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Once a refugee, forever wary

South Boston News
Svetlana Durkovic, center, with Halifax attorneys Alan and Carol Gravitt, members of Durkovic’s “second family.” The Maryland artist and former Yugoslav refugee who graduated from Halifax County High School in 1992 visited The Prizery this weekend for an exhibit with her partner, Alma Selimovic. / February 06, 2017
Svetlana Durkovic has seen this moment before.

As a high school student, she watched from afar as conflict spread among her nation’s ethnic factions, leading her and untold others to fear not only for the future of their nation but for the safety of their families.

Durkovic, an artist, avoided the ravages of war in the protective embrace of the United States. Now in her 40s, Durkovic can look back to that time when she was a political refugee and asylum-seeker and draw parallels to what others in the world living in war-torn areas must be feeling — and asking themselves — as they look toward America for refuge.

Durkovic fled the Balkans War and the carnage of Sarajevo, scene of a four-year military siege that destroyed her home city and likely hastened the death of her father at age 59. In April 1992, fighting broke out in the streets of the Yugoslav capital as the once-peaceful Eastern European country exploded in fighting among Serbian, Croat and Bosnian factions.

But Durkovic was safe from the violence. As war broke out at home, she was in the U.S., preparing to graduate from Halifax County High School as a foreign exchange student living with the Halifax family of local attorneys Carol and Alan Gravitt.

This weekend Durkovic was back in town, exhibiting art at The Prizery with fellow artist and spouse Alma Selimovic. A permanent legal resident living in Maryland and applying to become an American citizen, she keeps tracks of news out of nearby Washington, D.C., and is consumed by trepidation.

And a sense of déjà vu.

“Our history in Yugoslavia shows we had leaders that no one believed would be elected, and no one believed there would be a war,” said Durkovic. “So to believe that all of this [in America] will blow over is not right.”

When she first came to America in 1991 to attend HCHS, the plan was to soak up the experience of studying abroad, finish up her senior year in high school and gain her diploma.

“I was only supposed to be in the U.S. for a few months, go to high school and then go home,” Durkovic said.

It didn’t turn out that way.

Her hometown of Sarajevo was famously a city of multiethnic harmony during its turn as host city of the 1984 Winter Olympics. But beneath the surface, Yugoslavia was a country roiling with tensions that burst out into the open years after the death of its authoritarian leader, Marshal Tito, in 1980.

Men whose names are condemned to history’s roll call of war criminals — Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Miadic — seized power in Tito’s wake, inciting murder and mass rape as rival factions of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims tore the nation apart. Postwar Europe, a political entity shaped by the slaughter of two World Wars, watched with horror as warfare returned to its soil.

A teenager at the time, Durkovic was horrified too. The Yugoslavia in her conception was a big-hearted country.

“Both my parents were refugees during World War II,” said Durkovic of her mother and father, of Macedonian and Montenegrin descent. “My grandparents were refugees during World War II, where they were exiled from Greece, their home country. And my great-grandparents very likely could have been refugees.”

Looking back at that family history, Durkovic said she admired Yugoslavia for offering a home so that her parents and grandparents could survive.

Her former homeland turned into a dark place when a power vacuum ensued with Tito’s death and rival factions, stoking nationalist sentiment, pitted neighbor against neighbor.

“People always talk about the war in Yugoslavia as an ethnic war, but that’s not how it started,” Durkovic said. “It began when our President for life [Tito] passed away and did not replace himself. So all of a sudden you had these republic presidents vying for power and resources.

“Their rhetoric was trying to keep people scared,” Durkovic continued. “We had media and politicians play a huge role in inducing fear for 10 years, feeding people fear tactics by telling them others with different religions and ethnicities are the enemy. And when the match was ignited and war started, people filtered off to the group that they thought they belonged to because of their fear of difference.

“So all the factors that went to the war in Yugoslavia, it was not something that happened overnight. For all the blind people, they never saw it coming. For anyone who was seeing things for what they were, they could literally look back and see how it all built to that point. And when it hit, it was too late.”


Looking back at her time in Halifax, Durkovic knows what would have happened to her if, as a 17-year-old, she had been stuck back in Yugoslavia.

“My options would have been to join the war or end up somewhere with family members outside of the war zone,” explained Durkovic. “Those are your options. The option of returning home and having a normal life? That option is gone. People leave a lot behind when they are forced to turn their back on their land, and they’re just thankful they and their family can be alive.”

Durkovic became a foreign exchange student not imagining she would be unable to go home after finishing up her senior year in the U.S. She knew about the political tensions in Yugoslavia and was aware of secessionist movements in its ethnic republics and the rise of ultranationalist sentiment in dominant Serbia.

