Growing up in Bosnia amid war, genocide and poverty in the early 1990s, Vanja Pejic at times wondered if she'd finish elementary school, let alone ever attend college. Today, she's in her first year of UNC's doctoral program in School Psychology.
That she's come as far as she has since she and her family fled their home as war broke out in May 1992 is a tribute to their indomitable spirit, the value they place on education, some good fortune and the kindness of strangers.
Strangers like the soldier at a heavily armed military checkpoint who pretended to know 5-year-old Vanja and her Serb family as they tried to flee their hometown of Zavidovici, north of Sarajevo. The soldier convinced his commanding officer to let the family leave.
The next day they learned that their recently completed home on land the family had owned for generations had been burned to the ground. All they had with them were the few changes of clothes needed for what they thought would be a two-week absence.
Vanja, her parents, her brother and a grandmother and an aunt ended up in the city of Banja Luka, about an hour northwest of Sarajevo. A relative's friends offered to let them stay with another family of six in a one-room, 14-foot by 20-foot apartment. The apartment felt like a palace when the other family found other housing after a year.
"The entire country was in chaos," Pejic said. "There were no jobs, no electricity, no phones, few places to live and very little food. The Red Cross became our best friends."
"My brother and I would make a candy bar last a month," Pijic said. "Fresh fruit of any kind was a special treat. It would take three hours to eat a banana because you would savor every bite."
Pejic attended a nearby elementary school, where weekly "bomb trainings" taught students what to do when shelling became dangerous. The school would frequently close for a week or longer when fighting made it unsafe to attend.
"To this day I can't attend a parade because the fire engine sirens bring me right back," Pejic said in reference to the sirens that signaled the need to take shelter from artillery shells or bombs. And I hate listening to fireworks because in my head I hear the sounds of shelling."
After five years, even though their living conditions were improving and hostilities were winding down, Pejic's parents decided to seek a better life - and better education for their children.
Someone they didn't know would again help the Pejics. Sponsored by a church of complete strangers, the family was granted political asylum and in November 1997 moved to York, Pa. Vanja was 10.
Pejic said she struggled with adapting to her new life. She didn't speak English and was from a foreign country few of her classmates had heard of. She felt like an outsider and had no close friends. She learned English, but she rarely talked in school. She spoke to her parents about the possibility of returning to Bosnia.
Then in a seventh-grade social studies class, she gave a report about Bosnia and her life there that opened her peers' eyes. Word quickly spread throughout the school about her story, and the principal asked her to serve as the keynote speaker at the school's end-of-the-year awards assembly - a role normally filled by a paid motivational speaker.
"I told my story, but I turned it into a lesson on how we have so much more in life than we realize and that we take for granted," Pejic said. "When I finished, you could hear a pin drop in that gymnasium, except for people crying softly."
But something more profound took place later that day.
"A girl came up to me crying hysterically," Pejic said. "She told me that she had been planning to kill herself that night because of her terrible situation at home and in life but after hearing me speak she realized that her life wasn't really that bad and that she actually had a lot to live for."
Pejic decided that she had to stop feeling sorry for herself and wishing she could have had a better childhood.
"Hearing her say that made me realize that I was there for the right reason and the right time in Bosnia," Peijic said. "I knew that I needed to take this story and take this experience and its impact and try to help others as much as I possibly could."
Pejic has since told her story of perseverance and not taking what you have for granted during dozens of motivational speeches she's given at schools and churches, including some in South Africa during a study-abroad experience while earning her bachelor's degree from Temple University.
Along the way, she realized that becoming a school psychologist would put her in a position to continue to help students, especially those who might feel like outsiders who don't belong or feel they have much to live for.
- Gary Dutmers
Pejic is enjoying yet another "new" life at UNC, where in addition to starting her five-year doctoral program, she's a graduate assistant in the Center for International Education, where her duties include using her many experiences to organize cross-cultural events for members of the university community.