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Tuck MBA Shares Her Refugee Experience

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Army of Republika Srpska from April 1992 to February 1996 — 1,425 days — during the Bosnian War. npr.org

“We took nothing for granted, and there were literally zero complaints,” Ema Pasic Reid says, a lone figure speaking behind a lectern in a low-lit, 12-and-a-half-minute YouTube video linked from the Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business website. The soon-to-be Class of 2017 MBA is describing her family’s experience as refugees from the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina that erupted in 1992, and how she, her father, and her mother boarded a plane to the United States only to discover during the trip that they would not be able to return to their native Sarajevo.

“When we think of refugees, we often think of people in tattered clothes crossing our borders, or packed like sardines on a boat, because that’s all we see,” Reid tells an audience of fellow Tuck MBAs and faculty in her contribution to a series called Tuck Talks, occasionally pausing to collect herself. “We’re deeply suspect of their motivations and genuinely question what they’re doing here in our country, stealing our jobs. We often scorn, ‘Why don’t they just go back home?’ But as my story hopefully highlights, they don’t have a home to return to.

“And if they’re lucky enough to escape, and they find themselves here in the U.S., then to be honest we’re incredibly lucky to have them.”

As she recounts, Reid and her parents were among the luckiest to come out of Sarajevo, escaping a city that endured nearly four years of siege and warfare. The Bosnian war was Europe’s most devastating conflict since World War II, displacing millions and claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands — among them, Reid’s own grandfather.

AN AUDIENCE BEYOND B-SCHOOL

Ema Reid gives her Tuck Talk in May 2016

Ema Reid didn’t give her Tuck Talk in response to recent events. She gave it in May 2016and shortly thereafter an aunt posted the video online — where, Reid tells Poets&Quants, “the only people to comment were my parents and close family friends.” That changed in the wake of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric and January 27 executive order on immigration, when Reid reposted the video and it suddenly gained a lot of attention, accruing more than 3,000 views and hundreds of shares via social media.

“To be honest, I knew I had an important perspective to share, and reposting this video was really my only contribution to the conversation,” Reid says. “And though I wasn’t able at that point to concisely state what my goal was, for posting the video, I had a number of reasons. It was so interesting to see people’s reactions — I guess I struck a chord.”

It would be no surprise if Reid’s talk struck a chord at Tuck, where the most recently enrolled MBA class consists of 30% international students — or, for that matter, at any U.S. business school, where according to Institute of International Education data the number of international students rose to 188,179 from 106,043 between 2001 and 2014, and surely has continued rising since. But though she presented her story to Tuck peers and spoke at times in the language of the B-school classroom, Reid’s intended audience was much broader than a group of MBAs. She believes her story resonates with widely disparate audiences: left and right and everything between.

TIES TO THE U.S., BUT HOME IN SARAJEVO

Six-year-old Ema Pasic had already spent a year of her life in the United States when her father, a physician, was on scholarship at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. Afterward, Ema, her father Resad, and her mother Djenita had moved back to their native Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, where most of their relatives lived, including all four of Ema’s grandparents. And for a while, she remembers, life was good. “We moved back to Sarajevo with hopes of living there for the rest of our lives,” Ema recalls. “Both sets of grandparents were living in Sarajevo, so our plan was to kind of situate back there, and my dad was going to become a physician at the university hospital and my mom had a job lined up in Sarajevo.

“So we moved back, and over the course of the next two years the war really started to pick up.”

The Bosnian war followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, as first Slovenia and Croatia seceded and then, in early 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina passed its own independence referendum. But Bosnian Serbs, who comprised about a third of the population, rejected independence, and supplied by Croatia and Serbia they mobilized for war. The war began with the siege of Sarajevo in April 1992, and by the time it lifted in February 1996 — 1,425 days later — it had become the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.

A CARGO PLANE TO SAFETY — AND A NEW LIFE

Sarajevo International Airport was the scene of thousands of airlift operations and civilian evacuations during the 1992-95 war. www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca

Ema and her family were members of the Muslim Bosniak majority that would experience widespread “ethnic cleansing” over the course of the war, leading to countless civilian deaths — the war killed as many as 329,000 — in addition to systematic rape and other atrocities. But Ema, her father, and her mother escaped — and the Kentucky Derby played a part in their deliverance.

