It’s All a Matter of Perspective

Brooke Hoyer
Brooke Hoyer / The Immigrant Story

His left arm lay dangling from his body. The angle was alarming–entirely unnatural. His midsection was in shreds, ripped apart by Serbian shrapnel that had punctured  his lungs and stomach. What Samir Mustafic did not yet know was that along with all the other injuries, his spinal cord had been severed in the attack on his small village of Bužim.

He also was unaware that just around the corner of their two-story house, his mother and one of his sisters had been hit in the same bombing. Both were dying.

The date was June 30, 1993, 14 months into the Bosnian War. Mustafic was 21 years old.

“I remember shaking my head and feeling dirt and gunpowder in my mouth,” he said. “I looked to the left, and my arm was almost detached.”

His injuries were so severe that few people gave him any chance of survival.

Mustafic proved them wrong. He is now 49 years old and a software architect for the state of Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services Information Technology. He and his wife met while riding the bus to high school in Bosnia. They have 15-year-old twins, a boy named Ahmed and a girl, Ajsa. Mustafic teaches Sunday school at Portland’s Islamic Bosniaks Educational and Cultural Organization (IBECO). He has never wasted one nanosecond feeling sorry for himself.

“For me, my philosophy, everything in my life — and I mean everything — is perspective,” Mustafic said. “You can choose to interpret the worst things that happen in a positive way, or the best things in life in a negative way.”

A Cow, Some Chickens, Maybe Some Sheep

According to Samir, the Mustafic family was just like almost every other household in their small village in the most northwestern corner of Bosnia. They lived in a tidy house on a hilltop with some land they shared with neighbors. Orchards flourished in the common areas. Most of the families kept farm animals for sale or for their own consumption.

“We always had at least one cow, some chickens and occasionally some sheep,” he remembered. 

Most of Bosnia was religiously mixed. In, however, nearly all the population was Muslim, or Bosniak.

“Life was simple and peaceful and quiet,” he said. “Natural beauty was all around you. The air was clean.”

Samir had two older sisters, Merima and Edina. His father, Ibrahim, worked in a small store, and his mother, Fatima, was a homemaker. From Fatima, Samir inherited his spiritual devotion.

“It was not the case with most of my friends, but I have always been a practicing Muslim, even as a child,” he said. “For the most part, that was thanks to my mother.”

Fatima was very religious, Samir said. “I looked up to her and didn’t want to disappoint her.”

Samir, in his early 20s, with his grandma, a World War II widow who raised six children–including Samir’s mother–on her own.

Samir, in his early 20s, with his grandma, a World War II widow who raised six children–including Samir’s mother–on her own. Photo Credit: Mustafic Family Archives

This meant daily prayers. In addition to his regular school, Samir attended religion classes. When, as they stumbled into adolescence, his friends began imbibing alcohol, Samir abstained. He quietly assumed that when he married, his wife would wear a headcover.

 The whole family worked in the fields and cared for the animals. Starting when he was quite young, Samir was charged with taking their cows to market. He became an adept negotiator, holding out for the highest price per pound, and usually selling each cow for the equivalent of three months of his father’s salary.

“I literally was the only kid who was taking the cows to sell,” he said. 

Sometimes the adults who wanted to purchase his cows would try to bargain him down. Always he stuck to his price.

“I would raise my hand and say, ‘No, really,’” he said.

Samir did well in school, excelling in math and even representing his school in regional competitions. His goal was to become a teacher.

Bužim was so small that the school only ran through eighth grade. Throughout Bosnia, the only variation in these primary schools was which foreign language was offered. Samir studied Russian, but never enjoyed it. English, he said, “was really not an option.”

Love on the Bus

To reach the nearest high school, in a city called Bosanka Krupa, 21 miles away, Samir bought a monthly pass on the city bus.

Curiously, though both were from the same small town, Samir had never met the attractive girl who eventually began riding his bus. Elvira was two years his junior. She knew his sisters. He knew her brothers.

“She was somewhat tall and skinny back then,” he said. He was drawn in by her striking green eyes.

“She was someone, even as a kid, you could see she had a strong character,” Samir said. “She is very fair and very courageous.”

They began meeting for coffee.

“Soon,” he said, “it developed into a relationship.”

They cut classes and snuck off to the movies.

