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.
Selena spoke to me on the phone about her time in Bosnia before her family sought refuge in the United States, and how those experiences have shaped her life as an American. “I met a lot of American soldiers as a kid. One woman, a terp in the army, was so kind and strong when I met her… it really left a crazy impression on me,” Selena told me when I asked about her earliest impression of Americans.
That interpreter wasn’t the only American she recalled specifically; “My dad was a POW for a few months, but he was rescued by a team that had American Marines in it. One of those Marines taught me my first English words,” she recalled.
When Selena was twelve years old, her family volunteered for a US program that would aid Bosnian families that wanted to leave the war-torn nation and start a new life in the United States. The program offered to provide transportation, housing and assistance in seeking education and employment once in their new home. In return, her family would repay the cost of the assistance once established.
“My earliest experiences in America weren’t really positive. There were a lot of refugees staying in the same hotel in New York City and it was clear that they didn’t really want us there,” she explained, “but soon they relocated us to Chicago. We lived there for about a month.”
Selena’s father was a radiologist in Bosnia, but his qualifications weren’t sufficient to land the same job in the United States. After struggling for a short time in Chicago, Selena’s father used the money they had left from selling everything in their home country to repay the program that helped them come to the U.S. and move the family to Salt Lake City, where he took a job as a janitor at the school he began studying in.
“I would go to school during the day, then because I could speak more English than my dad could, I’d help him with his homework at night.” By the time Selena graduated from high school, her father had completed an American radiology program and was once again working in the medical field. Selena, on the other hand, chose to enlist into the Marine Corps.
“My family didn’t want me serving… they kept saying, ‘you already survived a war, why would you want to go back to that?’ but I knew it was the right thing for me and I had to pursue it.” She explained that meeting that female interpreter as a child in Bosnia had left a lasting impression, “I saw how strong she was, and I wanted to see that same strength in myself. I also loved the idea of doing what she did – helping people who couldn’t help themselves. There was no question that it would be the Marine Corps; I just always saw it as the toughest route.”
Because Selena had a green card, but was not an American citizen, her options for occupations were limited compared to most people who enlist. “I think to a certain extent people look down on you when you have a green card. They don’t know if you’ll follow through and earn your citizenship, or that you love this country, they just know you’re not from here.”
For Selena, her proudest moment was the day she became a Marine; “After I got my Eagle, Globe and Anchor, I always felt like any awards I got were just for doing what I was supposed to do – but the day I became a Marine was my proudest moment. My family… my dad, was super pissed I enlisted, but then as we marched out onto the parade deck, I spotted a tall Middle Eastern lookin’ dude and I thought, ‘Hey, that guy looks like my dad.’” Her entire family had traveled from Salt Lake City to watch her graduate from recruit training at Parris Island. “To see my family there and know they were proud of me was just huge.”
Today, most people who interact with Selena have no idea what her background is or how she came to live in the United States; “Most people don’t know I was a refugee or an immigrant, most people see me as an American and a veteran.”
Selena continues to strive to improve herself and her position in life, a commitment she credits her father and the Marines for instilling. “With everything my family’s been through and everything I did in the Marines, it takes a lot to get me to my breaking point. You can haze me all day – my threshold for tolerating pain and struggle is really high.”
Selena’s general demeanor on the phone reflected the dichotomy of her experiences in a way that I’ve struggled to qualify. She’s pleasant, quick-witted and charming, but with an edge that indicates her underlying strength and defensive nature. Like a cobra in a sundress, she mixes pretty with powerful, and doesn’t seem interested in whether or not you like it. When I asked her to tell me something personal about herself to help readers better appreciate who she is as a person, she quickly responded, “I love chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, my coffee black, and my whiskey neat.”
Selena sees America as her home, though she maintains close ties with her family who remain in Bosnia. In her mind, serving in the American armed forces was one small way to repay her adopted nation for the life she’s gotten to lead since arriving here years ago. “I’m just so grateful for all of the opportunities this country gave me. The least I could do is serve.”
This story is not the story of every refugee, and the intent behind this interview was never to change your mind about today’s refugee crisis developing around the globe. Instead, her story can be seen as an example to emulate, whether refugee or not. The American dream has always been about working hard for a better life, and that’s just what Selena and her family have done. While there are inherent risks and dangers related to accepting refugees from a war-torn nation that must be considered and addressed, there is also another alternative: there may be a few more Selena Mrkonjas out there.
And she’s as American as anyone I know.
My stance on accepting thousands of Syrian refugees is still full of strong positions that often run in opposition of one another, as may well be the case in the minds of many Americans, but my conversation with Selena Mrkonja went far in terms of humanizing the issue. Regardless of where you land on the subject, it benefits all of us to hear the story of one tough as nails young woman who’s working to build her American dream from humble refugee beginnings, because if we don’t acknowledge that these refugees are human beings, we’re ultimately being dishonest with ourselves. After all, it’s only once we have considered all sides of an issue that we can truly consider ourselves, and our positions, well-informed.
You can follow Selena on Instagram here.