by Maria Kristic
“Where are the weapons, little girl?” the soldier asked me. We were at a Serb-controlled checkpoint on our way out of Bosnia in late 1993. I had been born three months premature nearly five years prior and had been diagnosed, after many doctor visits with my parents, as being in the final stage of retinopathy of prematurity, resulting in total blindness. My parents and I had previously traveled to Boston four times since for unsuccessful surgeries and their required follow-ups, but that had stopped two years prior, in 1991, after war had broken out. Now, we were finally able to visit my ophthalmologist again, this time with my nearly seven-year-old brother also traveling with us. First, however, we had to be able to get out of the country, whether that meant crossing areas where snipers were waiting in the hills to fire upon oncoming vehicles or navigating checkpoints such as these, where my father’s service for a Croat military unit (as that was our ethnicity) raised suspicions and where my brother’s answer to the question of “Do you have guns?”, answered with the innocence of a child as “In the back” as he thought the question referred to toy guns, could be the difference between life and death in a climate of war in which our shared humanity is all too often forgotten. While I do have scattered childhood memories from this time, such as climbing the ladder down to crowd into our underground basement each night in case a bomb should hit our house, I do not remember how or if I answered the question when the soldier turned to me. I do remember the soldier’s threats, my father being taken away to be interrogated, and needing to empty the contents of our luggage onto the street. Fortunately, a friend who had connections on both sides had offered to travel with us to the border in case we experienced trouble. He was able to negotiate our release from that checkpoint, and we pressed on. In Serbia, it turned out that one of the high-ranking military officials we encountered had been my father’s college professor, and he provided a letter which guaranteed us safe passage on medical grounds. Fortunately, some still do the right thing even in war. My mother has shared with me the indescribable sense of relief she felt in that moment! Permission in hand, we were able to cross Serbia, travel to Budapest, Hungary, onto Zagreb, Croatia, and from there, onto a flight to New York.
Despite our harrowing journey out, life had still been relatively good for my family in our hometown, located about 10 miles from Sarajevo, and we boarded that flight with return tickets in hand. However, as we were preparing to return, the acquaintance with whom we were staying made a suggestion which would alter the course of our lives. She suggested my parents consider the country to which they would be returning, the lack of resources for those who are blind, especially during wartime, the kind of life I would be able to lead. Realizing that she was right, my parents made the difficult decision to leave behind all they had known and build a new life in the United States. We didn’t speak English. We didn’t know anyone. We hardly had any money, not having planned to stay long-term. We were not classified as refugees, so we would be on our own.
Through connections at the Croatian church, we ended up spending our first six grueling months at a mansion in upstate New York, where my father managed the grounds and my mother managed the house. They received no pay. We were not allowed to meet other people or to have visitors. My father was required to work 18 hours a day. We had two hours of free time per week. We had to speak in whispers. I can still remember the rotary phone ringing for my parents to be warned that I should not be jumping around and making too much noise. The owners of the estate attempted to emotionally blackmail my parents by telling them that the only way I would be educated would be for them to hire a teacher for the blind to come from New York City. In short, our start was extraordinarily difficult.
Through my brother initially requiring an interpreter after starting school, we thankfully met some Croatian-speaking individuals in the community who gave us a car, found us a nearby house, which was in need of much work to make it habitable and on which my father secretly worked at night, and finally helped us to literally escape to said house one day when the owners were away on business. When we arrived, I remember my brother and I screaming, “We are free!” I remember the trucks full of trash which these kind souls and their friends helped us remove from the property, yet it was paradise because we could begin to determine our own destiny. One of these individuals continues to be an especially close family friend today. Because of them and others whom we met along the way, my parents, who were not able to work in their prior fields due to the language barrier, started with intermittent work but eventually gained stable employment painting and cleaning at a local college, from which they retired in 2019. Several years after moving into the house, when a bank informed us that the house was being foreclosed because the owner had not been paying the mortgage, even though this owner had been charging us rent, that bank, recognizing the amount of work my parents had put into the property and wanting to close the account, offered the house to my parents for a third of its value. It would have seemed unthinkable when we first arrived, but in 1997, my parents became homeowners in this country, and today, that house is worth nearly five times its 1997 value and unrecognizable from how it looked then because of all the hard work my parents have put into it.
My own journey amid this background would not have been successful without my family’s strength and the support of many in the face of discouragement. I was the first blind student in my school district. Thankfully, although administrators generally did not know what to do with me, my teacher of the visually impaired was low vision and could thus serve as a role model. Because of her, I was blessed to have learned Braille, some independent living skills, and to have gotten initial exposure to guide dogs. When district administrators decided that I did not need to learn how to type on a computer keyboard, my Braillist took it upon herself to teach me. When I struggled with American cultural references and with English spelling, these women gave me support. I still keep in touch with them today. When the school district refused to purchase up-to-date assistive technology for me, my parents were able to arrange loans through their jobs to make the purchases. I still remember the first time I used the Internet independently, on a notetaker in 2003 at the age of 14, using a dial-up connection, followed in 2005 by teaching myself to use Windows and a screen reader on a broadband connection. When administrators and vocational rehabilitation counselors doubted my ability to take advanced placement STEM classes, teachers stepped in to make sure I had a chance, such as my physics teacher who drew circuit diagrams on paper using a screwdriver. Disability services staff and many supportive professors were instrumental in my schooling, and it was because of one of these professors that I obtained my current job.
My immigration status receded into the background of my experience as time went on. My blindness assumed a more central role as I went onto college and graduate school, earning my JD/MBA, completing internships, gaining employment in my current role in the municipal bond industry, and participating in various volunteer roles. Still, the fact that I am an immigrant has been ever present. Only in 2009, after outreach to the White House in an attempt to speed up the processing of our case, did we become U.S. citizens, 16 years after arriving! I have gone back to visit family in both Bosnia and Croatia several times since 1993. I am proud to have grown up with two cultures, especially now as I see my niece understanding Croatian.
November 2023 marks 30 years since my family and I stepped foot in America! It has been an unexpected journey but one which has taught me the importance of family, the value of a support network, and the gift of inner strength. Through the highs and lows, it has been a journey for which I have been grateful.