“Obviously,” he said, “school suffered for both of us because of that.”

Coffee shops in Bosanka Krupa–the locals called it simply “Krupa”– were known as bars. Many were located along the river Una.

“We would spend hours and hours there,” he said.

An historic pedestrian bridge in the city was a popular destination for Krupa’s lovebirds. Samir and Elvira hung out there as well.

They were young, and their universe was compact and predictable. Instead of discussing long-term plans for a joint future of excitement and adventure, they talked about how they might spend the next week.

Though they joked about it, there was one minor element of discord between them.

“I kept teasing her that my future wife was going to wear a headscarf,” Samir said. “She said someone else would be my wife.”

But then came Samir’s graduation, and with it, his obligation to spend a year in the army. Military service was mandatory for young Bosnian males, and though both Samir and Elvira knew his military duty was coming, their separation was difficult.

“You never know where they are going to send you,” he said. “It could be anywhere in the former Yugoslavia. In my case, I ended up being sent to Serbia.”

Young and in love: Samir and Elvira in Sarajevo. Photo Credit: Mustafic Family Archives

In the Army Now

Early on in his deployment, Mustafic saw no signs of impending war.

“But slowly, my eyes were opening,” he said.

One evening, he and his fellow soldiers went out to eat.

“I remember some locals singing songs sung by a movement called Chetniks during World War II,” Mustafic said.

The Chetniks were part of a Serbian nationalist movement that sought to attain ethnic purity in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia by expelling Muslims and Croats. Chetnik guerrillas were said to have carried out mass killings of non-Serbians, including Muslims and Croats. It was chilling, Mustafic said, to hear locals singing Chetnik anthems almost 50 years after the Second World War.

“That was the first time I saw something unusual happening,” Mustafic said.

Mustafic was transferred to a military base in Tuzla, in the northeastern portion of Bosnia. Five days later, he was sent to a munitions depot near the Bosnian city of Doboj. By then, 1991 was halfway over. The Croatian War of Independence–a four-year conflict that successfully liberated Croatia from what by then was known as the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia–had already begun.

“Things were unraveling,” Mustafic said.

At the munitions depot, civilian semi-trailer trucks would pull up in the middle of the night. Under cover of darkness, Mustafic and his fellow soldiers would load the trucks with arms.

“It was exhausting,” he said. “My God, we had to both guard the place and load the munitions.”

When they asked, the Bosnian soldiers were told the weaponry was headed to the Croatian front.

One night in early December 1991, five giant trucks pulled in. After the vehicles were fully loaded, the commander looked around and said the mission was one soldier short for deployment. The commander asked if there were any volunteers.

“I was so tired, so exhausted,” Mustafic said. “I raised my hand. Everyone looked at me. Later on, I realized I was the only non-Serb, the only Bosnian on the mission.”

The captain asked Mustafic if he was sure about his decision.

“And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” he said. As if to explain this potentially rash action, he added: “I was very young — 19.”

Mustafic climbed into the truck. It was headed for Banja Luka, Bosnia’s second-largest city. In one “eye-opening moment” of the journey, “they put an entire box of ammunition for the Serbian version of the AK-47 under my feet. Live ammunition, under my feet.”

From Banja Luka they caravanned to another munitions depot, five times larger than the one Mustafic had left behind. This time, fortune worked in his favor: “The only truck that would stay at the depot and not go to the front was the one I was riding on.”

That night, the commander of the convoy took his soldiers into the city, to a bar.

“In the bar, drunk people with guns, people in uniform, paramilitary people were all over the place,” Mustafic said. “This one guy, he was so drunk, he emptied an entire clip into the air. No one did anything.”

Mustafic said not one word the entire night. The scene in the bar had made him realize he had to get out.

He went back to his barrack and wrote a letter to his family, asking them to send a telegraph with an official letter saying a family member had died. 

“And they did,” he said.

His captain was skeptical when Mustafic said he needed time off to attend the fictional funeral.

“You’re not coming back,” he said. 

But Mustafic protested: Of course he would come back.

It was Dec. 31, 1991, New Year’s Eve. Officially, Mustafic had 59 days left on his military commitment.

“Obviously,” he said, “I did not return.” 

