By Jessie Harris - 07/15/08 05:14 PM EDT
At 3 years old, Nastja Cigic and her family fled Derventa, Bosnia, escaping threats of concentration camps and genocide in 1992 during the Bosnian War. Among an estimated 800,000 refugees leaving the country, Cigic’s family moved to the German city of Stuttgart with hopes for a better life.
Cigic, now 19 and interning for Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), recounted her family’s story with great composure on a recent afternoon.
“It was a war over religion,” she explained of the fighting between ethnic groups during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. “My family did not belong anywhere.”
Cigic’s father is Serbian, her mother is Croatian and her grandmother is Muslim.
Cigic’s parents, both professionals in Bosnia, were forced to take lower-end jobs in Stuttgart. Her father, Miroslav, an economist, did construction work, and her mother, Vesna, a lawyer, cleaned hospitals. She said it was hard for immigrants to break into the professional world. Her father knew German already, but the rest of the family had a new language to learn.
“We lost everything” after the move to Germany, she said. “I felt picked up and dropped in the middle of things.”
Four years later, the family jumped at the opportunity to move to America and settled in Phoenix, where they learned their third language as well as some new customs. Because her parents’ professional degrees weren’t recognized in the states, her father became a nurse’s assistant and her mother is in the business world working with clothing designers.
But Cigic does not consider her trial-plagued upbringing to be disadvantageous. She says her experience has given her a different perspective from most.
“I have a different way of seeing things; my view tends to be more serious,” she says. She also said she appreciates the opportunity in America to climb the ladder to success.
Cigic, a sophomore at Arizona State University, has a double major of political science and global studies. She hopes her internship this summer for Mitchell will propel her to law school.
While she still holds Bosnia close to her heart, she says, “I feel very American.” She sees herself one day returning to her homeland to do humanitarian work.
“I don’t think I’d want to live there permanently, but I would like to help rebuild the country, and not just Bosnia. I have equal sympathy for Croatia,” she said.