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Refugees Are Survivors and Strivers

Zeljka Krvavica is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

Netsy Firestein

Zeljka Krvavica is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

I have often been asked about the highlights of my work with refugees. There are many. However, one stands out. Several years ago, a young Karen refugee couple named their first born Zeljka. A newborn in some ethnic groups in Burma is named after the things or people that are precious and important to the family. It was one of the most joyful experiences of my life and work.

I came to the United States as a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and, since then, I have dedicated my life to serving some of the most vulnerable new Iowans. Through my professional work with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services I have helped many refugee families lift their heads a bit higher. I have found my life purpose in serving refugees through my daily work as a Refugee Specialist, but also through volunteering with Des Moines Public Schools as a Bosnian interpreter and outreach worker; through "Voices of Bosnian Women" - an organization that helps victims of family violence; through the Iowa Interpreters and Translators Association; through acting as a cultural ambassador for CultureAll - a nonprofit organization that exposes Iowans to other world cultures; and through serving as UNHCR United States Refugee Congress Delegate representing the State of Iowa.

For the past twenty two years I have been privileged to serve refugees from Europe, Africa and Asia. All of them, no matter where they come from and what their education levels, economic status, racial or cultural backgrounds are, have something in common - a great sense of loss! Loss of their homes, families, jobs, belongings, dignity. Fortunately, many refugees manage to successfully adjust to their new life. They manage to come full circle.

Being recognized as a White House Champion of Change is a very humbling experience.  I am deeply grateful for being recognized in this manner. Sharing it with some of my clients gives me the utmost contentment and joy:

  •  My Eritrean client, a single mother of four whose husband was brutally murdered in the war. She made a brave decision to come to America for the brighter future of her children. Utilizing various services that the State of Iowa offers to refugees, she started attending English classes, enrolled her children in school, got a job and is now helping other Eritrean refugees;
  •  My Karen client who survived terrible atrocities in a refugee camp in Thailand, managed to overcome numerous life threatening barriers to come to Des Moines in the middle of winter, only to be challenged with another barrier: learning how to walk in winter boots on ice and snow;
  • My nineteen year old Bhutanese client who came from a refugee camp in Nepal eager to become a teacher, but had to put it on hold in order to take care of his mentally disabled mother;
  • My Iraqi client, a famous playwright who has been working nightshifts at a factory daydreaming of mastering English language well enough to write a play about Iraqi refugees in Iowa.

I wish there is a better word for grateful. I am so blessed that I have had all of my refugee clients in my life. They taught me to always have a positive outlook on life and to cherish all the miracles in the world.

I am forever changed.

Zeljka Krvavica is a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina working as a Refuge Case Manager/ Promise Jobs Counselor with the State of Iowa’s Bureau of Refugee Service.