The word refugee has a number of connotations in today’s social climate.  Concerns about refugees from Syria have made the term politically polarizing.  With one group concerned about the security of the nations that takes them in, and the other concerned about the well-being of the refugees themselves, neither party is objectively wrong.  To be completely honest, I could argue points for either side, and although I’ve read articles, columns, and “think” pieces on the subject, I still felt like there was a portion of my understanding that was missing – so I went searching for someone who could help me appreciate the experiences of a refugee.  After a bit of digging, I got in touch with Selena Mrkonja.

Selena lives in San Diego and works as a personal trainer.  She splits her time between helping traditional clients reach their fitness goals at the gym and disguising exercise as play for children with Downs syndrome at the Arc of San Diego, a non-profit that provides assistance to people with special needs.  Before this line of work, she completed a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science, criminology and corrections at the University of Utah.  She’s a Marine Corps veteran who played an active role in the marketing that recently helped Vet TV raise $250,000 to launch their streaming veteran-based subscription service, and when she’s not doing all of that, she competes in fitness and figure competitions.  By all outward appearances, Selena is a poster child for the current generation of veterans: educated, strong, patriotic and ambitious.

She’s also a Bosnian refugee.

The Bosnian War, sometimes referred to as the Bosnian Conflict, shaped Selena’s childhood.  Her father was a Muslim and her mother was a Christian, which placed her family in a precarious position during the ethnically rooted fighting that erupted after the fall of Yugoslavia.  Her father was often gone for weeks at a time fighting on the front lines, leaving Selena, her mother, and her sister living in poverty in the basement of a building whose owners had evacuated.  They had no power, no running water, and often, no food.  They relied heavily on local ration centers for food and water, as well as air drops from NATO and American aid workers.