For immigrants, help from one of their own

The Queens Chronicle, 2009

Mersiha Nikocevic raises her left hand, the palm facing a long table of inquisitive onlookers. She wiggles her five digits.

“All of these are fingers.” She bends the outer four: “but this one you call a thumb.” She points downward before slowly explaining, “on your feet, you don’t have fingers; you have toes.”

At the back of the four small rooms and narrow hallway that compose the ANSOB Center for Refugees, Nikocevic continues her weekly beginning English class. The walls are slightly off-white, the floor aged hardwood. An exposed pipe crawls up one corner, contrasting to the crisp lace curtains covering two thin windows on the back wall.

Sitting at the head of two folding tables surrounded by metal chairs, cramped with nervous but anxious students, Nikocevic listens as each recites the parts of the body, this particular night’s lesson. Nikocevic corrects their English, by no means her own native language. She first spoke Bosnian, Albanian and Turkish.

Nikocevic demonstrates incredible patience as each student reads from a thick handout of vocabulary. Two children alternate between playing on the computers that line one wall and tugging on their mother’s sleeve, asking questions in their native Arabic. Outside, Steinway Street cuts through Astoria, Queens, boasting diverse shops and restaurants demonstrative of the neighborhood’s long-standing history of immigrant settlement.

The difficulties of the English language become apparent as each student slips over the same words. “Thigh,” with its enigmatic consonants, proves tricky. Another phonetic anomaly forces Nikocevic to explain the difference between “hill,” “heel” and “hell” – “not a good place,” she jokes. “You want to say heel.”

When Nikocevic first arrived in America six years ago, she did not have to go through the same process as her students – refugees, asylees and immigrants of varying ethnic backgrounds. She had learned English in her native Kosovo, working as a translator for the United Nations for two years. Though she had a linguistic advantage upon arriving in America, Nikocevic can relate to the newest Americans now before her.

Working for the not-for-profit ANSOB Center, the ethnic Bosnian understands the adversities of immigration. Her struggle to escape war-torn Kosovo, earn political asylum and start anew in a strange land have provided Nikocevic with a first-hand perspective that adds to the small community focused on serving refugees and contributes to her work helping newcomers, many fleeing from ethnic and political conflict, situate in New York City.

In November 2002, Nikocevic got on a plane headed to New York. She had with her a tourist’s visa good for three months, minimal baggage and a fear that if she ever returned to Kosovo, she would be killed. She stayed with relatives in Astoria for those three months, and when her legal status expired, she applied for political asylum. That application began a period of waiting, legal proceedings, anticipation and fear that would last more than two years.

Nikocevic’s fear was deportation, to return to her native Mitrovica, a city in the northern region of the same name in the former Yugoslavia. Divided both geographically and ethnically by the Ibar River, the town of Mitrovica has been plagued with tension and violence between ethnic Serbs and Albanians since the Balkan conflicts leading to the breakup of former Yugoslavia began almost two decades ago. As an ethnic Bosnian, Mersiha said she constantly feared she would fall the next victim of a battle of clashing territory, ethnicity and history.

“I came from a city that was divided. It’s the most violent city in Kosovo, and it’s still divided up until now,” she said. “We basically were not allowed to speak our own language on the Albanian side, and we could not be exposed, even say our names, on the Serbian side of the city.”

Her affiliation with the United Nations, which had taken over the factories of the once prominent industrial town, made life more complicated. “People were, and they still are, against the UN. The UN never took control of that city,” she explained. “I was living in the Serbian part, and basically, whoever worked for the UN was a traitor.”

Nikocevic was assured she would never again face the fear and hostility of Kosovar life when she was granted political asylum in 2005.
It was around that same time that Nikocevic became acquainted with Cathy Joyce.

Joyce has worked with refugees for almost two decades. In 2000, she took over the lease of the second floor at 2819 Steinway St. in Astoria, once the satellite office of the Bronx-based Saint Rita’s Center for Immigrants and Refugees. The result was the ANSOB Center for Refugees, founded with once partner Mustafa Tabakovic, himself a Bosnian refugee.

Originally devoted to refugees and since opened to immigrant groups, the center offers various services - English language classes, bilingual case management, immigration application assistance, job placement and education counseling. “I have a big, huge soft spot for refugees. I think they’re incredibly grateful to be here and be safe,” Joyce exclaimed. “What is remarkable about the refugee population is that for all the stuff that has happened to them, they get here, and they want to start over, get a job and go to school. This overwhelming desire for what happened to them not to affect the course of their lives, it’s amazing.”

Nikocevic was one of the many with such a story Joyce has encountered through the years. Before being granted asylum, Nikocevic came for an interview for a position as a Bosnian-speaking English teacher. She began teaching the English classes and has since become a full-time employee, adding the title of program coordinator. She now works an additional full-time job as billing manager at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan.

Working 80 hours a week and devoting what free time she has to the now sizeable Astoria Bosnian community and her Bosnian friends and boyfriend, Nikocevic balances an American life with the Bosnian culture she loves. “Just because we came to live in America doesn’t mean we should forget who we are. I will always be an American Bosnian,” she explained. “My life, it’s pretty good. I work pretty hard, but it’s quiet. I’m allowed to say my name here without being afraid.”

It is this successful refugee transition – integration into a new life – that Nikocevic hopes to provide for those she serves at the center. As someone who has gone through the asylum process, Nikocevic said she brings compassion to her job. “Once you pass that path, you understand people and their pain and what they’re dealing with. You will have extra tolerance for them, and nothing will be hard if it makes their lives easier,” she said. “These people come only with a bit of hope, and it’s our responsibility to keep that hope alive.”

Abdourahman Diallo is a relative newcomer to the ANSOB Center, part of a new wave of refugees and asylees from West Africa that emerged soon after the Center opened. Diallo came to America from Guinea with his mother, Mariama, in the summer of 2004. At 17, he was filed as a dependent on his mother’s asylum application.

Lacking proficiency in English, Diallo entered American high school as a freshman. In June, he graduated at the age of 21. That was when he became acquainted with the ANSOB Center, interacting regularly with “Miss Cathy,” Nikocevic and Iman Fawzy, who adds Arabic and French to the center’s linguistic offerings.

The ANSOB Center first helped Diallo get a job at J & R Music. For the last few months, they have also been working with him to apply to colleges and for financial aid. With his past experiences and linguistic skills in French, English, Fula, Susu and Mandingo, Diallo said he aspires to study international relations at a four-year college.

Diallo said he is grateful to have become connected with the ANSOB center, doubting he would have gotten a job or been able to go to college without their assistance. “I explained my situation, and Miss Cathy told me to come the next day. As soon as I came, she was warm the very first day. I couldn’t do it without their help,” Diallo recounted. “They’re a non-profit organization. They’re not asking us for anything. You see them working, and they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. If anyone should be rewarded, it should definitely be them.”

In the four months since he first came to the center, Diallo has connected not only with the staff but with a community of refugees and immigrants from his native region of West Africa and from around the world. He has met people who may not share a language, nationality or ethnicity. They do share, however, an experience, a struggle and a hope. “Basically, every single person in here has a story. Every single person in here has been through something,” Diallo said. “There are people from all over the world. I like meeting new people. I like making new friends.”

Diallo’s story embodies the goal of the ANSOB center and those who work to enhance the refugee transition – a new life for those who come from places where life is not about opportunities and dreams but simply about surviving. “Some people don’t want to leave their country, but they are forced,” Nikocevic said. “If they are forced to leave, then they deserve a chance to make it somewhere else.”

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