Hamdija is a happy man these days. He speaks proudly of his two sons who have graduated from college and are working in their professional fields of choice.
“They are good boys,” he says through his translator, friend, and community support worker, Ron Klutho, of the Faith Team at Places for People.
Hamdija is also a proud new United States citizen, having recently passed the citizenship test.
“I am grateful to America for giving me life and a chance for freedom,” he says, acknowledging some initial doubt about whether he would pass the test. But it’s a small accomplishment for a man who has overcome much greater obstacles.
Fourteen years ago, Hamdija, a native of Zepa, Bosnia, came to St. Louis directly from a concentration camp in Serbia. Prior to release, Hamdija had been held there for six months, separated from his family, and tortured.
“I thought I would be killed. I thought we would all be killed.”
With help from the American Red Cross, in January of 1996, Hamdija and 10 other Bosnian men were brought to St. Louis, which has the largest non-native population of Bosnians in the world—over 80,000 people. The International Institute helped him connect with his family—who did not know his fate—and bring them overseas, as well, a year-and-a-half after Hamdija arrived.
However, even with this new freedom and his family around him, Hamdija had some significant challenges to overcome. He did not speak the language. He wanted to work, and when he arrived in 1996, work was plentiful. But as the economy soured, opportunities for a carpenter were increasingly rare.
On top of that, Hamdija frequently relived his days in the concentration camp in recurring nightmares, a common experience among people who have survived torture. These nightmares were what drove Hamdija to seek help.
The Faith Team provides an array of services to people who have survived state-sanctioned torture and war trauma, explains Klutho. Through individualized treatment plans, clients are connected as needed with immigration lawyers, therapists, physicians, psychiatrists, vocational resources, and housing.
In Hamdija’s case, he was connected to a doctor who prescribed medication to ease the nightmares. He was also supported in his decision to pursue citizenship—with the Faith Team linking him to a private tutor and a volunteer citizenship preparation group. Hamdija studied for three months to improve his confidence in English and prepare for the civics portion of the test.
“I’m an American now,” Hamdija says proudly when asked about his future plans. “I don’t want to go anywhere else. I can go back to Bosnia now, but I don’t want to leave here.”
Having come so far, and made a new life in a new land, that makes perfect sense.
Places for People's web video series, "Changing Perspectives: Stories of Hope, Health and Recovery," provides a look into the lives of people living with mental illness and the people who have dedicated their careers to help.
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