neighbors would have sleepovers with her family. “In Samir’s case especially, when… in one day they lost a mother and a sister and Samir was injured and he was taken. There was a lot of community help. We were just dealing with it. Finding a way and being together, staying together. That was most important part.”

Samir and Elvira’s community cared for each other not just out of necessity, but because of a deep-rooted culture of mutual support. “There is an expression in Bosnia that your neighbor should be closer to you than your own brother. The idea is that in the time of need, who is going to come to help? You can love your brother all you want but if he is 2,000 miles away it is going to be your neighbor who is going to help. So that concept of community and neighbors sticking together and helping each other has always been part of the fabric of that community. That’s just the way we are, even in this country,” Samir told me.

A year into the war, Samir was badly injured by the same bomb that killed his mother and sister. His survival depended on medical treatment not available in Bosnia at that time. Unfortunately, and despite a United Nations designation of being a safe-haven, his home region was completely under siege. After negotiations between the occupying forces and the UN, Samir was one of only two people allowed out of the country for treatment. Samir would spend the next nine months in different hospitals, first in Slovenia and ultimately in Roseburg, Oregon. In 1994, he finished his medical treatment and was granted political asylum due to the ongoing war. He began taking classes at Umpqua Community College and was living with an American family who took him in and cared for him in his recovery.

Following his medical treatment, Samir came to Portland to continue his education and to connect with other Bosnians. “One of the things that I was missing badly was any connection to my homeland. In Roseburg, I was the only Bosnian. In Portland, there was a sizable community.” Many refugees were displaced during the war, with little to go back to, “Everything that they had was burned down to the ground.” It is estimated that between 3,000–5,000 Bosnian refugees and immigrants are living today in the Portland-Vancouver area.

To cope with his loss and trauma, Samir set education and career goals and worked toward them. He also found community in Portland. “My nature is such that I connect with people easily,” he told me. “I made sure that I was always busy… I was active in anything you can imagine. It was easy to reconnect with the Bosnian population… We would hear that another family is coming from Bosnia… We don’t even know the family. We all go to the airport. A family is coming, we don’t know anyone in that family, and there are over 100 people waiting for them, just to greet them. That’s the beauty of humanity.”

In 2002–2003, the immigrant and refugee community came together to form the Bosnian Educational and Cultural Organization. Samir started sharing Turkish coffee on the weekends at the cultural center. Upon her arrival in 2003, Elvira found a welcoming community waiting. “It was easy for me to come and just join them again and be a part of them. We have a lot of friends here from different parts of Bosnia but also beyond that of course.”

Both Samir and Elvira share such a strong love for their community and home country. They teach their children about their culture and language, and also about the war. They recognize the importance of talking about the past to ensuring that something so violent doesn’t happen again. The family returns to Bosnia every year to visit, and have brought along neighbors and coworkers as well. The couple misses their home and family and hope to move back one day when their children are older and when accessibility has been improved. “[Bosnia] will always be home. [Portland] is home too, just a little different concept,” Samir said.