Having long planned a return to Louisville to visit friends, and having bought tickets to the Derby months in advance, Ema’s family watched in horror as the war escalated all around them. Yet when it came time to leave for the U.S., her “glass half full” parents, fully expecting to return home, packed only the clothes they would need for a two-week vacation. Her memories still vivid after 25 years, Ema describes the family’s arrival at Sarajevo International Airport, when they quickly realized the seriousness of their situation but had no time to better prepare.

“Given the circumstances, a lot of it has stuck with me,” Ema recalls. “The war had started, and we were in a war for about a month when we went to the airport to leave the country. And we got to the airport and recognized that the situation was quite severe — the entire airport was overrun with people trying to leave the country. At that point they had suspended typical air travel and instead had just brought in a bunch of cargo planes and were trying to prioritize getting as many people as they possibly could out of the city. So instead of leaving on a plane like we were supposed to, we ended up boarding a cargo plane, and it was a situation where they were just trying to fit as many people as they possibly could on the plane. The plane then landed in Belgrade, Serbia, and when you got off the plane you were in Serbian territory, which was kind of an interesting dynamic.”

Despite their Bosniak identity, the Pasics had an advantage: an uncle who lived in Serbia, “which gives you an idea of how complex the situation was,” Ema says. “We had family members living all over the former Yugoslavia.” They stayed with the uncle for a day, then secured seats on another plane. Once they reached the U.S., they had only two-week tourist visas, two weeks’ worth of clothes, and the generosity of friends. “My parents were anticipating that this wouldn’t really occur to the extent that it did, that we would be back in two weeks, no problem,” Ema says. “We kind of said goodbye haphazardly to my grandparents and friends and left — and literally ended up getting stuck in the U.S. and had to build a life.”

It would be a dozen years before the Pasics returned to Sarajevo, by which time her paternal grandfather was dead, killed by shrapnel as he was returning home one day to the apartment where Ema and her parents had lived.

‘WHERE WOULD YOU GO?’

Ema Pasic Reid’s story is the kind of stuff that has always drawn people to America. In Louisville, Resad Pasic got a job at the University of Louisville Hospital, where he is still a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist who is known as the “go-to doc” for Louisville’s sizable Bosnian population. Djenita Pasic went to law school at 35 and now does pro bono work for immigrant families. Ema earned her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University with a double major in political science and international studies; she married Elliott Reid in 2015, and after graduating from Tuck this spring, the 30-year-old will go to work for New Balance in Boston, joining the marketing department of the fitness apparel company where she interned last summer. She’ll spend the next year living between Boston and Hanover because Elliott is a first-year MBA student at Tuck.

Basically, she’s living the American dream. “We were such a lucky, lucky family,” Ema says, “and that’s what makes it so hard for me to talk about, because I harbor all of this internal guilt for being one of the people that was able to escape with my immediate family.” But that’s also why she wanted to talk about it, because the experience of her family — refugees who became community builders and leaders — shows what America has long meant to the world.

“(Refugees) are people who are so grateful for the opportunity to develop a new life and are insanely eager to contribute to society and assimilate as quickly as possible,” Ema says in her Tuck Talk. “Imagine that starting tomorrow your citizenship means nothing, that your blue passport does not represent a home to return to, and that your currency no longer exists. Your savings are wiped out, and you have to leave. Where would you go?”

  • not so tough

    aw, did you get that quote from your middle school book report? you’re armchair quarterbacking someone’s decision to become a refugee with a young family instead of…what? starting a rebellion? get some perspective…life’s not a hollywood movie.

  • hmm

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
    -Edmund Burke

  • tough guy

    mr tough guy over here

  • hmm

    “Imagine that starting tomorrow your citizenship means nothing, that your blue passport does not represent a home to return to, and that your currency no longer exists. Your savings are wiped out, and you have to leave. Where would you go?”

    Me? I would stay and fight. And die fighting for my country, if I must. For democracy and for my rights and freedoms.