The Elusive Feeling of Safety

John Rudoff
John Rudoff / The Immigrant Story

It was dark when they left. They walked and walked, women, children, parents, elders, through the woods, up hills, until his feet hurt and his grandfather had to scoop him up onto his shoulders so they could keep moving.

He didn’t know where they were going, or what had happened. A few weeks before, he had been playing like any other child with his friends outside his family’s farm house in Sanica, Bosnia. And then men came and took his father, Asmir, away. In the coming days, bombs rained down and he was in the basement, hiding with his family. But they couldn’t hide anymore. Serbs were coming to his town to kill more Muslims, rape more women.

That day, in his mother’s eyes, Adi Ramic saw true fear. They left quickly, stuffing blankets and anything they could into backpacks. At a Serbian checkpoint, a man ripped his grandmother’s earrings off her. People were punched and kicked.

Adi and his family were able to reach a makeshift shelter at a gym packed with hundreds of people fleeing the violence.

“People were on top of each other; the smell was horrible. I remember just a couple of days into it my whole family got lice because, you know, the conditions were just miserable. You’re sleeping on the ground. You don’t have access to showers. You don’t have access to the normal stuff you would expect as a human being … ” he says. “My childhood turned from paradise into complete hell.”

As a boy about 7 years old, Ramic didn’t understand much of what was going on, that war had broken out between Serbia and Bosnia following the breakup of Yugoslavia after the death of President Josip Broz Tito, who had overseen Yugoslavia with a firm hand that kept the country together. More than 100,000 people were killed during the violence that erupted from 1992-1995 and 2.2 million were displaced, according to estimates. It was the deadliest conflict up to that date in Europe since World War II, and the longest siege of a capital city–Sarajevo–in the history of modern warfare.

The Ramic family enjoyed liveing in Sanica, Bosnia before they had to flee the genocide. This photo was taken in 1986. Clockwise from left are Adi’s sister Ema, Adi, his father Asmir and mother Admira. Photo courtesy of Ramic family archives

It wasn’t until years later, Ramic, now 35, was even able to make sense of any of it –if you can ever make sense of such a thing.

“I hate to call it a war because it was a 100 percent genocide, like it just was ethnic cleansing of Muslim people that were in Bosnia,’’ he says. “ … I lost family members.”

Ramic’s family found sanctuary in the gym for a few weeks, relieved they had escaped the slaughter. But their journey continued, first to Croatia, then to Germany and eventually to the U.S. on a refugee status where they settled in Washington state.

But the sense of safety he had as a child, playing on his family’s farm with his sister and extended family, was lost then. Each relocation brought its own set of problems. And now, as a Portland police officer on the front lines of nightly protests, he is reminded of conflict, violence and fear. That true feeling of safety, always elusive.

Crossing Borders

In Croatia, unlike the gym in Bosnia, Ramic was able to play outside again, not worried about being shot, as long as he didn’t wander far.

And he was reunited with his father, someone he had thought was gone forever. His dad, once big and burly, weighing in at 250 pounds, returned gaunt, his face sunken in. He was so different looking from the abuse he had endured that at first Ramic was frightened of him.

“I remember him walking in and I was like, who is that man? He looks very familiar and he opened his mouth and I’m like my God. Everything happened so quickly and minutes later I’m hugging him and kissing him and overly joyed and surprised and any positive emotion you can think of I was feeling during that time,” Ramic remembers. “That was a good day.”

When he was taken in Bosnia, his father had said goodbye to him in a way that made it sound like he was leaving for a normal outing, that his father was just off for a jaunt with his buddies.

“I do remember looking out the window and seeing them going on this truck, and there was already a lot of people on them. I was small enough that I was like whatever, they are going to hang out,” he says.

Reunited in Croatia, the family planned its next move. While they had found a respite, the war was still raging.

When his uncle moved to Germany and married, he was able to sponsor the family so they could move to Hamburg as war refugees. His dad moved first. Then Ramic and his sister and mom joined him. Germany provided a haven to rebuild, thrive. But it was humbling as well. They stayed in low-cost housing filled with other refugees from all over the world. The only job his parents could find was cleaning offices and buildings and he and his sister would help them.

Adi found joy in Hamburg Germany playing soccer after resettling there in the early 1990s. He is with his father, Asmir Ramic, who had played soccer in Bosnia. Behind them on the sidewalk is his grandfather, Abid Ramic, who was always looking out for Adi and his family. Photo courtesy of Ramic family archives

“I was basically the trash guy and my sister would wipe down desks,’’ Ramic says. “It’s definitely not something an 11- or 12-year-old wants to do. But at the same time, we were all together, my mom and dad and my sister and I, and my grandpa and grandma, like a team of us… We were like a little tornado, a cleaning tornado. We had so much pride doing a job that some people probably look down on. But for us, we’re just like, we are going to be the best cleaning team this place has ever seen.”