His unlawful departure made him a target for the military police. Mustafic had a cousin who had done the same thing, and the two found creative hiding places. An aunt in Germany offered to find a way to bring the two young men to that country. The cousin said yes. Mustafic said no.

“By that time, I knew the war was coming on. I wanted to stay,” he said. “Family.”

Bosnia achieved independence on March 1, 1992. The war in Bosnia began just weeks later, in April.

“We are watching on the television as they (the Serbs) are taking city by city,” Mustafic said.

As a newly independent nation, Bosnia had no army. “None,” Mustafic said. So the men in Bužim and other towns and villages began gathering up hunting rifles and any other weapons they could find.

“My father had a small handgun and about 15 or 20 bullets,” Mustafic said. “That’s it.”

Mustafic took his father’s gun and said he was going out to fight. He remembered the weapons he had loaded into trucks, night after night.

“I wish I had those AK-47s, but I did not,” he said.

The New Militia

An ad hoc militia of citizens and soldiers organized itself to defend Bužim, a small village in the northwest corner of Bosnia. Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Throughout the region, people began organizing small defense units — 60 people or so. In effect, these were citizens’ armies, but without uniforms or access to heavy weaponry. They elected their own commanders and took to the hills above the cities and towns.

“Bottom line,” said Mustafic, “what made us — even though later I was injured — what made us successful was that there was no Plan B. If we did not succeed, our families would get slaughtered. That’s the bottom line.”

Some people in these makeshift brigades had no weapons at all. The unspoken rule, therefore, was that if someone among them was killed and had a weapon, someone else would take the gun.

Most of those involved were young men, Mustafic said: “My next-door neighbor was elected my commander. He was about 45 at the time.”

Television news coverage reminded the ad hoc militia of just how fast the Serbian troops were advancing.

“They were putting people in camps, raping women and girls,” said Mustafic. “It was horrible, plain horrible.”

A month or so before Serb forces arrived in their area, another man fled the Yugoslav army and came home to Bužim. Izet Nanić was an experienced soldier and began organizing the small, fragmented fighting groups into a more cohesive unit. He told people to start digging holes in the hills.

At first, Mustafic and others were puzzled about why they were digging holes. But soon the digging began to make sense. 

“He wanted to make sure all those hills were connected by trench,” said Mustafic. Next, “he taught us how to build bunkers that could withstand artillery hits.” 

In terms of defense strategy, the area around Bužim had several things going for it. One was its location, at the very end of Bosnia, near the Croatian border.

“So it took them a while to get to us,” Mustafic said.

The other advantage was that the terrain was hilly and deeply wooded, making it hard for Serbian tanks to get through.

Under Nanić’s command, the citizens succeeded in defending their town. 

“The village was never captured,” Mustafic said. “No one went to concentration camps. There is zero doubt that had they (the Serbs) captured the town, it would have been another Srebrenica.”

In the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered by Serbian troops.

Around Bužim, Nanić had built a force of about 2,000 people. Slowly they acquired guns by capturing people or by killing them. Nanić never asked anyone to volunteer for a mission, “because he knew that whoever volunteered most likely would not come back,” Mustafic said.

The five or six brigades that had assembled eventually became the 5th Corps of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nanić, in turn, became the army’s youngest general.

Izet Nanić was killed in August 1995 toward the end of the war. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral, Mustafic said.

It Started as a Happy Day

Under Nanić’s watch, fighters worked seven-day rotations: “Seven days up in the hills, and seven days at home,” Mustafic said.

After about a year of fending off the Serbs, Mustafic was home on one of those breaks. The family home was full of joy because Samir was home and because his older sister was coming to visit with her husband, Elvir Muratovic.

“It was a happy day,” he recalled. “We were going to see her baby son for the first time.”

Early on in the Serb assault, people would run to their basements whenever the shelling started. But a year in, “people got used to the shellings,” Mustafic said. “Over time, you lose that sense of danger.”

Mustafic and his brother-in-law went out to the orchard to pick some pears. Inside the house, Mustafic’s dad and his middle sister were cooing over the three-month-old baby. His older sister was standing at the front of the house with their mother. When the shelling started, Mustafic realized it was close by. He called out to his brother-in-law to head back into the house.

