An Interview with our 2011 Voices of Courage Honoree Zrinka Bralo

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Journalist Zrinka Bralo fled former Yugoslavia in 1993, during the conflict, and sought asylum in the United Kingdom. Since then, she has been a fearless voice and champion for the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. Here, Zrinka shares her experiences and explains why she remains committed to the cause.

Could you describe the situation you faced in Sarajevo?
We woke up one day in 1992, and the city was being besieged by the former Yugoslav army and Bosnian Serb forces. Of course, there were signs earlier that things were getting out of control, but I never believed that a war would start in my city.

We were continuously shelled by heavy artillery from the surrounding mountains. It was very chaotic, confusing and scary but, in a way there was no time to be scared because we had to focus on survival on a daily basis. On a good day, there were probably 300 to 400 shells falling on the city; on a bad day it was more than 3,000. Every time we heard an explosion, we would try to gauge where it had landed, because it could be someone we knew that was being killed or wounded. More than 10,000 people were killed during the four year siege and more than 50,000 were wounded. Every building in Sarajevo was damaged by the shelling and the damage can still be seen today.

In addition to the massacres committed by shelling, snipers targeted people who were just walking through the city in search of food and water. We had to walk everywhere—or rather run—as there was no fuel or public transport. Water, telephone lines and electricity were cut off, and within weeks we ran out of food. There was no way out of the city for ordinary civilians. It was like medieval times.

What was it like in London when you first arrived?
Coming out of Sarajevo was very confusing. I had reached the stage where I had developed a siege mentality. My life for nearly two years had been reduced to basic survival—dodging bullets and trying to help foreign correspondents report on what was happening. But suddenly I was in London, where life went on as normal.

 

It took a long time for me to feel safe and to adjust to basic things like the abundance of food in supermarkets. I did not know it at the time, but I was deeply traumatised and found it difficult to think about my future or to have normal conversations that did not include snipers, starvation and genocide. London is a great city, but can be very overwhelming if you are vulnerable or unprepared, and I was both.

What keeps you so committed to migrant and refugee issues?
My personal experiences—trying to get immigration status, a job, a place to live or even just to find a doctor in London—were very confusing, even though I had friends in London and spoke English. It was natural for me to want to share what I’d learned. As I got involved with refugees from other countries, I realized that they were going through the same thing. In fact, in comparison, I probably had it easy.

I had also discovered the ugly side of exile: rejection, prejudice, discrimination, injustice. I felt that I could do something about it. Over the years I have learned about damaging politics and policies and the wider negative public discourse on immigration. I find it profoundly unjust and exploitative and for me it’s simply not a choice about whether to be involved in the campaign for refugee rights or not. Knowing what I know, I have a responsibility to work to change things. It goes to the core of fundamental human rights.

How did your background as a journalist help your advocacy efforts?
I suppose it helped that I was curious and would not take ‘no’ for an answer. So I would push myself and others to understand that there is no need to treat refugees so badly when we can afford to do better, when we have a responsibility to do better. It is advantageous for us all to give refugees a chance to rebuild their lives. I would say the main thing I found useful from journalism is knowing how to ask questions and not being afraid to ask them.

What are the most pressing issues you see facing the urban migrant and refugee community today?
I am concerned that it is increasingly difficult for refugees to reach safe countries -- many suffer and even die in the hands of traffickers. For the lucky few who manage to find their way to safety, it is very difficult to be formally recognized as refugees due to legislative changes in all European countries. Most of the world is also going through a very serious recession. This means it will be harder to find support from both non-governmental and governmental sources, and that public services are cut.

Cuts in spending for health mean it will be much harder to get bilingual counselling for traumatised people. In addition, it will be harder to find jobs and access education; as a result of this, many will face destitution and hardship. I am also very worried about the negative public sentiment due to years of misrepresentation and demonization of migrants and refugees in the media. This usually leads to a hardening of attitudes, hostility and racism.

In your experience, which policy changes regarding asylum seekers and refugees have had the most impact?
I am afraid that UK policies are very restrictive and aim to deter people from claiming asylum. Very rarely do governments overturn bad policies. Recently, though, a long campaign by various organizations and civil society groups was successful in reversing the terrible policy of detaining children and families for immigration purposes. Hopefully, families and children will now be treated with dignity and respect. But these are exhausting and time consuming campaigns, and it is very frustrating because children should never have been detained in the first place. So, most of the time, the only positive policy development is when a very bad practice is reversed.

Often these restrictive policies are overturned by the courts. You cannot imagine how grateful I am for the independent British justice system. I hope that one day I will be able to tell you that we no longer have to rely on courts to right the government’s wrongs, and that we have a government which appreciates the contributions refugees make and stands up against the prejudice.

In the meantime, all we can do is to keep working.

We will be honoring Zrinka at this year's Voices of Courage Luncheon in New York City on May 3rd. Our annual luncheon helps us raise funds that will allow us to continue to work to improve the lives of refugee women and children in need.