For Nermana Huskić, the seeds of her future as a resource and service provider for homeless people were planted young.
At the age of 5, Huskić witnessed terror and violent intimidation by Serbian soldiers who barged into her home looking for her father and other male figures.
It was 1992 and the start of the Bosnian war. The Bosnian Serbs set out to rid the country of its Muslim population and gain desired land.
The war destroyed many families and killed more than 100,000 people. Luckily, Huskić’s family found a way out of their hometown of Zvornik to a nearby village. Though the village was supposed to be a safe zone for Bosnians, Huskić says the Serbian soldiers would shoot at the Muslims from above the village.
“There were times when we didn’t have anything,” Huskić said.
And after the war was over, Huskić, her mother and brother were approved to move to the U.S. She remembers being excited to move to a diverse city like St. Louis, but the harsh realities of refugee life quickly settled in.
“People say that refugees and immigrants get everything,” Huskić said. “We got help for the first three months, but after that, nothing.”
And with her father back home in Bosnia, her mother had to pick up three jobs to take care of her and her brother.
Huskić, now 32, credits the city of St. Louis for extending its resources to her family in the late 1990s, and she is returning the favor.
In 2017, she founded RukaNade, a nonprofit that works with the city’s homeless population, seniors, youth, and families and orphans in Bosnia.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrea Henderson: You mentioned that you have always stood up for injustice. Is this what prompted you to start RukaNade?
Nermana Huskić: I was in college for social work, so I obviously knew I was going to be in the social field. But I didn’t think about opening the organization. I was back in college when I had a dream that I was doing this stuff, but it was not active as far as, “I’m going to open a nonprofit.” It was more like, ‘I’m going to volunteer at different places.’ And in 2016, I was in Bosnia, and I did a project on my own, and the way it played out was exactly how I dreamt it a long time ago. So, to me, that was a sign from God that I needed to do something on a bigger scale. RukaNade means “hand of hope” in Bosnian, and it’s a hope for a better tomorrow and hope that we’re going to unite and we’re going to work for a better future.
Henderson: St. Louis provided a better future for you and your family when you came here in 1998. What was life like for you when you first came to the city? Was it hard for you to fit in with other children?
Huskić: I was 12 when I first came, and the first thing I thought was, “Oh, my god.” Everything was so big, and you needed a car for everything — you know, you can’t just walk. When it came to school, I was good at math, but when it came to other subjects, I had no clue. Because I didn’t know English, I felt like I was just sitting there, and I had no idea what was going on. You couldn’t play with the kids, because how are you going to communicate? It was easy to assimilate if you could pick up English. The next school year, I was talking in English and writing.
When I first came, I had to deal with bullying. You don’t know what to do when you’re in a new country. You just have to be quiet at first and not express to anybody that you are being bullied. I just remember thinking, “I just came from a war-torn country,” and I had enough of people trying to hurt me. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I stood up to my bully, and then after that, there was no bully.
Henderson: There has been a lot of conversation about President Trump’s most recent tweet about people of color, immigrants and refugees returning back to their home country. Did his comment affect you, being that you are a refugee?
Huskić: Sometimes it upsets me. But I feel like the racist people that are coming out, I say, “Thanks, Trump,” because a lot of people are woke now. We need different representation in Congress. We need to actually come together, because we’re stronger together if we’re going to combat this. We were starting to live in a world where it was kind of like a la la land. Racism is very much alive in America.
Henderson: So how do you use RukaNade to combat this type of hate?
Huskić: I try to spark up conversations with a lot of people, even to the lady who told me to go back to my country. I try to educate people on different things, and I’m very open to discussions. Also, I go to different communities and do presentations and talk to the kids. In college, I had to deal with people talking about my hijab. Now, I don’t care if I’m at the coffee shop doing my work and someone asks me a question. I just talk to them, because obviously my scarf is a bright sign that says I look Muslim.
Henderson: There is a stereotype that Muslim women should be in the background. Have you received any backlash from your community for owning your own company?
Huskić: A lot of Muslim women are out there doing stuff for their communities. I haven’t had backlash as far as from my community, but I’ve had people who are surprised that I’m breaking stereotypes that they had in their mind or what the media is telling them. But then on the other hand, you do have some men just like in any culture that are not used to it. But I do know that Bosnian women are out there, and we’re doing things.
Henderson: You are doing things, especially for St. Louis’ homeless population. RukaNade’s efforts cannot solve homelessness on its own, so what do you think are the most effective ways St. Louis could eradicate homelessness?
Huskić: I feel like the city should first start off in all high schools. We should learn how to manage our money. Rich kids shouldn’t be the only ones who know how to do this; no, it should be in every community. We don’t focus on prevention; everybody needs to focus on prevention, with proper education. Obviously you can’t help everyone, but we need to figure out a housing program. This is really a complex situation. There’s a lot of people who need medicine. There’s a lot of people who need treatment. There’s a lot of people who need therapists.
Henderson: So what’s next for RukaNade?
Huskić: I’m getting ready to go on to do our big project in Bosnia. I will be working with families with kids who live in poverty, and most of my donations for this project come from here. In 2018, the company helped 4,256 people. We just opened a playground in Bosnia on July 9, and we are planning on doing one more. So, that will be the fifth one in total since the inception of the nonproft two and a half years ago. And we are always at Gateway 180 homeless shelter every last Saturday of the month.
This story is part of Sharing America Profiles — a series about diverse women doing local work that highlights an issue of national importance. Find more profiles here.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.