It all began with a burst of machine gun fire.
Seventeen-year-old Bojan Rijic and his girlfriend walked into town for a night out in 1991. The sight of nationalist militias was not concerning, even though they marched around with automatic weapons through Slavonski Brod, a town in Croatia.
Rijic recalled, “You’re kind of thinking, ‘If they do anything, police are going to stop this. It’s just a bunch of idiots with guns.’”
Steaks were sizzling on grills, and people are sharing drinks and having a good time when suddenly, gunshots broke out somewhere close by.
“It was loud and my girlfriend decided to run home, so I went home too.”
The events that followed caused Rijic to lose his home in Yugoslavia. Eventually he was able to relocate to Canada, but once he arrived, he had trouble finding work.
These troubles, however, could not compare to those he faced during his teenage years.
It was during that time that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia ceased to exist. The Republic was an effort at a union between Serbians, Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes and others under the leadership of President Josip Broz Tito.
After Tito’s death, tensions between nationalists escalated and caused the six republics which made up Yugoslavia to declare independence. This resulted in a war in which thousands lost their lives and millions were left without a home.
Rijic was among those who where in diaspora. He was born to Serbian parents in a town bordering Bosnia and Croatia.
The towns shared infrastructure, having the hospital where he was born in Croatia, while he had his home in Bosnia. He remembers his childhood fondly.
“Those were the good days.”
He says these good days were numbered after the war hit home. He would later realize that his whole world would change.
That same night, Rijic’s aunt and uncle decided to stay at his house because they didn’t want to risk the short walk home. Rijic headed to bed soon after.
“I wake up to this really loud noise and asked my uncle, ‘What’s going on?’ He tells me it’s fireworks. I knew it wasn’t fireworks.”
Somebody had started to fire mortars from one side of town to the other near Rijic’s home. With nowhere safe to go, the family stayed inside their apartment building.
The sun was rising over the river the next morning.
“I looked out the window and I see these boats crossing from Croatia – full of soldiers – into Bosnia.”
The approaching Croatian troops came to fight against the Serbian militia.
Watching from the window of his third floor apartment, Rijic saw the military troops hit the ground and find cover in a park across the river.
“I can see them and I hear them yelling, ‘There is a sniper in that building!’”
The troops were pointing at Rijic’s building.
His father figured that there were three Serbian families on their side of the building.
His family was on the third floor while the other two families were on the seventh and ninth floors.
“Who is the sniper?” Rijic asked. “What are they talking about?”
“They’re gonna come in and rob the apartment but there really is no sniper. This is all part of their game to kick us out and take all of our shit,” Rijic’s father replied.
The next door neighbor who was Muslim also came to this conclusion and rushed to warn Rijic.
“He comes, knocks on our door and tells us to go into his apartment because no one is going to come in there.”
The militia raided the seventh floor but there was no one home.
Fearing persecution, the family began to plot an escape plan to find safety. Croatian control posts were everywhere so an escape was unlikely to happen.
Rijic wondered, “Are we gonna be able to get out?”
“My uncle knew one of the guys in the Croatian military that he was really good friends with. At that time they were already arresting Serbs and putting them in jails so it’s already scary.”
“My uncle calls [his] Croatian buddy, he comes [and] packs us in his car.”
Luckily, at the Croatian control posts, their friend was well known. They passed through with no suspicion.
Rijic, along with his parents and younger brother, got out of the car only once they made it to the Serbian safe zone.
“That was it, I never went back home.”
After a month of waiting, the war continued to get worse. The family decided to relocate to Belgrade, Serbia in 1993.
“That is where I stayed until I moved to Canada.”
During his time in Serbia, Rijic was not able to apply for citizenship. He lived as a refugee.
While this brought him advantages attending school since he would not get drafted to the Yugoslav Wars, he felt like he was treated as a second class citizen. Yet the time he spent in Belgrade left him with some of his greatest memories.
“Honestly, those were some of the best times.”
While studying sociology at the University of Belgrade, Rijic was employed at a bookstore.
“It was not like the Chapters here, the bookstore always had writers in.”
He can still recall all the knowledge he received from his time at the bookstore and considers it to have been one of his best jobs even though he was not making much money.
Then, in 1998, Rijic married his Croatian girlfriend who was also living as a refugee in Serbia.
Rijic didn’t feel fully at home in Belgrade and thought he was not going to feel welcomed in Bosnia or Croatia.
Rijic and his wife began their application to leave for Canada. In 1999, their application was approved and in 2001, they arrived in Halifax.
With expectations of continuing his career as an electrical technician, he looked for ways to make that happen in a foreign country.
“When I interviewed to come to Canada they told me, ‘Oh you’re an electrical technician. You’re gonna get a job, no problem.’ So you get here and they say, ‘Oh wait your English is not enough.’”
This disappointment caused Rijic’s wife to return to Serbia.
“She left after six months. It was hard.”
After some research, he realized that no one was going to hire him based on his credentials.
“So what’s the next step? You need to get Canadian credentials. Alright so let’s go to college. Well yeah, but you don’t know English. So you need to go back to ESL school and that was brutal. I think I moved one grade in one full year.”
“I was just angry at the situation, you know, the inequality. That feeling that I’m below or second class to everyone.” – Bojan Rijic
“Not everyone took that long though,” he joked. “I mean not young people, but for me, I still can’t even speak English.”
One of his teachers, Judy Mcintyre, saw promise in Rijic and didn’t want to see him waste his time or talent. She went to the dean at the college and set up a meeting to vouch for Rijic and two other foreign classmates.
“So she said to him, ‘They know the material, they just can’t speak the best English. Just give them three months and you’ll be surprised.’”
Rijic and his colleagues were granted entry into the Nova Scotia Community College. Among them a fellow Serbian, Radomir Malencic.
Rijic remembers struggling at the beginning of his college education. He pushed himself to finish his schooling and ended up excelling through it.
“We finished with honours,” Rijic reflected on his and Malencic’s experience.
Then they started looking for jobs in Halifax.
Malencic was able to find steady work with telecom company Eastlink in Halifax while Rijic found a part-time, minimum wage job with technology company International Rectifier.
He was not offered a permanent position and was let go after three months. He then found work with Nova Scotia Power, but was let go shortly after.
“You start thinking, ‘Wait a minute … All the people from our school that got jobs already had some connections. They were from there.’ And I’m not saying they hired them over me, it was more of a network that they had and I didn’t. That kind of created a little more anger in me.”
In early 2004, Rijic moved to Red Deer, Alta to find work.
“So when I came here to Alberta, that anger was to prove to the world that I don’t care what it is, but I’m gonna prove to you that I can do it. And I sometimes feel bad about it because no one meant to treat me wrong,” Rijic said.
“I was just angry at the situation, you know, the inequality. That feeling that I’m below or second class to everyone.”
He believes that this is not just a Canadian issue.
“I was in Serbia for eight years as a refugee and I never could be the same as a Serbian dude. They treated me as an outsider. But now I think, ‘Was it all in my head? Did people really treat me like that?’”
Although Rijic was frustrated by the treatment, he managed to become a success.
He has found work with oil field service Halliburton since moving from Red Deer.
He started out as a computer technician and moved his way up to area maintenance manager. He now lives in Calgary with his wife whom he met in Halifax. They have two children together.
“When I think about how I got all that energy to get where I am, it was that anger to prove that, not that I’m better, but at least that I’m the same as you.”
Editor: Abby LaRocque | firstname.lastname@example.org