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How a Bosnian woman rebuilt her life in Malaysia after fleeing civil war


Family fun: It has not been easy, but Dizdarevic has managed to strike a fine balance between caring for her son Khal and juggling a career in public relations. - RICKY LAI/The Star

Family fun: It has not been easy, but Dizdarevic has managed to strike a fine balance between caring for her son Khal and juggling a career in public relations. - RICKY LAI/The Star

'Never let fear hold you back from doing what you want to do.' — Edina Dizdarevic

Most of us are fortunate to know that we can probably get up in the morning, safe and sound in our own beds, but not everyone around the world is accorded this luxury. If you come from a war-torn country, you can’t even be sure if you’ll be alive tomorrow. 

It is against this backdrop that Bosnian Edina Dizdarevic found herself having to leave her country of birth, just as the civil war broke out during Yugoslavia’s dissolution in early 1992.

“I lived through the war for the first six months with my mum, sister and dad. Every couple of days, we had to go to shelters to avoid the bombings,” said Dizdarevic, 40, during a recent interview.

Within the first six months of the war which broke out in April 1992, supplies at supermarkets and grocery stores were depleted, and with the roads cut off, there was no replenishment.

Blackouts and water rationing became part and parcel of everyday life. It was a tough decision to leave her home behind, but Dizdarevic just had to get out of the dire situation.

When an opportunity presented itself, Dizdarevic grabbed the chance to come here as part of an education programme initiated by the Malaysian Government.

“I remember when I first arrived at Subang Airport, the air smelled like cloves ... it was just very clean smelling air. Coming here was like waking up from a nightmare. I noticed all the fairy lights draped on the trees, as is common in Malaysia during festive seasons. It was such a change for me.”

Her family opted to remain in Bosnia because they thought the war would not last long.

The early 1990s being pre-Internet days meant Dizdarevic knew little about Malaysia. In fact, she thought Malaysia would resemble Hawaii, though she knew it wasn’t an island.

Having been educated in Bosnian, it was tough picking up English and Bahasa Malaysia. However, most difficult was not knowing what had become of her family, as phone lines were down and there was no opportunity for correspondence. A year later, she was relieved to learn that they were all fine.

“It was difficult because I was all alone, and I was responsible for how my life was going to pan out, so if I made a mistake, there was nobody to step in to sort it out for me.” She knew that blaming the world and expecting to be owed good fortune were not constructive thoughts.

Climate apart, Dizdarevic experienced the same culture shock any European would when she arrived here, particularly the food. “Everything tasted like nasi briyani, for some reason, so I ended up eating McDonald’s for six months and put on 15kg.” 

Fast food was certainly a treat, given that she came from a socialist country that was not privy to capitalist luxuries.

Even the laidback nature of Malaysia caught her off-guard. “School back home was tough. In high school, I had more than 14 subjects to complete through the year,” she said, revealing the scale of expectation of the education system back home.

Adapting to Malaysia’s multi-cultural society took some getting used to, but before long, she was hopping on mini buses and hanging out at Kota Raya in KL, too.

Although she came here to study economics, after the first six months she spent learning English, she felt it did not complement her personality and switched courses to study public relations instead. Once she graduated, she realised that going back to Bosnia was not an option. 

As a once-socialist nation, the PR industry was in its infancy at that time.

“So I decided to continue staying here, learn the ropes for a couple of years, and then maybe go back home after that.” Those two years made her realise that she had learnt more about Malaysia then what her country was like post-war.

Eventually, Dizdarevic landed herself a job at one of the leading technology companies in Malaysia and got a hang of the job after serving there for a number of years. “I was good in tech PR and got to work with all the tech multinational companies ... probably 40 to 50 companies.”

The time then came for her to spread her wings and spearhead her own endeavour. Today, she heads SWOT Communications, a team comprising six staff members who all operate with the flexible arrangement of working from home.

“The way I saw things, it was only fit for me to do it my way. And by that, I mean having the right team and working with clients who best appreciate what we have to offer. We work based on objectives, so we look at the entire project and base it on KPI-driven remuneration.”

Edina Dizdarevic and her biggest achievement, her son Khal. 

Dizdarevic is a single parent to a six-month-old boy, Khal. Juggling both her “babies” has been tough, but Dizdarevic takes after the strong-willed women in her family, like her mum, aunts and sister.

“It was really tough the first six months because it was just me and the baby, and managing my career.” She eventually got a maid and is now able to manage her work and family life better.

While she has achieved so much in life, even though her path was not paved in gold, ask her about her greatest satisfaction in life thus far, and Dizdarevic will barely bat an eyelid before answering, “my son, of course”.

Even with all the obstacles she has had to overcome, she holds nothing against life. “Life should be about getting what you want and learning to deal with the consequences that come with it. I believe the universe is benevolent. Everything happens for a good reason ... even the bad episodes are just the way the world tells us to change our paths.”

And changing paths is something she knows best. After all, she didn’t ask to be caught in the middle of a civil war at a young age, or to leave home and travel thousands of miles to a foreign land to start life anew. But that’s really how the fickle finger of fate deals its cards.

Upon some prompting, she offered this bit of sound advice on a parting note: “You have to know yourself and what you want from life and why you want it. You will never go after something with all you’ve got if you don’t know what’s motivating you to want it. 

"Also, invest in yourself ... build yourself to have confidence to handle the change and move on to better things. And finally, never let fear hold you back from doing what you want to do.”

   

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