Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Slavko and Sonja Kobasijevic of West Valley City have lived in the U.S. for 11 years. They arrived here with $200.

WEST VALLEY CITY — Eleven years ago, Slavko Kobasijevic brought his wife and two young daughters to the United States.

Even though the war in Bosnia was over, their lives there would never be the same.

They arrived with $200, four bags of old, worn clothing and a few precious belongings.

"But more important than that — we brought our souls and our hearts," Slavko said.

Today, he and his wife, Sonja, will celebrate the Fourth of July like so many other Americans but perhaps with a greater sense of appreciation for what it means to live in America.

The Kobasijevic family lived in central Bosnia and have many happy memories of life there when President Josip Broz Tito was in power. Slavko described his country as a place built for the workers. Everyone had paid vacation; everyone had full insurance coverage at no cost. They lived in a world where everyone worked but still had time for their neighbors. Even after Tito's death, there was a period of peace, an uncertain peace that ended with war.

He said it was like many places in the world today, where one group wants to be in control but no one wants to be controlled.

Slavko was forced to fight in the army, on the frontlines. There were no more jobs and no other way to provide for a family. For each soldier, the military provided a small amount of food and four cigarettes a day. For Slavko, who is not a smoker, those cigarettes were "better than gold" because they could be traded for food.

He sold his and Sonja's wedding rings at a street market for 8 pounds of corn to feed his family.

But as hard as it was to be on the frontlines of the war, Slavko always understood it was harder for his family to wait for his return. He spoke softly of memories he carries still of his oldest daughter, Ivana, clinging to his leg and crying hysterically. She was 6 years old.

"I was so heartbroken to have to take my daughter from my leg and run down the stairs of our apartment," Slavko said.

Painful as it was, Slavko firmly believes that what is difficult today makes you stronger for tomorrow. After five years of war, he was able to return home for good. But it wasn't the same. Many of the people in their town had moved away during the war, and a lot of new people had moved in. Even though the fighting had ended, the lack of religious tolerance made it hard to know who was a friend and who was not.

Sonja's brother had come to the United States, and he asked them to join him. This sparked a series of major disagreements between Slavko and Sonja. He was on board immediately, Sonja was not. She says now that she had an idealist belief that her life would return to normal with the end of the war. The bad guys would be in jail, her friends would move back and life would go on.

At one point, Sonja refused to go and Slavko told his brother-in-law to send papers for him and his daughters. But a few days later, after a stern phone call from her brother, Sonja agreed.

When they arrived in Salt Lake City, their first apartment was small, dirty and smelly. Sonja's family was appalled, but it was all she and Slavko could afford. He made a deal with the landlord — if he provided the materials, then he and Sonja would clean the place up, free. He painted and replaced the carpets. She cleaned the apartment until it was sparkling and shining again.

Slavko got his present job at Palmer Building Co. in much the same way — he told his boss that he would work for a week, again for free. If they liked him, he could stay. And 10 years later, he is still there. This experience was one of the most touching to Slavko.

"They gave me the opportunity to be a human being again," he said.

The one thing that gave him and Sonja the greatest challenge on their arrival to the U. S. was the language barrier. Sonja and their youngest daughter Nada spoke no English at all. Ivana knew three words — yes, no and OK. Slavko knew a few more, mostly from books and movies. He missed a job opportunity once because he didn't know the language well.

"In my very heavy accent, like a robot, I told the secretary, 'I need job.' She said 'OK,' and went about her work," Slavko said. "And then I said, 'I know pain.'" It was much later when he realized there is a difference between knowing pain and knowing how to paint. Ironically, it was this same company that hired him a year later after he offered to work for a free trial period, if they would just give him a chance.

Sonja had a similar experience, when she had been told to go home but return on Monday to fill out paperwork for a permanent position. She went home heartbroken, believing she had been fired, because the only words she understood were "go home." She took another job and later learned, when she ran into a former co-worker, that the "firing" was only her misunderstanding of the conversation. She then returned to the company she had worked for first.

Life is better now for the Kobasijevic family. They have passed their naturalization tests and are simply awaiting the official ceremony to make them U.S. citizens. Today, as they celebrate Independence Day, they are especially grateful to a country that gave them back their lives.

"In Bosnia, a bullet is worth 25 cents," Slavko said. "My neighbors didn't see that I fought for our country, only that I am a different religion. My life there was worth no more than that bullet. But here, I am worth a billion dollars."


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