“We were just about to clear the corner when the second one landed right in the middle of the common area,” Mustafic said, exactly where he had been picking fruit. “What I remember was being physically thrown back several feet. That detonation was so strong, it just threw me back like a football.”

In the rush to try to help Mustafic’s mother and sister, not everyone realized that Mustafic also had been hit. For his part, Mustafic did not know his mother and sister had been injured.

“What happened to my mother and sister was gruesome,” he said. “But I did not learn about that until months later.”

He took one look at his own injuries and thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my arm.”

He began calling for help, but no one could hear him. No one was sure exactly where he had gone, and in the confusion, no one realized he was missing.

At last Hari Sahinovic, a friend from a nearby village, bent over to try to help Mustafic.  Sahinovic, a year younger than Samir, was his best friend. Hari bandaged his friend’s arm, then tried to stanch his other wounds.

“The doctors said he not only saved my arm, he saved my life,” Mustafic said. 

He added, neither casually nor dismissively, but in the stark-reality way of someone who has seen too many deaths, “By the way,” he said of the best friend who saved him, “ he was later killed.”

Mustafic was in shock. The shell had landed on his left side, sending some shrapnel directly through his body. Some shrapnel remained inside him.

“I didn’t realize the severity of my injuries,” he said. The fact that he was paralyzed was not yet clear to him. “It did not even enter my mind that my spinal cord was injured, too. I knew that I was bleeding — from everywhere, really.”

Another neighbor loaded Mustafic into a car and drove him to the nearest clinic, about two miles away. The only doctor on duty took one look and knew he couldn’t do much, other than try to stop the bleeding. 

The neighbors piled him into another car and set off for a hospital in a larger town, about 15 miles away. 

“At that hospital, they looked at the wounds and said I needed to go to the regional hospital, which was another 20 miles away,” in the city of Bihać, Mustafic said.

This time, they put him in an ambulance supplied by the United Nations. The area where the smaller hospital was located had been designated as a U.N. safe haven, and French troops were on the ground. A French doctor rode in the ambulance along with Mustafic.

“On the way to the regional hospital, my heart stopped,” Mustafic said. “The French doctor performed CPR and brought me back.”

At the hospital in Bihać, the medical staff had been briefed on Mustafic’s injuries. He was taken directly to surgery, where one team worked on his arm while a second team concentrated on his stomach and lungs.

“They didn’t do anything about my spinal cord,” he said, “They really couldn’t. They didn’t have the resources.”


A Sip of Tea

During his long and difficult convalescence, a cup of tea was for Samir like liquid gold. Photo Credit: Mustafic Family Archives

The three-plus-year Siege of Sarajevo became known as the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. But in the western part of Bosnia, Bihać was under siege by the Serbs for three years as well. Officially, Bihać was part of the United Nations’ “safe area.” But the outlines of that safety zone were fuzzy, Mustafic said: “It was shaped like a kidney.”

This meant that “there were times when the front line was as close as 500 yards from the hospital.” Patients were relegated to basements and areas previously used for storage. Sometimes, beds for patients were hastily set up in areas that had been damaged by bombs.

“It truly was a very miserable situation,” he said. “The hospital had limited supplies and limited resources.”

But in the course of becoming adept at treating traumatic injuries, the Bihać  medical staff themselves had become quite resourceful. They made do with what they had and sometimes got creative with their treatments. During the long initial surgery after Mustafic was admitted, doctors placed what seemed to be random metal spokes that protruded from his left arm in an attempt to stabilize the arm and promote healing.

“That was not part of the normal protocol. They invented it,” he said. “But they tried it, and it worked.”

Still, the doctors and nurses kept a close eye on their patient. No one was certain that Mustafic would survive.

“All they would say was, ‘He seems to be stable for now. For him to get better, in the long run, he needs to get out of this country.’”

His condition was so precarious that at the funeral of his wife and daughter, Mustafic’s father was told that his son had died as well.

“It was a rumor, obviously,” Mustafic said. “But he obviously was devastated. He was burying one of his children, and now his wife, and then he hears this?”

Immediately after the funerals, his father rushed to the hospital. He carefully did not tell his son that his mother and sister had died.

All but immobilized in his hospital bed, Mustafic began to feel pain for the first time since the bombing. He also felt profound thirst. It was as if his mouth had become the Sahara Desert.

