Fatima Cengic tells story of heroism

The Interior News, July 28, 2004.

Fatima Cengic survived the siege of Tesanj, in Bosnia, and proceeded to build a life for herself in Canada – all thanks to a Christmas shoebox that arrived from Whitehorse and a great deal of determination. This was published in the Interior News on July 28, 2004. This story also never made it online, so here is a full transcript:

WHEN Fatima Cengic was 13 years old, she was living in Tesanj, a Bosnian city under siege by Serbian militants. She was unable to enjoy even the simplest of pleasures of life, such as a carefree stroll down the road.

Because of the threat of gunfire and bombs, she lived with her family in the basement of their home for six months.

But after six months, Cengic got fed up and decided enough was enough.

“My room was upstairs, everything was upstairs,” she says.

“I just hated the basement.”

To the chagrin of her parents, Cengic defied what they thought was safe, and began sleeping upstairs.

“My parents weren’t happy. But then eventually they just came upstairs with me. We would just run downstairs when the shooting would start. But we would mainly stay upstairs.”

This is just one fascinating episode in a long list of stories for Cengic, who at 23 has had to live through much more hardship than most Canadian-born people twice her age. It is undoubtedly her strong will that has allowed her to rise above these difficult circumstances.

Her journey to Canada is another story worth telling.

It explains how a young Bosnian woman, with little money and big dreams, was able to move to Whitehorse, attend the University of Northern British Columbia, then move to Smithers to take the temporary position of Museum Assistant and Programmer at the Bulkley Valley Museum.

Around Christmas time when Cengic was 13 her dad came home and announced he had a surprise for Cengic and her younger brother, Nedim. He had brought home a Christmas shoebox which had arrived from Canada.

Canadian schools, charities and other organizations put together these shoeboxes filled with candies and small gifts which are sent to warring or developing countries at Christmas time.

“We were so excited because at that time we didn’t have any candies or any kind of presents. So it was a big thing,” she explains.

“At the bottom of the box I found a letter and a picture from an address in Canada.

At that time I had just started learning English as a second language.

“I had this little dictionary that my parents gave me before the war. And I thought, I’m just going to write them a letter, and my parents were like, ‘you’re crazy, it’s never going to get there – our postal system just doesn’t work’.”

But Cengic persisted.

“I actually had to find someone to take my letter, which was written in very poor English, let me tell you, underground, because there were people who would smuggle things underground.”

So she had the letter sent to Germany, where her aunt lived, and had her mail it from there to Canada.

“Two months later my aunt found someone who could get me the letter back. So I got the reply from their family.”

Eventually, the postal system improved and Cengic was able to correspond more freely.

For six years, Cengic corresponded with the family in the letter, Nancy and Rick Turner, of Whitehorse and their four children.

After a few years, Cengic’s English greatly improved, but her written English was much better than her spoken English. Nancy began sending Cengic tapes of her voice so she would have the opportunity to hear the language more often. She would also call Cengic on the phone so the two could converse.

At 19, Cengic was getting ready to graduate from the Bosnian equivalent of high school. She wanted to go to university, but because of lack of money, she wasn’t sure she would be able to.

Cengic’s parents had spent the money they had saved for her education on food and supplies during the war.

“The Canadian family knew all this stuff, they knew what was going on. I told them everything.

“So they asked me to come to Canada.

“I said ‘I don’t have money to study here, how would I have money to study in Canada, it’s way more expensive?’ So they decided to help me as much as they could.”

Cengic was thrilled at the prospect of going to Canada, but her parents were nervous.

Cengic says they weren’t comfortable sending their daughter to a faraway place to live with a family they had never met.

Again, Cengic persisted.

Every night she would talk to her parents and explain the reasons why she should go to Canada.

Months passed in this manner.

“Eventually, they started listening to me, and then they said okay, just go and apply, but we’re not going to help you that much, just do it yourself.

“They wanted to see if I had a real desire to go. So I did. And I got all of my papers.”

Nancy surprised Cengic’s family by coming to Bosnia soon before Cengic was scheduled to leave for Canada.

There, she met Cengic’s family.

“It was perfect because then my family relaxed. My parents kind of knew who she was and it was really good.”

She lived with the Turners in Whitehorse for two years. During her second year there, she took a year of general studies at the Yukon Community College and did really well in English. She then applied and was accepted onto the Political Science program at UNBC.

She still sees the Turners as much as possible, though they moved to Vancouver at the same time she moved to Prince George.

“They’re my family in Canada, I don’t have any other family here.”

Cengic has not seen her biological family since she left Bosnia in 2001, but she hopes to see them very soon.

Lately, she’s been thrilled to talk to her brother on the computer. He recently got a webcam to match hers so they can see each other when they talk over the internet.

Still, they’re nine timezones away from each other so communication is not completely without its barriers.

Cengic is a co-op student at UNBC, which means part of her degree program involves a paid placement in the workforce.

Looking through the job board at UNBC, she noticed a job at the Bulkley Valley Museum and applied right away.

She had a good interview and was soon hired.

She moved to Smithers in May and now works at the museum alongside curator Jane Young with all sorts of projects.

“I work mostly with organizing different kinds of programs for adults and for children,” she says.

Cengic will likely stay at the museum until the end of 2004. “This summer we have summer programs, and the movie night, and some special events and some slide shows. I have lots of things in mind.”

Cengic says she loves the area and the people here are great.

She says the job allows her to constantly improve her language skills, which she appreciates.

Cengic has many interests, so she’s not sure what she will do with all the skills she has acquired.

Unsurprisingly for a person who has lived through war, one of her interests is diplomacy.

She says she has dreamt about becoming an ambassador, perhaps the Bosnian ambassador to Canada.

The war she lived through has taught her the importance of maintaining good relations between countries.

“As an ambassador, you’re a diplomat, and you’re keeping good relations between countries. But you’re also teaching other people about your country.

“I think if we all sort of try to understand each other, and try to understand what other people are going through, I think it’s going to make a lot of difference.”

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1 thought on “Fatima Cengic tells story of heroism”

  1. Hello,
    I just reread this article with tears of joy as I was browsing the internet today.
    I am the Nancy Turner from Whitehorse, mentioned in this article.
    I thought that you woukd like to know that Fatima graduated from UNBC with BA in International Studies. She then worked in Vancouver where she received her Masters Degree in Health Administration. She met and married a Bosnian man from her home town Tesanj. They now have a two-year old son. They went to visit her family in Bosnia, and were both offered jobs they could not refuse. He is a teacher of nurses in a training hospital…and Fatima? She works for the UN in Sarejevo!
    Thank you for making this article available on the internet!
    Sincerely,
    Nancy Turner

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