“People see war on television, but they don’t smell it, they don’t hear it, they don’t feel the impact of a bomb,” Elvir Berbic says. “It’s so different when you are there, and you constantly have this fear. Thankfully, we were able to get out in time. Many people did not, of course.”
In 1992, when he was ten years old, Berbic and his family fled Bosnia in a small convoy of cars. He watched through the windows as they passed shot-up villages, charred houses, and the rotting carcasses of livestock. A mortar aimed at them hit just short of their vehicle as they raced across the border.
Berbic’s family lived in a refugee camp in Croatia for three years, before making their way to Roanoke, Virginia. It was there he recently recounted his history to Katrina Powell, an English professor at Virginia Tech.
His story is now one of many that Powell and a team of Virginia Tech students are compiling in a book, Resettled: Beginning (Again) in Appalachia. Voice of Witness, a nonprofit that advances human rights through oral-history projects, is underwriting the project.
“Our book focuses on interviewing people resettled in Appalachia, whether a month ago or generations ago,” says Powell. “These stories carry importance beyond their intrinsic value. Both refugees and Appalachians get misrepresented in the news media all the time, for example.
“We want to amplify the voices of the unheard. Stories of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are multifaceted, and it’s critical to learn that complexity to ensure we have the most humane policies and laws possible.”
As part of the Voice of Witness grant, the Virginia Tech Center for Rhetoric in Society, which Powell directs, holds training workshops in oral-history methodology for both undergraduate and graduate students.
“Oral history is meant to document an individual’s story from birth to the present,” Powell says. “When you know the entirety of someone’s life, you understand better the impact of displacement and resettlement. When we grasp that impact, we’re more likely to treat people humanely and to gather as communities to welcome them.”
Berbic now enjoys welcoming others, particularly in his role as a volunteer soccer coach for teen refugees.
“I work with these young men because I was that person,” says Berbic, who has since earned a master’s degree and now works at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. “I want to help them focus on getting educated and assisting their families and communities. I give back this way because I remember those years when I had nobody to guide me.”