From left: Catic's father Rasim, her mother Selima, Catic, with daughter Milena, and sisters, Naza and Edina.
In 1993, 8-year-old Merima “Mimi” Catic was enjoying tea with her three brothers and three sisters in their home in Catici, a ranching village in northwest Bosnia. It was a routine Catic was fond of: Every morning the seven siblings would drink tea while their mother —their father was away in the army, fighting a war none of the children quite understood—enjoyed a cup of coffee before the children went off to school or play.
They heard a knock at the door.
Catic’s mother, Selima, opened the door to find a soldier on their porch.
“The war is here,” he said.
On Sept. 14, Mimi Catic, a marketing assistant at Hy-Vee’s corporate headquarters, raised her right hand at a federal courthouse in Des Moines, IA, and pronounced herself an American citizen, the fourth person in her immediate family to do so.
The family of nine arrived in the United States from Bosnia as war refugees in 1997. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the violence that pitted neighbor against neighbor and included the shelling of cities, genocide, systematic mass rape and ethnic cleansing.
When the soldier’s words sunk in, Selima scooped up her 3-year-old son, Mujo, and told her other six children to run. They fled across the countryside toward the city of Pecigrad, dodging bullets and explosions at every turn.
“I heard my mother yell for us to split up so that we wouldn’t all die at once,” Catic recalls. “Before we left, I remember kissing the side of the house, because I had a feeling I would never see it again.”
The fear-fueled flight lasted about 20 minutes. The Catic family and their neighbors regrouped in downtown Pecigrad, just in time to board one of the last buses headed for a nearby refugee camp. Able-bodied men were expected to stay and fight.
Omer, Catic’s older brother, “was probably old enough to stay, but he had grown his hair out and kept his eyes down. He was swept onto the bus because everyone thought he was a girl,” Catic says.
Before the Catic children reached the first in a succession of refugee camps, word came that their father had been captured. So during their first four months at the camp, Catic and her older sister, Naza, would look for him every morning at designated areas set up by the United Nations. The one day, the sisters spotted a scruffy man with bright blue eyes stepping out of a vehicle.
“His hair had grown out, and his beard was so overgrown, the only thing we recognized were his eyes,” Catic says.
The reunited Catics lived in various refugee camps for the next four years. Despite the hardship, they were happy to be together. Even though the resilient children adjusted —the last camp, in Croatia, began to feel like home, Catic says—the mother who led them to safety and the father who fought to return to his family wanted to give their children a normal life. So they reached out to cousins in New York and immigrated to the United States.
Even with the violence behind them, the family’s hardships were far from over. Any hope 13-year-old Mimi had of salvaging her childhood faded. They landed in New York in 1997 and moved to Urbandale, IA, shortly after.
Her three eldest siblings—Sedina, Omer and Edina—got jobs right away to help pay rent and cover bills. Catic and the younger children went to school.
“When you learn about the United States in Bosnia, it’s like hearing about Disneyland. You think everyone is rich and whatever you touch turns to gold,” she says. “When we got to Iowa, it was snowing in April, the air smelled different, I couldn’t drink milk, I couldn’t drink water and the only thing I could keep down was bananas.
“They put me in school, and I cried every day.”
She didn’t speak English, and she was sick a lot.
“If you’re different the kids are mean,” Catic says. “They were tough.”
Perhaps prophetically, the first English phrase she learned was her elementary school motto, “Expect the Best.” That summer, rather than expecting it, Catic decided to create it.
“I sat down in front of the TV with a dictionary, turned on the subtitles and taught myself English,” she says. “I didn’t like being last, I didn’t like being picked on, and I really loved to learn.”
With help from a close-knit community of other Bosnians who had settled in Iowa, the family started to put down roots. Life started getting better.
By the time she enrolled at in high school, Catic had begun to flourish academically. She got involved in academic clubs and joined the chorus. She volunteered at a nursing home and hospital. And during her senior year, she got a job at the Windsor Heights, IA, Hy-Vee.
After graduation, she went on to Iowa State University — she worked three jobs to make ends meet — and earned a degree in business management.
“It was really hard watching my parents struggle to get by and learn a foreign culture,” Catic says. “They left so much behind in Bosnia that it’s like they can’t move forward, or they have nowhere to go. So I try to work hard and live a life that I can be proud of because I want them to know that coming here wasn’t a waste.”
Catic held her hand over her heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as an American. Sisters Naza and Edina are there. So are their mother and father. And Catic’s 3-year old daughter, Milena, who is the same age Catic’s younger brother, was when their mother answered the knock that changed their lives.
“I’m happy my daughter will grow up in a place like this,” Catic says. “I don’t want her to grow up like I did.”