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Coming To America: A Bosnian Refugee Empowered

Natalie (left), an immigrant from Bosnia-Herzegovina, poses with her brother in Seattle in 2001.
The time seems ripe for immigration reform in the United States, with debate centering on how to deal with the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Reform has become a priority following the November presidential election, in part because both the Democratic and Republican parties see the potential for future votes. The majority of illegals living in the United States are Latin Americans, a voting bloc that has the potential to swing elections. But there are smaller groupings of undocumented immigrants as well, including some 50,000 from the former Soviet Union.

"Earned citizenship," border protection, and finding ways to attract low-skilled workers to take the legal route to immigration are among the details being ironed out -- and decision-time is nearing. April is seen as a key month for the reforms, with different legislation proposals in the works, and there is optimism that a deal could be agreed to by summer.

NEW YORK -- Bosnian refugee Natalie, 40, has painful memories of the war. Not just of witnessing the destruction and grief around her, but also, as a child of a Bosnian Serb father and Croatian mother, of suffering discrimination due to her mixed heritage.

Natalie, which is not her real name, says she had no qualms when she left her homeland in 1993.

"During the war, at least in my case, I got disappointed in the people who live in my country. Before war everything was like America. You're American, just be happy you have a job, you go to work. You're thinking how you will meet with your family and friends, not about who is which nationality," Natalie says.

"Imagine if here people would be asking, 'Well what's your ethnic background?' and you have to remember if you're Irish or you're Scottish, or whatever. So [heritage] was not important. And suddenly it became so important," she continues.

"So everything we believed in -- for, in my life 20 years -- suddenly became unimportant. And not only unimportant, it became [a threat]. If you are, as I said, from a mixed marriage, they would want to make you into soap. That was a noose [around our necks]."

Five Years To Adapt

Natalie first moved to Serbia and then to Croatia, where she earned a law degree. Around the same time, the United States began accepting refugees from the former Yugoslavia who had mixed heritage. The authorities realized, she says, "that we had nowhere to go."

Natalie says for children of mixed marriages their heritage became a "noose" around their necks.
Natalie says for children of mixed marriages their heritage became a "noose" around their necks.
Natalie's brother, who is three years younger than her, had moved to the state of Washington the year before. Natalie flew to Seattle to live with him.

"When you come somewhere, even if you just go for work, even more if you are [a] refugee, you are in some kind of state of shock, it's almost like a culture shock -- which, actually, it is. It lasts approximately four to five years, and every single immigrant in [the] U.S., from doctor to cab driver, will tell you the same thing -- it takes five years to adapt," Natalie explains.

"And that's exactly how it is. The first year is usually amazing. The second year you become a little bit delusional -- [it's like] you are not sure what's happening around you. The third year you are depressed. The fourth year you are getting out of depression. And the fifth year you become an American."

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'You Become Humble'

Natalie got a job just a month after arriving. She worked in retail at a large department store. She says she is eternally grateful for that job, both for the money it provided and the perspective it gave her.

"To meet average American [people], you can learn a lot, because you are becoming part of society, you are learning about different cultures. But at the same time it's not easy if you are fresh out of law school, to have to clean a four [foot (1.2 meter)] by four [foot] sitting room full of 20 or 30 prom dresses that somebody just came and tried and threw away -- [someone] who is 16 years old," Natalie recalls.

"And [it's] like that for two or three months, or something similar. It's not easy. You become humble -- being [a] refugee or being [an] immigrant -- you become humble. And that's, I think, the best thing that can happen to any human -- to become humble."

After working at a department store for two years she moved to a number of different jobs. She was a bank teller, and later the assistant manager of a large independent grocery store. After three years she went to graduate school to earn a master's degree.

While working on her thesis she married a man from Istanbul and, after becoming pregnant, decided to leave the workforce. Natalie is now a stay-at-home mom with two young boys.

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Natalie and her husband moved to Turkey for nearly three years to help care for his ailing father, and only recently returned to Seattle. Natalie said while they loved living in Istanbul, they longed for the United States.

"It's not easy to leave Istanbul because it's so special. But at the same time I was coming home I was coming back to [the] U.S. Because wherever you live after America, it's very hard to adapt," she says.