And while there was no longer violence around the corner, they still felt like guests in a country that could force them out at any time.

At one point in Germany, the family rented out a basement, 14 family members all living in the same tiny space. His uncle employed his dad in his framing business and the Ramics made strides. Ramic and his sister learned German. Ramic, who is athletic, played soccer and made friends. He was happy.

But when the war was declared over in 1995, after NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs, and the U.S. brokered a peace agreement, the family, indeed just guests in the country, had to leave. Germany would not continue to house the refugees. The war had leveled Bosnia’s infrastructure. There wasn’t much to go back to; people were still disappearing and there was little hope. They sought asylum in the U.S.

“Our bar of locations, places and countries and continents was very low,’’ he says. “Our lens was like, is anybody going to try to hurt us? Is anybody going to try to do anything bad to us? If not, it was a good place. Safety was a No. 1 concern. That’s all you thought about.”

After seven years in Germany, they left for the U.S. on Ramic’s 13th birthday. It was bittersweet. He wanted to celebrate with his friends, but the U.S. was their future. Once again he’d have to learn a new language, make new friends. Adjust. Adjust. Adjust.

And they had to separate from his grandparents, who relocated to Norway with other relatives.

“In our Bosnian culture we are very close to our grandparents … saying goodbye to them especially during an uncertain time was difficult,’’ he says. “That’s one thing that pisses me off about the war the most … I missed out on a lot of time with my grandparents and I’m pretty mad about that. ‘’

Adi, 12, at center, and his family wave goodbye to friends when they leave Germany for America after their residential status was up. It was a bittersweet farewell, says Adi who had come to love Hamburg. Photo courtesy of Ramic family archives

In the U.S. the Ramic family started over yet again. They settled in Battle Ground, Washington, with the help of sponsors. His father, who had been a mechanical engineer in Bosnia, worked digging holes to pay the bills. His mother worked in a retirement home, doing laundry. His parents were role models who showed the rest of the family that hard work is always the only way forward.

Slowly, Ramic started once again fitting into his new life. He mastered English, did well in classes, played sports and worked hard to fit in at Battle Ground High School.

As a Muslim, that wasn’t always easy, especially after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.

“There was a lot of Muslim-phobia going on in the United States. I think during that time it was very acceptable to generalize an entire religion over the actions of a few very, very bad men,” Ramic says. “But I remember even some of the people that I considered maybe not friends but acquaintances, somebody you’d say hi to, people started looking at me differently. My sister and I were the only two Muslims in our high school that I knew of … ”

For two teens trying to adapt to a completely new life, it was a tense time.

“We were scared. Not scared physically, it’s not like people were threatening us, doing bad things to us but you turn on the news and all you see is just negativity and you are just like, ‘Oh man I’ve seen this before,’ “ he says.

Ramic understood the potential consequences because he had seen the toll of that kind of thinking.

“When this happens, it could turn into a war,” he remembers wondering. “Does that mean that they are going to kick us out of here because we are Muslim?”

While most people were good to the Ramics, there were many hurtful comments from friends and schoolmates. The family still felt like guests in a country, and their residency a privilege. People had opinions, who was he to talk them out of it and risk a fight? Who was he to think he could change their minds?

“People definitely made some inappropriate comments, offensive comments for sure against my religion,’’ he says. “… but I would never get confrontational with people. I would nod my head and go my own way because I don’t know, I was done seeing so much fighting and confrontation.”

Now he sees this period differently, wishing he had said more, explained, educated others. But that came with time and confidence, a sense of security, and permanence. Five years after arriving in the U.S, the family became citizens.

He remembers the joyful conversation with his parents.

“We are Americans now. No one can kick us out of here,’’ he told them.

And his parents responded: “We’re not putting you guys through moving, learning a new language, making new friends. Get comfortable. This is where you guys are going to be.”

After high school, Ramic attended Western Washington University and set his sights on teaching German or physical education. But teachers in the U.S. don’t get quite the same respect as they did in Bosnia, he says.

Camaraderie in the force

While coaching youth soccer, he met a Portland police sergeant. The sergeant was the father of one of his players and he told Ramic that because of his life experience he’d make a good cop.

Ramic was hesitant. Law enforcement in Bosnia was part of the government regime, not to be trusted as being on the side of citizens. And certainly, his parents and relatives would not approve.

But after a ride-along, he changed his mind. The police department was a family, a team. There was a sense of camaraderie, belonging. And there was another lure if he became a police officer — he could be an envoy to the immigrant community, someone who could help them because he was one of them.

Adi celebrates his graduation from the Portland Police Academy in 2011 with his wife, Azra Ramic. Photo courtesy of Ramic family archives

“The war refugee community is taken advantage of very often in this country, the immigrant community in general because there is this fear of being a perfect citizen,’’ he says. “I remember one time my parents’ car being broken into … We didn’t call the police because, again, there was this fear of you only get three strikes.”

