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Bosnian woman’s story serves as poignant reminder of refugee crises today

By Jayati Ramakrishnan

East Oregonian

Published on April 19, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on April 19, 2017 9:07PM

Selena Hutchins, a refugee of the Bosnian war, shares her story with students at Blue Mountain Community College Wednesday.

Staff photo by Jayati Ramakrishnan

Selena Hutchins, a refugee of the Bosnian war, shares her story with students at Blue Mountain Community College Wednesday.

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Selena Hutchins talks cheerfully about college, her drive down from Seattle and the job where she makes mobile games. But she still chokes up talking about the first few years of her life.

Hutchins came to the Blue Mountain Community College Hermiston campus Wednesday as part of BMCC’s Arts and Culture Week to talk to students about her escape from the Bosnian genocide.

She sets the stage with some basic facts about the Bosnian War, which happened at a time when many of her audience members were children, or not yet born. From March 1992 to December 1995, the war was the first genocide in Europe since World War II and killed between 25,000 and 329,000 people.

“That number is so disparate because it depends on who you ask,” Hutchins said. “Those who started it versus those who suffered from it.”

Every year, she said, the “official” number grows when more victims of the war are identified.

The purpose of the war, she said, was to create a country called Greater Serbia following the breakup of Yugoslavia. But some wanted only a Christian population, and so began the genocide of thousands of people, most of whom were Muslims.

Hutchins is from a town called Bijeljina, where the war started.

“They took over the radio and TV stations first,” Hutchins said. “So when they started killing people there was no way to report it.”

Hutchins talked matter-of-factly about her experiences to a silently engrossed audience, recalling the time her father spent as a soldier, as all men were required to do, how she slept in street clothes with her shoes right next to her bed, and the time her family spent in a refugee camp.

She noted that the camp where she stayed in Hungary is now being used to house Syrian refugees.

When the United States and Australia began accepting refugees, Hutchins’ family applied to come to both countries. Her mother, who had learned English in college, helped hundreds of others with their applications.

They got accepted to both, and her family chose to live in America. They moved to a small town outside Seattle, where it took her about two months to learn English.

The transition was difficult, Hutchins said.

Students asked her about her family and their ability to adjust to America.

“My mom already knew English,” Hutchins said. “My dad is not so good with languages. He got a manual labor job where he still works today. He could learn English at his own pace.” She laughs. “At first he learned mostly swear words.”

She acknowledged how hard it has been for her father, who still doesn’t talk about some of his experiences serving as a soldier.

She and her family have been back to Bosnia a few times. But increasingly, she said there is less to go back to. During and after the war, much of the country’s art and historical artifacts were destroyed. As they’ve built a life here, Hutchins said they have a harder time going to the country where their lives began.

“They know some things can’t be gotten back,” she said.

Returning has been difficult for her, as well. Hutchins’ hometown of Bijeljina is now technically within Serbian borders.

“I try not to harbor any anger that the people who cost me my home now own it,” she said.

“As a country, we have less and less to go back to,” she said. “But I don’t want anyone to have to go through that, to lose what they feel like should have been their story.”

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Contact Jayati Ramakrishnan at 541-564-4534 or jramakrishnan@eastoregonian.com.



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