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An American Family’s Journey


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By Meena Vasudevan

When you see Aila Ganić walking around LSW it is easy to think she’s just a regular student at LSW. She’s involved in Speech, Choir, Student Council and most things about her life are just like the typical LSW students. What you may not know is that Aila is a first generation Bosnian American. Her family moved to Lincoln as refugees when her older sister Amina (a 2016 LSW graduate) was only one year old.

When the Ganić family moved to Lincoln, they had never been to the United States before, did not know anyone in town, nor could they communicate in English with anyone. To put it simply, things started out rough for the Ganićs, who came to Lincoln as refugees from Bosnia.

Admir Ganić and Sanela Ganić first met in Germany. Both sought refuge from the Bosnian War in the 90’s and were resettled in Germany when they were in their late teens.

Being a refugee in Germany was extremely difficult. They grew up only speaking Bosnian, so they had to quickly start learning German in order to work and survive in Germany.  It was during this time in Germany that they met, got married and, in 1998, had their first daughter, Amina. Shortly after having their first daughter, Amina, the Ganić’s found out they had to be resettled elsewhere. They decided to apply to resettle in the United States.

“We had a lot of help from Catholic Social Services” said Sanela.

They helped Sanela and Admir find and set up their first apartment in Lincoln with furniture. At the time, the Ganićs did not know any English and were having trouble adjusting to life in Lincoln.

Through Catholic Social Services they were able to meet a UNL student named Jenny. Jenny wanted to help out with refugees in the community, so she was paired with the Ganićs to help them create some community in Lincoln. Jenny also helped all three of the Ganićs learn English, as she knew German, the only language other than Bosnian the Ganićs knew.

In addition to Jenny’s help, they also took English classes and started from level one in order to learn the language as quickly as possible and find work.

The family was grateful to be welcomed so warmly into the Lincoln community but they definitely had a culture shock.

“All immigrants and refugees have a culture shock,” said Sanela. “Especially refugees feel guilty that they are safe when others back home are not,” said Sanela.

When they first moved to the States the Ganićs hadn’t seen or experienced fire alarms. One day while cooking in the kitchen, the fire alarm went off. Sanela and Admir had no idea what to do. They didn’t speak fluent English at the time, so they used one of the few words they knew: Help. They yelled “help” over and over to one of their neighbors until he opened a window.

Other culture shocks included were abnormal amounts of fear during tornado watches. And accidentally having their hands get frozen after carrying groceries home from the store in the winter.

“I always tried to make it funny but at that time it was actually just really sad.” said Sanela.

The Ganićs said they were lonely in Lincoln for the first couple months. They weren’t used to people staying inside their homes instead of interacting with neighbors as they did in Europe.

“People are closed in. Everyone is nice on the street but everyone stays inside their house,” said Sanela.

Another big culture shock for the Ganićs was health insurance. Both Admir and Sanela were shocked that they had jobs but not health insurance.

“We couldn’t understand that you started working somewhere and you didn’t have health insurance,” said Admir.

In both Bosnia and Germany, every citizen is guaranteed the right to health insurance.

Things were hard for the Ganićs to get used to, but, they slowly started getting accustomed to life in Lincoln.

“Most of us had a pretty good life in Bosnia. You start again at zero,” said Sanela.

They focused all of their time and energy on becoming fluent in English.

“We were just focused on starting a new life again,” said Sanela.

When their daughter, Amina started school at Beatty Elementary she was the only foreigner in her kindergarten class. Sanela remembered how Amina would quickly run into the car and only then would she start speaking to her mother in Bosnian.

At the time, Sanela remembered thinking it was just Amina being a little kid, but she learned the truth when Amina’s kindergarten teacher asked if Amina spoke another language at home during parent teacher conferences.

Sanela and Admir were surprised, “We could only say of course,” said Sanela.

The teacher only asked because Amina had told their class she did not speak another language at home. Sanela and Admir began to understand that Amina was ashamed of being different and saw knowing another language as bad instead of thinking it was an asset. This was when Sanela started taking advocating on behalf of refugee families.

“We made sure to incorporate both Bosnian and American cultures,” said Sanela.

Sanela and Admir wanted to instil a sense of pride about being Bosnian to both of their daughters. So Sanela began to visit Aila and Amina’s classes at school to talk about Bosnian culture.

“This helped me feel proud of my own heritage and accept it more,” says Aila.

After being in Lincoln for over 10 years, the Ganićs are now American citizens and went through the naturalization process to get their citizenship. Amina, Admir, and Sanela all became naturalized citizens in 2004 and Aila did not have to go through that process because she was born in Lincoln.

The Ganićs get out and vote as much as possible and even participated in caucusing for candidates this past election season.

“We take our citizenship seriously,” said Sanela.

She wants to emphasize that, like all other Americans, refugees are here to contribute to the United States economy and society.

“We are not using the system,” said Admir.

They do not want to simply take from the system. They also want to contribute.

The Ganićs haven’t experienced lots of hatred or harassment in Lincoln directly. Admir said that people often don’t know they are refugees until they start speaking and hear their accents. That is when, occasionally, someone will close off and not want to speak to them.

“Most people are not that direct. They might act strange after hearing us speak.” said Sanela.

While the Ganićs have mostly positive experiences, they know there are bound to be people in the community who feel negatively about refugees in general.

“Most people are not that direct, we are fortunate to live in such a community that is helpful and open minded,” said Sanela.

Sanela also acknowledged that since her family is white they do have it easier.

“Refugees or immigrants of color have it more difficult. It is a little bit easier because of skin color and that’s really sad.”

For Aila, most of the people in her high school have no idea her family immigrated.

“People see me and just assume I’m another American kid,” said Aila.

Often her peers are surprised when they find out she is from a refugee family. Her experiences are different because her family came from hardship and she’s learned a lot from those stories.

“Learning form where they came from helps me understand how much better my life is,” said Aila.

In a time where resettlement for refugees is hard and many refugees are fearing for their safety, the Ganićs encourage everyone to get to know refugees in their community.

“Spends some time with us,” said Admir “So they [new refugees] are less afraid to talk.”

Sanela, a member of Lincoln Literacy’s board, urges people fluent in English to volunteer their time and teach English at organizations such as Lincoln Literacy.

“Help someone learn English that’s one of the first skills people need,” said Sanela.

Sanela stressed the importance of this right now because many newer refugees are afraid due to the current political climate.

“The climate is difficult. No one wants refugees. Everyone thinks refugees are a burden.”

Although the refugee community in Lincoln is more organized and there is more support, some refugees still feel scared. But with support from the community refugees will be able to ease their fears.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you try unless you have someone who will stand beside you.” 

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