Letting immigrants know the police are there to help, not harm them is one of the most gratifying parts of his job, says Ramic, who before the pandemic was often at the Portland airport to greet new immigrants.

“Telling them that hey, you don’t have to be a victim, you can call the police,” he explains. “It’s OK. If you are not here legally, you still have the right to call the police. Don’t let people take advantage of you. I think that message coming from another war refugee, and immigrant, means way more to them.”

But there’s also been real darkness in his 11 years on the force. Some of the worst things he’s seen in his own life, he says, do not compare with the horrendous events he sees in police work.

One scene he can’t shake was when he responded to a child being shot and left in a burning car. Some of what he sees he shields from his wife, also a Bosnia genocide survivor, and his parents.

In February 2017, Ramic, who prefers to keep a low profile, found himself in the middle of the rising tensions between protestors and police when a 67-year-old woman he was arresting was pushed to the ground and broke her nose.

The protester, Margaret Zebroski, sued Ramic. The ACLU highlighted the case as evidence of escalating and unnecessary force by police and the incident made headlines.

But in 2019, jurors found that Ramic didn’t intentionally harm or cause offensive contact with Zebroski. Ramic said he arrested her because he thought he saw her try to pull away another protester who was being arrested by police. Those charges against Zebroski were dropped.

“I never intended to actually hurt her. It was wet, it was mossy, it’s a protest, it’s a riot and there’s people pushing each other. All this stuff going on and sometimes during these tense situations stuff just happens and people get hurt,’’ he says. “Even when they said we won, I didn’t feel like celebrating, like hurray, I won, she lost, high five, let’s all cheer. Nobody really won in this case. My name got dragged around in the news, like I’m some kind of crazy, aggressive monster who is trying to break old women’s noses. And for her she obviously had some pain and suffering.”

After the verdict, Ramic talked briefly with Zebroski, gave her a hug and his phone number.

“I do wish she would have reached out to me to go have a conversation with. I think her and I probably have a little bit more in common than she thinks,’’ he says. “I don’t want anybody to hate me.”

In recent weeks, Ramic has been thinking a lot about his time on the Portland police force, the escalating pressures of the nightly protests that have followed the death of George Floyd — all the turmoil and strife in a country he hoped would bring him peace.

Intrinsically, Ramic says he understands, and deeply feels the fear of oppression and violence that the Black Lives Matter movement has spotlighted around the country. The right to assemble and protest, a First Amendment protection he never had elsewhere, is especially dear to him as a Bosnian refugee and naturalized citizen of the United States.
He wishes he could tell people that he’s not just his uniform and that he feels he’s being judged by the actions of other cops.

Adi visits Arleta School in southeast Portland in 2018 as part of his work for the Portland Police Department where he explained to the class that they can ask officers for help if they are lost or in danger. They also enjoyed getting a special look at his police car. Photo courtesy of Ramic family archives

“I work my ass off to build trust in this community because I love this community and it’s so quickly taken away by a bad cop,” Ramic says. “I don’t support bad cops. No good cops support bad cops. Period. People are like, a thin blue line, you guys have each other’s backs. That’s bullshit. If you are doing bad things I don’t have your back. If you do something immoral, racist, I don’t have your back.”

He’s had rocks, paint and balloons filled with urine thrown at him and lasers shined in his eyes as the nightly peaceful marches and speeches have ended in a clash of police tear gas and fireworks, taunts and insults, and arrests, always arrests.

He says protesters have accused him of hating Black people and being a fascist.

“During the Trump election (of 2016) and the protests that we were having, I can’t tell you how many times people called me a Nazi and said, you hate war refugees, you hate Muslims. You have Muslim phobia, all this negative stuff and you just like stand there and take it over and over again,” he says. “I’m like, wait a minute, I am Muslim. I like war refugees. I am one.”

He wonders if he is being selfish by remaining on the force, bringing fear back to his wife and family who tried so hard to escape it, especially now as he raises his 4-year-old daughter.

“All the ingredients are there for something really, really bad to happen again. I’m putting my family through a lot, a family that has already been through a lot,’’ he says. “This is the first time in my career I’ve thought of potentially moving on and doing something different.”

As he contemplates his future and the turmoil of the country at this moment, he still has a positive message for immigrants.

“Come with hard work and desire to do better and this country is going to pay off,’’ he says. “The American dream is very much alive. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. But if you look different, if you sound different, it’s going to be a little bit harder for you. But it doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

4 thoughts on “The Elusive Feeling of Safety

  1. POWERFUL story– and one that needs to be told! Written so beautifully, it captures the nuances of Ramic’s story with artistry and respect.

  2. I am very fortunate to know this wonderful family. They are kind, hard working and wonderful friends. Adi invited me to his graduation from the Police Academy and it
    was a privilege to see him receive this recognition and become an integral part of our community. Although our backgrounds are very different, we share each others’ holidays, cultures and celebrations; we consider each other extended family.

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