- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

WAYNESBURG, Pa. (AP) - Twenty-one years ago, three little girls were playing outside on a bright sunny day when they heard a sound they had only been warned about. A siren wailed.

They knew this meant to run and seek cover. Inside the basement of their nearby apartment building, gathered along with family and neighbors, bombs, grenades and gunfire came from all directions. There would be no more playing outside, at least not there, not in the place they called home, Tesanj, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I remember the day the siren went off. It was super loud, like a big loudspeaker. There was not a single cloud in the sky. We just ran to our apartment building, and I heard a grenade go off. I was scared to death,” said Waynesburg Borough Police Officer Sanja Smailbegovic, 28. Adding to her fear each day after, Smailbegovic’s father, Zoran, would leave the apartment building as the war waged on.

“We were barricaded in for over a month in the basement,” Smailbegovic said. “My dad would go out and get what we needed. I was scared for him. The bombs were flying from both sides, and they didn’t care where they were going.”

Zoran worked as quickly as possible to purchase bus tickets for his family - Smailbegovic’s sister, Daniela, 6; Smailbegovic, 7; brother, Srdan “Serge,” 11, and their mother, Vesna -to escape to Croatia. Vesna had friends there. Zoran, a professor, came through but had to stay behind, taking any work he could find to save money and reunite with his family.

On the six-hour bus ride to Croatia, Smailbegovic, her mother and siblings had just six bags of clothing with them and nothing else.

It would be six months before Zoran joined them in Croatia, and then he left for Germany in search of work and to find a place for his family to live.

“After my dad went there he was struggling for like seven days without food or anything, trying to find a better opportunity for us. Eventually he found a job and one for my mother, and we joined him there,” she said. “We lived on a farm. My brother, sister and I loved our school there. We went horseback riding, and Serge played soccer. In Germany was the first time we owned a house. Life was amazing.”

Their happiness was cut short after just five years when the Dayton Agreements were signed to end the war. The German government began deporting the estimated 700,000 Bosnians who fled to the country. The war may have ended on paper, but the circumstances refugees faced if they returned were dire.

Zoran presented Vesna with two choices - go to Australia where he had friends or to the United States. Smailbegovic said her father hoped she’d choose Australia, but Vesna believed in the “American Dream.”

Zoran made contact with a friend living near Pittsburgh, and St. Sebastian’s Church in the North Hills agreed to sponsor the family’s move.

“We had just a couple of suitcases. We didn’t know anybody or where we were going,” she said.

The friend in Pittsburgh was supposed to pick them up at the airport and take them to his home. He didn’t show up.

“There were two nuns and all these other people standing there holding all of these different signs, (written) in Croatian, saying, ‘Smailbegovics, welcome to the United States and to Pittsburgh,’” she said. “Dad and mom were crying. They were so grateful. We had nobody here. All these people were saying we’ll help you, we’ve got a place for you.”

Smailbegovic was 14 years old. Fortunately, she and Daniela learned English in their German school, helping ease their transition.

Story Continues →