“In my case, that lasted 13 days,” he said. “My body was getting liquid from the IV, but they felt I was not ready to drink liquids. On day 13, I had a cousin who worked at that hospital. She’s the one who, with the doctors’ approval,  gave me a sip of tea on day 13.

“To this day, I remember that feeling. There is no wealth, no gold, no diamond that compares to that first sip of tea.”

That same day, negotiations were underway between Bosnian leaders and Serb officials who wanted to take some of their injured troops out of Bosnia. The Bihać patients had become bargaining chips. Of the 100 or more patients, many needed further treatment — ideally, outside of Bosnia. The Serbs turned hard-nosed and agreed to let just two patients leave the area.

“You have to understand,” Mustafic said, “in war, everything can be a weapon — including food, water and medical injuries.”

The Serbs clarified their conditions: Two people, the following morning, 10 o’clock.

“And I was one of those two people,” Mustafic said. The other patient was a young man with severe head injuries.

“I guess something terrible happened to me, and I can choose to focus on that,” he said. “But I prefer to focus on the many miracles that happened after that.”

On the fourteenth day after his injury, they pumped him full of pain medication and put him and the head-injured patient into a U.N. ambulance bound for Croatia. Mustafic was groggy from the pain meds, but remembers that at one point, the U.N. ambulance ground to a halt and the door opened. It was a border checkpoint. Serbian soldiers peered in to examine the passengers.

Mustafic was probably too woozy to feel fear. But now he points out that “there were many cases under similar circumstances where they would just pull people out and shoot them.”

A Long Medical Odyssey Begins

In Zagreb, Croatia, Mustafic was once again transferred, this time to a hospital in Ljubljana, the capital of neighboring Slovenia. The first thing he remembers there is how the doctors puzzled over the spokes protruding from his left arm.

“They couldn’t explain them,” he said.

Back he went to surgery, this time to insert metal plates around his spinal cord. He carries those plates to this day. In a second operation that quickly followed, doctors replaced the strange metal spokes in his arm with more conventional medical equipment. Days later, Mustafic happened to look over as nurses were changing the dressings on his arm.

“I remember seeing the hole in my arm,” he said. “There were portions of my arm, completely missing.”

Mustafic spent the next nine months at the main hospital in Ljubljana. Communication was a challenge: He spoke Bosnian and they spoke Slovenian. But the languages were similar enough that Mustafic mostly managed to make himself understood.

In all those months in the hospital and while undergoing rehab, no one wanted to tell Mustafic that he would never walk again.

“I think they thought it was easier for me to reach that conclusion on my own,” he said.

Phone calls were expensive, and typically kept short for that reason. Every time he talked to his father or his sister, he would ask, “Where’s my mother? Where’s my sister?” 

Oh, they would reply, sounding as casual as possible, they’re just out right now.

Mustafic sensed that his family was trying to protect him. So when a cousin who lived in Slovenia came to see him in the hospital, Mustafic pounced.

“I said, ‘I know this is difficult for everyone to tell me, but I think I know what is going on with my mother and sister.’”

He continued: “‘I just want to ask you, one of them, or both?’”

His cousin put his head down and softly replied, “Both.”

Mustafic looked at his cousin and said, “Thank you.”

Nevertheless, he says now, “I think the most difficult day of my life was when I heard about my mother and sister.”

But even at such a dark moment, his sense of perspective kicked in: “For 10 days, I told myself that focusing on that was not going to help.” If he wanted his own body to get better, he told himself: “I need to move on.”

Frequent phone calls to his family–and of course to Elvira–helped sustain Samir during long hospitalizations, far from home. Photo Credit: Mustafic Family Archives

His mother and sister never left their central place in his heart. But sure enough, as soon as Mustafic persuaded himself that if he wanted to stay alive, he needed to concentrate on recovering, another miracle appeared.

Far from Slovenia, in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove, Illinois, a wealthy industrialist named Halil Puskar had set aside his business interests and established a nonprofit called the Bosnia Relief Fund USA. In 1996, the fund’s assets were listed on its website as “$50 million or greater.” As it happened, Puskar hailed from the same area of Bosnia as Mustafic.

