From Bosnia to Janesville: Refugee mother grateful for new life
JANESVILLE—Marija Bagaric pressed the faces of her children against her so they could not see the horror unfolding in front of them.
Serbian soldiers had gathered the family and others together and lined them up in rows.
Methodically, the Serbs began shooting.
The terrified family stood in the third row with nowhere to run.
“We were just waiting to be killed,” Marija recalls. “They gave shovels to women without kids to dig graves.”
Trembling, she held her children so tightly that her daughter complained.
Then, with little time to spare, United Nations troops came upon the scene and stopped the executions.
The memory of how close Marija and her family came to dying in 1992 still brings her to tears.
She is a Bosnian War refugee who came to Janesville in 1999 with her two children.
Since then, Marija is thankful every day for the safety of her home and family.
“I don't thank God enough,” she said.
A longtime friend who knows 54-year-old Marija said her Catholic faith is the bedrock of her positive outlook.
“Marija has had many obstacles in her life,” said Sister Lauretana of St. John Vianney Church. “But yet, she is not a gloomy person. She presents herself as a welcoming presence, not as someone who has had a hard life.”
Like so many refugees, Marija seized opportunity in her new country.
She owns and operates My Care of Wisconsin, which offers in-home care to clients in Rock and Walworth counties.
Her daughter, Nina Caviggiola, is a registered nurse at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Madison, and her son, Ben Ramic, helps with his mother's business and is a volunteer firefighter.
A TIME OF TERROR
The Bosnian War from April 1992 to December 1995 turned Marija's life into a nightmare.
The conflict was born after the fall of communism in Europe, when Bosnia and Herzegovina joined several republics of the former Yugoslavia and declared independence.
“It was a religious war,” Marija said. “Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholics all started fighting with each other.”
Some carried out horrific ethnic-cleansing attacks.
By the time the fighting ended, Marija had lost 26 family members.
Before the war, she was a wife, mother and college-educated company supervisor.
Everything changed when uniformed men came to her home in Novi Travnik in central Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the middle of the night, they led away her husband, Emir, saying he had to join the army.
She never saw him again.
“There was bombing and shooting all around us,” Marija said. “You didn't know if you would make it until the next day.”
In the morning, she fled into a nearby woods with her vulnerable children, ages 1 and 3.
“At the time, all I thought about was surviving the moment,” she said. “I grabbed my son's bottle and a blanket.”
She found other desperate civilians in the forested mountains.
Soon, they ran out of food.
“We ate a lot of grass and leaves,” Marija said. “A woman with four small children ate bad mushrooms and died.”
LIFE IN A REFUGEE CAMP
After UN forces rescued Marija and her family, the refugees traveled to Germany, where they lived for six years.
They found shelter in a refugee camp, which was nothing more than an old school building. Several families occupied a single room, and hanging blankets served as doors to separate them.
Marija was relieved because she had food, shelter and safety for her children.
But conditions were challenging.
Many families lived in two rooms. They slept in shifts because not everyone had a bed, Marija said.
When Ben got sick and cried a lot, she got moved into an old janitor's closet, where Marija bathed her children in a utility sink.
Years later, Nina described the move as being like “winning the lottery” because the space was all theirs.
Nina fondly recalls the other refugees.
“All of the families were at the camp for the same reasons, simply to survive and to keep their families safe,” Nina said. “We were all religions, but most importantly, we were all like family.”
When the war ended, Marija tried to take her family back to Bosnia but was almost killed. She applied to go to the United States.
“Three people at the U.S. embassy interviewed me,” Marija said. “When they finished, one said, 'Welcome to the United States.' I hugged him.”
She and her family traveled to Chicago.
Later, Cargill United Methodist Church of Janesville sponsored their move to the city.
Dave Brown of the church recalls bringing two Bosnian families, including the Bagarics, to Janesville in November 1999.
“Several of us met them and drove them back,” he said. “We had a home ready for them. There were a lot of people who helped, and it was a good experience.”
