By: By Merrie Sue Holtan, Variety contributor, INFORUM
MOORHEAD – Dalila Nurkic has no idea what she looked like as a baby. The 22-year-old has no baby pictures or mementos from early childhood.
Dalila has no memory of enemy soldiers taking over their family home in Gracac, Bosnia, on Aug. 7, 1993. During that time, her father, Enver, a Bosnian soldier, spent six months in a concentration camp while her mother, Sefika, took 1-year-old Dalila, her 8-year-old brother, Jasmin, and 5-year-old sister, Ilda, to her uncle’s home in Jablanica, leaving all belongings.
The war had begun after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992, and by 1994, the Nurkic family, along with their father, who had been released, moved to a Danish-sponsored refugee camp in Jablanica for the next three years.
As a little girl, Dalila had no idea how her family and new-found community would support her.
“I was so young that I can’t remember my emotions,” she says. “I don’t remember the worst parts, but I do understand what my family had to go through to get where we are.”
Her journey from a refugee camp would lead to Minnesota State University Moorhead, where she will receive her bachelor’s degree in business administration this week.
A new start
In the camp, Dalila says her lived a somewhat normal life. Their little house, which they shared with another family, only had two bedrooms. She remembers attending preschool in a house painted with a sun and rainbow, her brother taking karate lessons, and her dad serving as a guard for the camp.
It is etched in her mind, however, in 1997 when the family walked out of the camp, got on a plane and landed at Fargo’s Hector International Airport. The International Organization for Migration and Dalila’s uncle in the United States had helped with the three-month process to give the family a new start.
With aid from Lutheran Social Services, the Nurkic’s moved into an apartment in north Fargo near Johnson Park. The family found boxes of household items given by the community waiting for them. Dalila remembers taking a walk in the park and seeing it filled with water and thinking what a “nice lake it was.” Of course, the lake receded after the 1997 flood.
Dalila enrolled in Roosevelt Elementary School as a kindergartener but didn’t want to go because she knew no one and couldn’t understand English. Her mom bribed her with candy, and that’s all it took.
She took one year of English as a second language, and by first grade, decided she no longer needed extra help.
In third grade, Dalila began translating for her parents and other Bosnians at Roosevelt who needed language assistance. Dalia’s parents describe her as “always well-behaved, a good student and willing to help them with everything.
“Our parents did it all for us kids,” Dalila says. “We were not spoiled, but if we needed something for school, they would get it for us. I don’t take anything for granted.”
“I read books like crazy,” Dalila says. “And by junior high at Ben Franklin, I was reading a book a week. I could use really big vocabulary words because of it.”
A workplace professional
At Fargo North High School, Dalila kept reading and focused on academics and tennis. Wanting to help her parents, who both found jobs working on assembly lines, 17-year-old Dalia applied for a job at Gate City Bank in Fargo as a customer service trainee.
She has remained at Gate City for four years and moved up to customer service representative/ teller and is a personal banker. She has worked between 20-40 hours a week while she’s carried a full load of college classes.
“I wanted to help people, and I can do that in this position,” Dalila says.
“I love the relationships I have made with my customers, who often peek in to see how I’m doing with home and school.”
Her supervisor at Gate City, Kristi Persons, says Dalila puts the human side into banking.
“She is determined, confident in her career path and helps others with a smile on her face and no questions asked,” Persons says.
Dalila chose MSUM because the size of the school was not overwhelming for her and the business school is accredited. She also says she’s a “daddy’s girl” and wanted to be close to her father as he had experienced medical problems. She guesses that she gives her dad (at least) 10 hugs every day.
“I was so nervous my first day of classes,” she says, “but I knew I had to better myself in order to help my parents.”
Her sophomore year, Dalila met Lori Johnson, assistant professor of accounting, who first saw Dalila as quiet and sometimes overwhelmed with the challenges of college.
“Now, three years later, she possesses self-confidence, poise and determination,” Johnson says. “I am so proud of her incredible work ethic and am honored to have been a part of her journey at MSUM. I’m excited for the next chapter of her life.”
Dalila’s sister, Ilda, works in Fargo as a hair stylist, and her brother, Jasmin earned a degree in Criminal Justice at North Dakota State University.
Reflecting on homeland
The Nurkic family has saved to build a house on Bosnian soil. They have made four trips to Bosnia since settling in Fargo. On last year’s trip, they drove to the site of their former refugee camp.
“It’s now a large construction company,” Dalila says. “But I remembered the little building, a guard house, where my dad would guard the camp. It is still there.”
She says the family has many cousins, a grandmother, aunts and uncles who have stayed in Bosnia or who moved to Germany or the U.S. during the war. Amazingly, most have rebuilt houses on Bosnian soil.
Dalila often feels pulled in several directions. She wants to move forward in the banking industry into middle and upper management positions, but her homeland also calls to her. She seeks a deeper identity for herself because she knows and respects her heritage.
“I really don’t know what home is,” she says. “I need a place to go back to, and if home is where your heart is, then mine is in Bosnia.”