A Parade of Miracles

As Mustafic lay in his hospital bed in Ljubljana, Puskar was heading to Bosnia to deliver aid. Once you get past the fact that Mustafic was nearly killed and was left paralyzed in a Serbian bombing of his small village, he does seem to have a lucky charm tucked in a hidden pocket. In this instance, the miracle was that Puskar happened to meet one of Mustafic’s cousins. As soon as Puskar heard what happened to the young  freedom fighter from his own neck of the Bosnian woods, Puskar decided to visit Mustafic in the hospital.

“He was a really interesting character,” Mustafic said. “You could just feel the presence, wherever he was.”

Puskar took a lot of pictures, Mustafic said, photographing the young man from many different angles. He told Mustafic that he would do his best to get him to the United States for further medical treatment.

It was a nice idea, Mustafic thought, and a very generous offer. “But you have to remember that at this point I don’t even have a passport. I don’t have any documents. I don’t have anything. I had no reason to believe that anything would come out of it.

“For me to even think I was eventually going to end up in America, it was beyond my wildest imagination or dreams,” he said.

Days later, as Mustafic tells the story, Puskar’s wife attended a fundraising event for Bosnian refugees in — of all places — Portland, Oregon. Among the guests was a doctor from the small Oregon city of Roseburg, about three hours south of Portland. Puskar’s wife poured out the story of her husband’s visit to Mustafic to this doctor, Nasim Ashraf.

In a recent telephone interview from his current home near Washington, D.C., Ashraf said he was moved by the story because Bosnia was in the news — and not in a good way.

“After this whole genocide thing had become public, and we were reading about it in the newspaper and seeing it on CNN and such, there was a general feeling that what was happening over there was terrible. It was genocide,” Ashraf said. “On the larger scale of humanitarianism, one wished that one could do something.”

After speaking with Puskar’s wife, Ashraf went back to Roseburg and talked about Mustafic’s case with his colleagues, including a plastic surgeon named Dr. Douglas Bitter. Officials at Douglas Community Hospital told Ashraf that before they could agree to bring him to Oregon for treatment, they would need documentation of Mustafic’s injuries.

Ashraf felt certain that without treatment in the U.S., Mustafic would likely be dead within one year. Because his injuries were so severe, Ashraf also thought that even with aggressive medical intervention and rehab work, Mustafic would probably face a highly compromised future.

“I didn’t have a lot of hope for this kid,” he admitted.

Still, Ashraf, Bitter and officials from Douglas Community Hospital  decided to take the risk. Ashraf said the hospital administrator agreed to take Mustafic’s case at no charge.

Under ordinary circumstances, the process of immigrating to the United States can take years. Add the layers of war, the absence of appropriate documentation and cultural and language barriers, and the quagmire grows thicker. But Mustafic’s medical needs were urgent, and the U.S. team supporting him was highly motivated.

“They found that the fastest way to bring me in was on a tourist visa,” Mustafic said. 

That gambit has turned into an ironic laugh line for Mustafic.

“I joke with my Bosnian friends that all of them came in as refugees, and I was the only tourist,” he said.

Suddenly, Mustafic-the-tourist was on a plane to Chicago. The following day, another airplane took him to Oregon. It was May 1994, just under a year since the bombing in the orchard.

Arriving in Chicago from Bosnia, Samir was greeted like a celebrity. He spoke barely a word of English. Photo Credit: Mustafic Family Archives

Television cameras greeted him when his plane landed in Eugene, Oregon. Mustafic spoke no English, but he did hear a certain word repeated over and over. The word was “surgery.”

“Later on, I realized what it meant,” he said.

A van took him from Eugene to  Roseburg. (Douglas Community Hospital closed in 2000.) Almost immediately, Mustafic felt oddly at home. Roseburg was located among thickly wooded hills, just like Bužim. How was it possible that he had been transported halfway around the world, only to find a place so like the area he had left behind?

Dr. Bitter, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who specializes in hands, headed Mustafic’s medical team. When he first met his new patient, Dr. Bitter saw not only a badly injured young man, but a man who both spoke no English and was quite malnourished.

There were times, he admitted, when “I thought we might have gotten ourselves in over our head.”

More specifically, he wondered, “What the heck have we gotten ourselves into?”

But Dr. Bitter never paused to question the importance of the work he was about to undertake — at no charge.