Larry Squire, also of the church, was part of the moving crew.
Marija said Squire comforted young Ben, who was a first-grader and reluctant to leave.
Today, she refers to both Brown and Squire as “brothers to me.”
A NEW CITY
Nina remembers walking into their apartment at Village Green.
“It was fully furnished,” she said. “They built this life for us.”
A special church service celebrated the refugees.
“People shook our hands and said 'welcome,' but I didn't understand them,” Marija said.
She knew Croatian, Bosnian, Russian and German but no English.
Her road to understanding had some funny moments.
At Christmas, Marija wanted to cook a dish with rooster meat. She did not know the word for rooster, so she used logic to come up with another way of describing the bird.
“I asked at the meat counter for a 'chicken husband,'” Marija said. “But the man behind the counter did not answer.”
She fondly remembers how people from the church coordinated getting her children to and from school. The late Bob Sessler was among them.
“He also took the children to the zoo and ice skating,” Marija said. “His wife, Ilah, helped the children with homework. It's just amazing how good so many people were to us.”
St. Mary's congregation provided the family with more presents than they had ever seen on their first Christmas.
“You couldn't walk in my living room,” Marija said. “I think every child at St. Mary's School bought a gift for us.”
From the start, Marija looked for a job with the help of the late Mirabel Deming, also of the Methodist church.
“She was like my mother,” Marija recalls. “We were with her when she died.”
A SPECIAL PERSON
Marija eventually worked in the dining room at St. Elizabeth's Nursing Home, where she served food and helped residents. Because she was so well liked, Sister Christopher encouraged her to become a certified nursing assistant.
Marija followed her advice.
“I was the best student in the class,” she said.
She worked for several care-giving agencies and had two jobs at a time. Five years ago, she began her own in-home care agency with one client. She now has 18 clients and 17 employees.
“My rule is make people happy and comfortable,” Marija said. “I love my job so much.”
One of her clients, Patricia Pember, praised Marija, who also cared for her husband, John.
“She is a special person who would do anything for me and all her clients,” Pember said. “I love her.”
Last week, the two had been at a store shopping. A stranger, moved by the kindness Marija showed to Patty, gave them a pot of mums.
Kindness and devotion are what Nina recalls most about her mother, even in the hardest of times.
“My mother may think she couldn't give us what other mothers give their children,” Nina said. “But my mom made good memories for us in bad situations. She gave us love. You can give your children toys and money, but when you give them love, only good memories are made.”
Nina believes “the power of being a mom” kept the family alive.
“My mother put our lives in the front of her mind and did what she had to do to keep us safe,” Nina said. “She spent most of her life protecting us.”
For Nina, the hardest years in Janesville came after she left Harrison Elementary School and entered middle school.
“I felt isolated at times because I did not have the things other students had,” Nina said. “Most of the things I had were from ECHO and the Salvation Army. The kids my age did not understand who I was. I did not have an accent, so no one knew I was a refugee.”
Today, Nina said her refugee background influenced her to become a registered nurse.
“This is my way of giving back,” she explained. “I know a lot of American soldiers were stationed in Bosnia to help. I feel in my heart I was meant to be their nurse. Becoming a Veterans Administration nurse truly was my calling.”
Nina feels blessed.
“There are a million reasons why,” she said. “But when it comes down to it, I feel so blessed to be where I am and to have the life I have. My family and I have built something for us and for the community from the ground up. We are driven by our experiences and our struggles.”
She said there are times when she “flips into normal American life, where you forget how good you have it and how lucky you are.”
“Then I think about other people who are struggling,” Nina said. “I remind myself to be thankful for what I have.”
Both Nina and Marija became U.S. citizens.
“Because I feel I belong here,” Marija said.
She has no desire to return to Bosnia.
“I wouldn't change anything from the first day when I came to Janesville,” Marija said. “I know this is my home. I know people love me.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.