In O.C. and Across U.S., Bosnians Are Stranded : Aid: Immigration status prevents work; war bars their return. Medical evacuees depend on charity, rely on hope.


Mustafa Pajevic, a Bosnian soldier who was brought to the United States in an emergency humanitarian airlift last July to save his grenade-shattered left leg, is now stranded in Orange County.

Pajevic is one of 19 disabled Bosnians who were flown from Bosnia to the United States in the first medical rescue mission out of that war-torn country.

Now this group, including 10 who were hospitalized in Southern California, recently learned that their expected repatriation will be indefinitely delayed.


Unable to speak in English and holding tourist visas that make it impossible for them to work or receive public assistance, they are completely dependent on the charity of volunteers, who are seeing their own finances stretched to the limit.

Since Pajevic was released from Irvine Medical Center four months ago, he has lived with three families, moving whenever he felt the cost of his upkeep had become a burden on their generosity.

“All the time I am on the move,” said Pajevic, who now lives with two Bosnian American brothers in Laguna Niguel. “I don’t know where I am going to end (up). . . . I may wind up on the street.”

The International Organization for Migration, the Swiss-based rescue group that arranged the airlift from Sarajevo, had intended that the Bosnian patients would return to their homeland shortly after they were released from the hospitals where they were treated.

But that plan was scuttled after the conflict in Bosnia intensified. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees informed IOM in December that international law forbids men of fighting age from being returned to a war zone such as Bosnia. So unless and until they can change their tourist status, the Bosnians will remain charity cases.

So far, the responsibility for supporting the Bosnians treated in Southern California has fallen primarily on the local Muslim community, including a handful of Bosnian American families, many of whom say they are already hard-pressed trying to assist relatives displaced by the war--both those in Bosnia and others who have emigrated here.


The volunteers buy groceries, pay other living expenses and drive the Bosnian visitors to doctors’ appointments. These benefactors say IOM representatives assured them that their services would be required for no more than three months.

“But now we are in the sixth month and there is no end in sight,” said Ramza Saliefendic, a Los Angeles resident who is one of the volunteers.

Sonja Hagel, the Century City Hospital administrator who was the driving force behind July’s medical evacuation, says that her “sole responsibility” was to recruit hospitals and doctors for the project. That part of the operation went smoothly, the Huntington Beach resident said, noting that “every hospital has met its bargain or gone above and beyond.”

However, she added, “No one is more unhappy than I am right now to see these poor people sit here and rely for their day-to-day existence on good neighbors.”

Each month, six families in Los Angeles and Orange counties contribute money to a pool to support six Bosnians--including a baby who came for heart surgery and a double amputee--who are living temporarily in a donated two-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys.

Suad Krso, who lost both legs in a grenade blast in Bosnia and came to the United States for surgeries to prepare him for artificial legs, had lived as a house guest in Torrance and Garden Grove before moving in to the Van Nuys apartment with other disabled Bosnians. Krso, who is being treated at the Los Alamitos Medical Center, says they live together so they can help each other with daily tasks.


“We have our self-respect,” Krso said through an interpreter. “We were always self-supporting people, and we don’t like to be a burden.”

Krso and his roommates worry constantly about family members in Bosnia who are threatened daily by gunfire. Though all are grateful for the refuge from the fighting and wish their families could join them in safety, most say they are eager to return to their beloved homeland when the war subsides.

Mufid Sokolovich, president of the American Bosnia-Herzegovina Assn., a nonprofit organization in Santa Ana that raises funds for the international Bosnian relief effort, said his group is renting a four-bedroom house in Cerritos where about 10 Bosnians, including Pajevic and those in the Van Nuys apartment, will move this month.

“Considering that supporting these people will cost about $3,000 a month, or $36,000 a year, it is scary to think we don’t know how long we have to keep it up,” Sokolovich said.

But he added that he feels compelled to help the stranded Bosnians. “They came to me and asked me to save them,” he said.

Since the July airlift, the number of Bosnians entering the United States for medical help has grown. The International Organization for Migration said its medical mission has evacuated 362 people from Bosnia, 57 of whom have been brought to the United States, with the remainder going to other Western countries.


“We are getting very good response from hospitals and doctors, and we are bringing in people practically every week,” said Hans-Petter Boe, chief of mission at the IOM office in Washington.

But because of the plight of the IOM evacuees from Bosnia, the State Department is considering halting future medical airlifts of Bosnians to this country or changing the immigration status of future medical evacuees to make them eligible for welfare and other public assistance.

Immigration authorities say that if the Bosnians had been admitted to the United States as “refugees,” rather than tourists, they would have been entitled to federal cash grants, English classes and various job training and placement programs. But once they are in the United States, they are no longer entitled to refugee status, which is reserved for people overseas who are in imminent danger or detained in refugee camps.

Nevertheless, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials say Bosnians will have no trouble remaining legally in the United States when their tourist visas expire in August because they can qualify to stay under “temporary protective status,” which would entitle them to seek employment but would not give them the kind of federal financial assistance that people with refugee status receive. A newly created program, temporary protective status is available to foreign nationals fleeing war or environmental disaster from certain designated countries.

As a final alternative, the Bosnians could apply for political asylum. The backlog of applications for political asylum is so large, however, that it could “easily take a year or more” for the Bosnians’ requests to be processed, INS spokesman Verne Jervis said.

The state has yet to decide whether people with temporary protective status would be eligible for state and county assistance to the poor, as are those granted asylum or refugee status.


IOM officials say that while they took responsibility for matching Bosnian patients with U.S. hospitals willing to treat them free and found homes where they could recuperate, the organization has no plan or funds to meet their long-term financial needs in this country.

“Our hands are empty. That is why we are not holding them out,” Boe said.

Not everyone believes that the best solution is to grant the Bosnians temporary or permanent residency and then allow them to receive state- and county-paid general relief and medical care.

Larry Leaman, Orange County’s director of social services, said he is distressed by immigration practices that allow people into the United States who ultimately become a burden on county government.

“If the federal government is admitting people who have to turn to welfare to survive, the federal government should pay for it,” he said.

Some of the Bosnian medical evacuees said they are anxious to learn English but are certain that their medical disabilities would make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to work. When they were evacuated, they believed their financial needs would be met by the U.S. government, not by private citizens.

“We were happy to go to the United States and get quality medical care,” said Meho Kerla, an evacuee living in Van Nuys who is blind in one eye. “I didn’t ask any details because I knew when I came to the U.S., I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”


Others appear to be good candidates for employment if they can straighten out their immigration status. Mujo Bjelonja, 41, is an electronic engineer who is making rapid progress learning English, according to officials at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park.

Bjelonja came to the hospital severely undernourished and too crippled to walk. He has received $300,000 worth of medical care, including complicated surgeries, and is now able to walk with a cane, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The hospital let him stay on as a guest boarder after his treatment was completed in January, and Tuesday he moved into a furnished apartment provided by the hospital.

Jane McDermed, a hospital social worker, said the hospital feels a responsibility to Bjelonja.

“Our plan for him is to get him vocational rehabilitation and maybe some occupation,” she said. “I am not going to put him in a shelter. We brought him over here. Because other people dropped the ball, we aren’t going to.”