By Nat Frothingham
On Thursday, June 24, Amira Drljacic will reach a personal milestone. On that day she will celebrate the 20th anniversary of being hired as housekeeper at the Gary Residence in Montpelier.
In sharing her story, Amira began by talking about her family. Then she talked about the outbreak of the Bosnian War when she was forced to leave her home in Bosnia and take refuge in Croatia. Years later, after the war ended, she and her family were able to come to America and Vermont.
Amira began by speaking about her mother and father.
“My parents were wonderful. They had four children. I am the youngest and I was born on August 27, 1969 in Bosanski, Samac, Bosnia,” she said. Then she spoke about her husband and children:
“My husband’s name is Sead. My son’s name is Samir and my daughter’s name is Samira. Samir is the youngest. He is a senior who is studying computer science at Norwich. My daughter is in Bend, Oregon. She is working at a bank. She is getting married in August.”
When asked about her childhood and growing up, Amira remembered the summer nights. Every night we played outside. “Samac is on two rivers,” she said. “It’s really small — like Montpelier. Every night we played outside. When it was summertime, we went camping.”
Amira’s face lit up with happiness as she remembered a moment in high school when she first encountered Sead, the man who became her future husband. “Actually, I knew his father — he’s from the same town.” Then, recalling the moment, she said, “I caught his eye when I was just in high school — and we are still — 32 years — together.”
Soon our conversation moved to the Bosnian war, and Amira talked deliberately.
“The war started on April 17,1992. I was pregnant with my first child. That child was born on July 12,1992. When the war started, one day before the war started — my sister came and took me away — to Croatia, by car.” Croatia, one of the six Balkan republics, shares a border with neighboring Bosnia from the north, west, and south.
It was Amira herself, in a moment of inspiration and total clarity who spoke about building a peace. “Before the war,” Amira said, “we were together — everybody. I didn’t have a problem with someone’s religion. Everybody was together.”
On March 31, 1995, the Bosnian War ended. When in later years, two Balkan scholars — Christopher Civiic and Peter Sanfey — finally assessed the huge costs of the Bosnian War, they wrote that in “material devastation and human suffering, the war’s many impacts had rivaled the worst of what had been experienced in World War II.” They estimated 100,000 people killed and more than “2 million rendered homeless.”
Amira, Sead, and their little daughter Samira were just three people out of the more than 2 million left homeless by the war. Sead’s mother and sister — and another sister with two children — were living in a concentration camp. But as time passed, family members found each other and were re-united.
“After eight months,” Amira said, “I was with my sister.” And then with the help of a refugee agency Amira and her husband were able to make a plan to come to America and Vermont with their daughter Samira and with Sead’s mother and father — five in all.
As Amira remembered their airplane journey from Croatia to America on May 9 , 1996, she seemed almost giddy with a general happiness mixed with anxiety and big expectations.
It was Amira’s first trip by plane and her memory of it was a little goofy. “I didn’t jump,” she said. Then she rattled off all the airport stops on the way to their new home in America: “Croatia to Vienna, Vienna to New York, New York to Boston, Boston to Burlington.”
When the plane made its approach to Burlington, Amira said, “Are we there?” Waiting to meet the plane was Amira’s sister-in-law, who had preceded her to America. As Amira landed, she was almost overcome with excitement: “A new country, new language, new culture — everything — Yeah, absolutely everything!”
“We were living on Barre Street at that time,” Amira said, remembering the people — complete strangers — bringing things. “We had no bed, no couch, no pots and pans — nothing.”
Amira started working at the Gary Residence on June 24, 2002 with a list of resident names to remember and a new language to learn. As housekeeper, Amira is responsible for keeping residents’ rooms both clean and in order, handling laundry, and taking care of all the common areas and common spaces. As she took hold at the Gary Residence, Amira was asked from time to time and then increasingly, to substitute in the kitchen when help was needed there.
“This morning, we had a Wednesday waffle,” Amira reported. “Last night, we had a Bosnian dinner for the first time. For dessert we had baklava. It’s made with walnuts and sugar — it’s a pastry. They have watched a movie about Bosnia. We had a really nice time. And Bosnian coffee? I make a coffee. They like it. I mean it’s a nice place.”
Speaking about herself, Amira said, “I like to help people. If I see you in the street and you need help, I’ll help you. That’s the person who I am.”
Amira’s warm and caring presence at the Gary Residence has not gone unnoticed. In a short follow-up conversation with Dawn Palowski, executive director of the Gary Residence, Dawn said “Housekeeper? She’s so much more. She’s a caregiver, a nurturer. There’s not a position here she can’t assist with. It’s her love of seniors. It’s her love of humanity, She is so worth it. She has such a gift for bringing people together. And the residents and employees know there is one person they can count on.”
Summing it up, as we ended our talk together, Amira said, “We’re one big family.
On September 26, 2017, Amira Drljacic was honored as “Outstanding Residential Care Housekeeper” for 2017 by the Vermont Health Care Association.