“But I never thought it would go further than that,” she added. “Nobody ever believed there would be war.”

Around Christmas 1991, the midpoint of her senior year at HCHS, Durkovic briefly lost contact with her family. The Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of warfare, would begin some four months later in April. Her last contact with her family in Sarajevo took place April 23,1992.

It would be years before she saw her parents again. In 1995, she and other family members met in Africa for a long-postponed reunion. Her father, who was diabetic and had difficulty obtaining medicine during the siege, died of throat cancer a mere one day after seeing his daughter for the first time in four years.

Living with the Gravitts — her second family, Durkovic notes — lent some semblance of normalcy to her teenage existence. But the dissonance of carrying on life as a 17-year-girl advancing through her final year of high school while coming to terms with her developing status as a political refugee made for a strange time.

The emotions came to a head at her senior prom, of all places.

Checking in first thing that night at the registration table, “a person asked me, ‘Hi, how are you? How are your parents?’” Durkovic recalled. “[The girl at the table] knew that the lines had been cut. It had been three weeks since I heard from them. She said, ‘I’m sorry.’” Durkovic left before her Prom Night even began. “From that moment I knew I was done.

“It was like living two lives,” she says now of her senior year living with the Gravitts. “I think I took more interest in their family tree than their own kids did …. But on the other hand, I had this other life that I was connected to [back in Sarajevo]. The worst part for me was feeling like my whole life is a lie. You don’t have any information, you don’t know if your people are alive.” Cut off from home and family, she was rootless, adrift. “Once you lose your country, it’s like you’ve lost your planet.”

All and all, Durkovic looks back fondly at her experience in Halifax, although her assimilation into the community went only so far despite the friendly reception she received.

“At home [in Yugoslovia], you have this very tall wall, but when you get over it, you’re over it, and people stay connected,” she said, comparing the sense of community in Sarajevo and Halifax. “Here it was more like a short wall, and it doesn’t take much to jump over that short wall. But you may not jump over the next wall.” Yet she also was taken with the natural beauty of the place, so “green and lots of space. I don’t know why anyone would want to leave Halifax.”


Yet after graduating from HCHS, that’s exactly the predicament that Durkovic faced.

Her study visa ran out in June 1992. But she couldn’t go back home to the slaughter in Sarajevo. Some time later, she would learn that her mother, a surgical abdominal nurse, routinely had to dodge sniper fire from Bosnian Serb forces encamped in the mountains that ring Sarajevo. Her family isn’t Muslim, the targeted ethnic majority of Sarajevo, but that identity hardly mattered as bullets rained down from the countryside.

With her time in the U.S. drawing to a close, the Gravitts stepped in to help.

“I think I was extremely fortunate to land in a family that felt like a family to me,” said Durkovic. “They went way and beyond anything I think a parent would do to aid and assist me in a situation I don’t think even they understood.”

Being the surrogate child of two lawyers helped. But her quest to gain asylum as a political refugee brought the family into contact with an immigration system that Alan Gravitt calls “the worst bureaucracy that I’ve ever dealt with.

“Going to the DMV is a great experience compared to INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service],” he recalled.

Perhaps the most surreal experience of the immigration process came when the Gravitts drove Durkovic to Washington to fill out paperwork with the process of applying for temporary protected status (TPS). Presented with a fee to pay, the Gravitts asked to write a check, and were told no. Alan Gravitt said he then offered to pay cash, and was again told no. Only a certified check would suffice.

“The United States will not take cash to pay the fee that you have to pay to get the card that you need,” he said, still taken aback by the experience two decades later.

Ultimately, Durkovic was able to gain refugee status, and she enrolled at nearby Longwood College in Farmville that year. Durkovic earned her bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Longwood in 1996, with some of her undergraduate experience spent studying in Kenya. She then went on to University of Chicago, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, and earned a master’s degree in social sciences in 1998.

After leaving Halifax County, she would occasionally receive reminders — and encouragement — from the folks back at her adoptive home.

As she headed to Longwood after high school, the community rallied to her cause, raising money to help pay her college expenses. One of the donors, West Wooding of Halifax, endeavored to stay in touch with Durkovic over the years. As she was going through college and graduate school, she said, Wooding would send her small amounts of money to help her along the way.

“He would send cards and postcards, for all the holidays, and he even sent them to Kenya, where I was studying abroad,” she said. “He was like a father figure. I remember asking him, ‘Why have you helped me all these years?’

“He told me I was an investment. He said, ‘I’m doing this because if my child was stranded anywhere, I would hope that your father would help her and not turn his head away.’ What if he had turned his head away, or what if all the people turned their head away?”

“We always prided ourselves in taking care of people in the best way we are able,” she said, adding mournfully, “and now that’s gone.”


