Pesach in a new homeland: Familys modern-day exodus – from Bosnia to the Bay Area

Dejana Kohen slept on the floor of an empty Marin County apartment much of last week. She speaks of that floor as if it were the most luxurious mattress in the world.

A 25-year-old refugee from Bosnia who arrived on American soil a month ago, Kohen, her 29-year-old husband, Levi, and 2-year-old son, Giani, have spent the last year sleeping outside, in motels and rented rooms.

Last week, the family moved into a modest one bedroom apartment in Terra Linda — at last, a place to call home.

"I finally have my own roof," Dejana Kohen says through a translator. "I finally have my own key."

During Pesach, as Jews around the world recall their ancestors' deliverance from ancient Egypt, the Kohens tell of a modern-day exodus from the battered streets of Sarajevo to the tree-lined serenity of Marin, where the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services has helped them relocate.

The Kohens are the fourth Bosnian family JFCS has resettled in the Bay Area since 1994. The first three families are Muslim. Lev Kohen is Jewish; Dejana is Muslim.

This week, the Kohens celebrated Passover at the home of an American Jewish family — a ceremonial marking, in a sense, of the Bosnian family's new-found freedom.

Their path here has been long and winding, paved with fear, hunger and uncertainty. At a particularly low point, the family slept, carefully guarding their few belongings, on a public beach on Croatia's Adriatic Coast, to which they had fled in the spring of 1995.

It was while they slept outside that another Bosnian refugee living in Croatia spotted the family and related their tale to her friend in America, Samela Pecek.

Pecek, a Bosnian refugee who has lived in Mill Valley for the last two years, was deeply moved by the story.

"I just had a picture, two people with a baby," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "It was my human feeling to help."

Pecek approached the International Rescue Committee — a resettlement agency that works with the federal government — about sponsoring the Kohens' resettlement here but decided that commitment would have been a financial burden. Then, assuming from the Kohens' name that they were Jewish, Pecek called JFCS and asked for help.

JFCS has helped resettle numerous immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as well as the Bosnian families, who now live in San Francisco's Haight District.

But because of the volume of Bosnian refugees applying to enter this country and because the Kohens do not have immediate relatives here, "quite honestly, I thought it was a long shot," said Gayle Zahler, director of resettlement services for JFCS.

In the end, the family arrived nonetheless. On March 5, Lev and Dejana Kohen and their sandy-haired baby arrived, thin and exhausted, at San Francisco International Airport.

"I could read from their faces that they have been through so much," says Pecek, who, together with her husband, met the family at the airport.

In fact, though Pecek had seen many refugees since the start of the war in her homeland, she was unprepared for just how dazed the Kohen family looked as they debarked the plane from Split, in Croatia. "I was shocked, and my husband was shocked also," Pecek says.

Today, less than a month after the Kohens' arrival, relatively little about their appearance divulges the deep scars the war has inflicted. At times, Lev and Dejana's eyes grow sad as they recall the conflict, which claimed the life of Lev's father, a Holocaust survivor, and irrevocably altered their lives as they knew them.

But the couple also talks with deep appreciation of their new life and great optimism of what they hope to achieve here — starting, of course, with English lessons.

Giani, especially, seems a symbol of resilience. Dressed in a neon green jumpsuit, he races his toy trucks back and forth across a table top at JFCS' Marin office while munching on a succession of chocolate sweets.

Soon, the youngster will begin preschool in the early childhood education department of the Marin Jewish Community Center. On this sunny morning, his enthusiasm for the MJCC playground seems a sign that his future school will suit him well.

The Kohens, say those who have helped them settle here, are adjusting beautifully. "They're much more alert. They don't look so tired. They have shining, bright eyes," says JFCS caseworker Basia Leafer.

JFCS first got involved with Bosnian resettlement in the fall of 1993. At the time, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the international migration agency of the organized American Jewish community, asked Jewish agencies around the country to assist Bosnian Muslim refugees. JFCS agreed to take on two families, the Handzars and the Nesimis. A third, the Mesic family, arrived six months ago.

The Mesics — Merim, wife Mina, and sons Haris, 8, and Kenan, 4 — now live in an apartment in the Haight.

In a nearby building lives Mina's sister, Fatima Nesimi, Fatima's husband, Kalos, their son, Kemal and his wife, Ajsa. When the Nesimi family arrived here in 1994, the men were recovering from four months in prisons and makeshift concentration camps. Muslim victims of "ethnic cleansing," they had been beaten regularly and starved to bony thinness while their wives waited, not knowing if they'd ever return.

Today, the family's future looks brighter. The older Nesimis work in JFCS' utility workshop, a manufacturing center that employs a large number of immigrants. The younger couple works in a cable manufacturing company — he as a technician, she packaging goods.

Living in the same apartment building as the Nesimis are the Handzars, a family of four from Mostar, who arrived in this country just before the Nesimis. Zoran Handzar, an environmental engineer before the war, now works as a maintenance engineer at a residence for the elderly in Oakland. His wife, Brigita, has landed a job as a chemist, her field back home.

Eva, now in 11th grade, and Goran, a ninth grader, are straight-A students at San Francisco's McAteer High School, where Eva is involved in several extracurricular activities, including journalism. Goran plays soccer through a city sports club.

Vera Vasey, JFCS caseworker for the Handzars and Nesimis, says both families have progressed remarkably well since arriving here. "They feel comfortable here," she says. "They're happy."

In most ways, JFCS' resettlement of the Bosnian Muslims parallels its settlement of refugees from the former Soviet Union. Once here, the families are assigned a caseworker to help them with such basics as navigating the health care system, acquiring food stamps, signing up for Social Security numbers and English classes, and in the case of children, enrolling for school.

Unlike Soviet refugees, however, the Bosnians do not need relatives in the Bay Area to sponsor their resettlement, a commitment that requires providing financial as well as practical assistance. JFCS, therefore, has taken on those responsibilities, including securing apartments and furnishings for the immigrants before they arrive, and meeting them at the airport.

Bosnian resettlement also differs in another, more significant way. While former Soviet emigres to the Bay Area find an established Russian-speaking community here ready to help them negotiate the shoals of their new life, Bosnians start life anew in an area where relatively few speak their language.

For now, the Kohens' have only Samela Pecek and her husband as compatriots in their new land. Once they've had more time to settle in, however, Zahler hopes to take the Kohens across the Golden Gate Bridge to meet the Mesics, Nesimis and Handzars, three families with much wisdom to offer about building a new life in America.