“Well, it’s nothing unusual for doctors,” he said. “You are trained to help people, and if you can help someone, you do.”

Dr. Bitter knew he would need to find another doctor to take part in what promised to be at least 12 hours of surgery. So he called an old friend, Dr. Rick Brown, who had trained with Bitter in Springfield, Illinois. Brown agreed to fly out and take part in the surgery.

Mustafic still marvels at how the pieces of his medical puzzle seemed to slide effortlessly together once he got to the U.S.

“How many miracles, for things to line up so perfectly?” he said. “If that’s not fate, you tell me what is.”

In the end, the surgery took not 12 hours, but 18. As Bitter explained, the human arm contains three major nerves. In Mustafic’s case, two of those nerves were “basically transected.” The third nerve had also been damaged.

Nerves regenerate slowly — and not always completely. Even with extensive post-surgical physical therapy, it was not clear how much movement Mustafic would regain in his arm or hand.

A year or so later, Mustafic saw Dr. Bitter for a return appointment.

“I went back and squeezed his hand, and his eyes bulged,” Mustafic said. “This was a lost cause, and they made it work.”

Dr. Ashraf, who oversaw Mustafic’s recovery for close to five years, has another explanation: “He truly is a miracle, and it’s all because of his will.”

Soon after he arrived, a family in Roseburg stepped up to let Mustafic live with them. Scott and Becky Howell ran a daycare center out of their home. They also had three young children of their own.

Mustafic smiled as he remembered, “It seemed like there were a million children there on any day.”

But as he awaited word on his surgery, the wheelchair-bound Bosnian forged a special bond with Lorin, the Howells’ youngest child.

“She was just 18 months old,” he said. “Her smile was majestic. She and I just connected.”

In fact, he said, “I often say she and I learned English together.”

As a war casualty, Mustafic had faced the worst in human nature. And now here he was, surrounded by strangers who wanted only to help him.

“Good people are good people, no matter what,” he said. “Here I am in Roseburg, Oregon, a young Muslim man” and around him, kindness was pouring forth.

His Christian host family, for instance, was unfamiliar with the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. But they quickly schooled themselves, and made sure Mustafic was well-fed during the non-fasting times. A local Baptist church organized a fundraiser to help Mustafic get started in America. A lawyer who told Mustafic she was Jewish helped him receive political asylum.

“There are people who had so much evil, they were willing to kill not just enemies, but children, women,” he said. “Then there are people who could go on with their lives and not stop to think about you, but they chose to step out of their comfort zones and help a human being.”

He paused, then added: “That alone gives me hope.”

On His Own

Eventually, Mustafic regained enough movement in his hand and arm that it was time for him to start living on his own.

“Okay,” the Howells told him, “but you have to find an apartment close to us.”

He did.

It turned out that for Mustafic, the march of miracles was not yet over.

“I’m in the hospital one day, and this guy comes in in a wheelchair,” Mustafic said. “He says, ‘Hi, my name is Jeff. I brought you a car.”

Jeff explained that his career as a truck driver had ended after a serious accident. He had adapted an old car so he could drive using hand controls. But now that he had finally gotten an insurance settlement, Jeff was going to get something better.

“Here are the keys, here is the title,” he told Mustafic. Of course, he added, there were some mechanical issues that would need addressing.

“My physical therapist is listening,” Mustafic said, “and he says, ‘I like to fix cars. Let me take a look.’”

So Mustafic and his therapist friend take the car out for a hand-controlled test spin.

“The fact that I didn’t kill anybody that first day is yet another miracle,” he said.

As he continued his rehabilitation in the months following the surgery, Mustafic took a few basic ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. With his confidence about speaking English growing, he signed up for more courses at Roseburg’s Umpqua Community College. In one writing class, he was assigned to put together a paragraph of three to five sentences. Mustafic tried and tried, but his written English was not up to the task. He went to his teacher, almost in tears, and said he was going to drop the class.

“She said, ‘Don’t give up. If you just stay in class, I’ll give you a passing grade.’” He did, and she did, too.

A vocational rehabilitation counselor in Roseburg also noticed how motivated Mustafic seemed. The counselor told him about a Portland-based program designed to train disabled people in computer programming. It was rigorous, the counselor warned: Five days a week, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Male students were required to wear a suit and tie to every session.

