Learning English Through the Mail
by Karen Bries
As the bombs were going off in Bosnia in 1996, young Mersad Rahmanovic never thought he'd end up in America four years later with an internship at Dorsey and Whitney.
Now 18, Mersad copies, files and sorts mail for the firm. He found the job through the Youth-At-Work Program, which led him to the Denver Bar Association's Summer Intern Program.
Ten years ago, the Serbian Army forced Mersad and his family from their home in Kotor Varos, a small town outside of Banja Luka.
"We had no idea. No warning. It was Saturday morning and people were sleeping. All I remember is my aunt coming from a few doors down saying we had to leave today--now."
There was no question about whether to stay or leave.
"We had heard of and knew people from another town who wanted to stay in their homes. When the army came, they stood their ground and not long after, the planes came and bombed everything. Nothing was left.
"We knew we couldn't fire one bullet. If we did, they would have destroyed our town, too."
Knowing they had to act fast, Mersad and his family met with the rest of the town that night and boarded buses headed for a United Nations-controlled camp in Croatia.
"If a bus really had capacity for 50 people," he said, "there were 80-100 on each bus."
But the family wasn't safe yet. The Serbian Army stopped their bus five or six times to search women and children for valuables. Men would often hide heirlooms and money on their family members in hopes the army wouldn't check or hurt their wives or children.
Before they could actually leave Bosnia, they had to be sponsored by someone in Croatia. Luckily, Mersad's father had been working in Croatia long enough to sponsor them (he was once an engineer, but when the war started, he had to work in Croatia in construction to support his family). Those who didn't have a sponsor were left in Bosnia, waiting for paperwork.
At the camp in Croatia, they slept in giant tents with about 4,000 other Bosnians. The tents had holes all over, and when it rained they got wet. They were allowed to shower about once every week and a half. Food and water was never readily available.
The UN soldiers gave balls to the children to play with, hoping it might take their minds off what they had seen.
"Land mines surrounded the camps," Mersad said. "A ball would roll away and the kids would step on a mine. That happened a few times."
They came here on Aug. 18, 1996. It was Mersad's first plane ride.
"I remember walking up the steps to the plane and knocking on the outside of it, wondering if it would hold us."
At first, they went to Chicago and lived in an apartment in a rough part of town. One of their deciding factors to leave Chicago, Mersad remembers, was when a police officer shot a gang member and soon after, a gang member shot a police officer.
They knew an uncle who had moved to Denver a year earlier (he had also left Bosnia). He agreed to help them.
When they got to Denver, Mersad's family gave him the role of translator.
He focused on his studies at South High School, read and watched movies.
"I would look at the mail everyday, and it would take hours to read all of it. It took me a while to figure out it was junk mail. But it helped me learn English."
After seven years in America his English is almost perfect.
Mersad has not returned to Bosnia, and he doesn't think he'll ever go back.
"There's nothing there. My parents went last spring and no one has a job. Our house is still standing, but people have destroyed it, taken out all the doors and window frames, broken windows and stolen tiles from the walls."
All the people in Mersad's town, about 400, go to the town center every day and people who can employ them drive by and hire them for the day. Jobs are few and far between, he said.
Mersad has made a life for himself in Denver. He received a four-year full scholarship to Metropolitan State College of Denver, where he will study computers.
"My grandmother told me once that hard work and a big smile will get you everywhere in this country."