Durkovic has experienced her various trials and tribulations with the immigration system, and currently holds permanent legal residency in the U.S., giving her the right to work and pay taxes, but not vote. Her partner, Selimovic, went through the process of becoming an American citizen last year. Durkovic applied for citizenship in the waning months of the Obama Administration, and she does not know whether her request will go through under President Trump.

She is appalled by the new administration’s executive order banning travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries and its halt on refugees from war-torn Syria seeking asylum in the U.S. Over the weekend, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that blocks Trump’s executive order. That initial stay was handed down in Washington state by U.S. District Judge James Robart, a George W. Bush appointee.

“When a country is privileged and has more than others, they help those who are in need, especially during a time of war, when they have no desire to leave their home but are forced to,” said Durkovic. “When you have more, you help those that have lost everything.

“And here we are in this situation with the United States.”

Historically, the U.S. has provided safe haven for political refugees and funded international aid efforts in war-torn nations. By opening its doors to outsiders, Durkovic said, America has enhanced its image around the world and drawn strength from newcomers who come to the U.S. to make new lives for themselves and their families.

She was shocked when a five-year-old boy of Iranian descent was detained — reportedly in handcuffs — for four hours at Dulles International Airport. The child is an American citizen and Maryland resident.

“He was handcuffed for hours because his mother was Iranian,” said Durkovic. “If you are doing this to natural-born citizens because of their name or their religion, you are practicing hate crimes and discrimination. So when you have this unrealistic fear, where does it stop? And will it stop?

“When you are a political leader of a nation and have the privileged position of having goods and resources, of having money, of having a good economy, of having so much, there is a responsibility that comes with that power. But we don’t see anyone taking care of that responsibility. All we see is fear.”

As a teenager living in Sarajevo, Durkovic saw what could happen as nationalist sentiment was stoked by the country’s leaders. “Oh, we had, like, 10 Donald Trumps at home.

“As a superpower and as one of the most powerful countries in the world, this is not how you act,” she argued. “By dismissing refugees, you are losing your spot as global leader, because you are not being a team player. You cannot isolate yourself from the rest of the world by closing your borders and building a wall. You’re not connected to anything or anybody else, so you are stepping out of that role as a global leader.

“You’re taking a back seat when it comes to being a global player. The world cannot rely on the United States anymore, and that’s the message we’re relaying to the rest of the world through this ban.”

Aside from her career as an artist — she helps to produce much of the fine glass and metalwork that Selimovic displays for exhibition and sale — Durkovic is an activist in the LGBTIQ community, and in fact founded the first gay and lesbian rights organization in Bosnia while she was back in her home country in 2004. Despite fearing backlash from the new administration, she intends to keep pushing forward by promoting political activism and remembering to “hope for the best, and work for that hope.”

“I don’t wish it on anyone, the situation of war. Where your whole life is turned upside down …. To be placed in that situation, where you have totally lost all control of your life, it’s one of the most raw and horrible experiences life can offer. As a person who is well connected, you always know you can wiggle something around. But these are the moments where nothing will come. You are one second too short.

“It is these moments that are being experienced by millions of people every second of the day on the planet. It’s heartbreaking to know we have this frivolous country, and despite this, we turn them away because our leader believes they are all terrorists.

“But how can you resolve the issue of terrorism by terrorizing people?”

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People forget that we were there defending Muslims, who repaid us in 93 with the first WTC bombing, the bombing of the USS Cole and finally bringing down the WTC in 2001. It does not say if she is a muslim or not so I guess Tom wants us to forget about that part of the war. The president needs to be able to control the boarders, for all you people that don't realize it we have a muslim compound next county over that is on the FBI an DHS watch list, drive by it sometime, high fences with cameras in Redhouse! Sorry this story does not change my mind. I would suggest that we stop all immigration for 90 days to see who the hell we got in this country!


" Her family isn’t Muslim, the targeted ethnic majority of Sarajevo, but that identity hardly mattered as bullets rained down from the countryside."

States right there that she is not a Muslim.

No Christian could ever turn away a fellow man that needs true help.


This is an excellent article. This young lady has so much of importance to say; if people would just listen without turning it into a political argument. What an amazing, inspiring story. Very well written Emily Jones and News and Record Staff!!


Excellent article.
Local philanthropist James Chastain, my cousin, descended from French Huguenot refugees who were sheltered and welcomed by earlier settlers in 1700s Virginia. How can we turn our backs on those in similar need today?


Wow! What a well written article and way to go Emily for sharing a local angle on such a timely national story. Thank you for the in depth piece!


This was very well written. Please try to share this with a larger audience...national media outlets. This message needs to be heard throughout the country!

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