Mustafic said, “I’m in.”

At the end of the course, Mustafic was selected as student of the year. That same Friday, he got a job offer from the IT director of United Grocers. The job was to begin the following Monday, with a starting salary of $29,000.

“Here I am, disabled. I’ve never held a job. But I like to negotiate,” Mustafic said.

Suddenly he was a grown-up version of the little boy selling the family’s cows. He demanded $30,000, said he wanted the company to pay for his continuing education and asserted that he needed two hours of flex time for prayer. The following Monday he started his new job.

Love, Rekindled

“My wife will wear a headscarf,” Samir told Elvira when they were courting, “Then someone else will be your wife,” she replied. Married and living in Oregon, they are the parents of teenage twins. Elvira happily wears a headscarf. Photo Credit: Brooke Hoyer

Because Mustafic seemed to be a magnet for miracles, Dr. Ashraf called in 1996 and asked if he would like to see his family.

Mustafic said of course.

And Ashraf said, let’s make it happen.

When he went back that first time, about 50 people were waiting for him at the border.

“Everyone was so eager to see me, and I was so eager to see everyone,” he said.

There was one person he was especially keen on seeing.

“I had this feeling in my stomach. I was so nervous,” he said. 

But as he and Elvira locked eyes, “that spark was still there. It was so obvious to both of us.”

But by then they were living a world away from one another.

“There was so much to keep us apart,” he said.

Luckily, there were phone calls to keep them together. Mustafic said he spent just about every available dime on phone calls to Bosnia.

Two years later, he returned home again. This time, “we just couldn’t stay apart.”

But her family had doubts. If she married Samir, “it would mean she would have to leave, go so far away, into the unknown,” he said.

And while this issue was never discussed outright, “I’m sure my disability played some role in it.”

Still, “no one could dissuade her.”

In 2001, the pair was married in Bosnia. Even with Mustafic working political and diplomatic channels, it took 2½ years to bring Elvira to the U.S. 

“It would have been even longer without the help of (Oregon) Sen. Ron Wyden,” he said.

Back in Oregon, Mustafic had been bouncing between consulting jobs, including one for the state of Oregon. By 2005, Elvira was pregnant with the twins. Mustafic needed a job with good benefits. He signed on as a senior developer for the state, and then became team leader. Later he was promoted to his current position, software architect.

“It’s a cliché, but it is really true, I believe it: The sky’s the limit if you’re willing to work hard and do your best,” he said.

At home in Milwaukie, Samir and Elvira (far left) share a good laugh with twins Ajsa, right, and Ahmed, sitting to Samir’s left, directly above his shoulder. Photo Credit: Brooke Hoyer

Making Sense of It All

An estimated 100,000 people were killed in the 3½-year Bosnian War; another 2 million or more were displaced. The war officially ended with the signing in Paris on Dec. 14, 1995, of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

If there is an overriding theme to any of this, Mustafic said, it is this: “I saw this in Bosnia, and I see it here. Conflict has always been part of human history and human experience. But conflict often is either initiated or exacerbated by people who have certain interests. I don’t think that will ever end.

“But I do believe in working toward minimizing and eliminating that. And the way to do that is to help people understand, to communicate — to have someone walk in your shoes, roll in your wheelchair. Unless we understand each other, that will lead to conflict.”

Again, Mustafic returns to the notion that — for close to 50 years on this earth — has given him ballast.

Samir tells his story before a live audience in Portland, during genocide awareness month in April, 2022.

“So many problems exist because people are not willing to consider the other perspective,” he said. “They group us into Democrats and Republicans, Christians and Muslims, Blacks and whites — I could go on and on into the groups that divide us.

Samir tells his story before a live audience in Portland, during genocide awareness month in April, 2022.

“The only division that I recognize is that there are good people and there are bad people.”

Mustafic dwells on that theme in his Sunday school classes at IBECO. He also tells his young Muslim students: “Remember that you are an ambassador, an ambassador of immigrants and of Muslims. Always make sure you show your very best.”

Samir, Elvira and the twins reside in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. The family returns to Bosnia every year. In fact they have built a small house there, where his father now lives. Samir wants his children to have a sense of their family and the region the family came from.

“I wish you could see the area where I come from,” he said. “It’s very beautiful — a lot like Oregon.”