Like most parents of the Class of 2020, Belma Denic looked forward to attending her daughter’s upcoming high school graduation from Hardin Valley Academy—and worried that the COVID-19 outbreak might mar those plans. For Belma, a refugee from Bosnia who resettled in Knoxville when she was 18, attending the graduation holds particular significance.
“It will be my first high school graduation to attend,” she said. “I am excited for this graduation.”
When war broke out in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Belma did not witness the violence against Bosnian Muslims and Croats that left her home city of Doboj in ruins and thousands dead or missing.
“My mom took us out early,” she said. “I left before it really got bad.”
She was of elementary school age when they fled in 1992, and her memories of Doboj, one of the oldest cities in Bosnia, are happy ones.
“I’m sure if it wasn’t for the war, I would never leave.”
Her mother took her and her brother to Germany, where their father joined them later. They spent seven years in Germany, where Belma attended school and, as a teenager, met and fell in love with a fellow refugee whose family had also fled Bosnia for Germany. In 1999, 18-year-old Belma learned her boyfriend’s family’s application to resettle as refugees in the United States had been approved.
“We had dated about two years, so when he did get approval, I was a little bummed,” she said. “For me to go with them, we had to get married.”
The couple wed in February 1999.
“The wedding, everything, happened in two weeks,” she said.
By June, they had arrived with his parents in Knoxville.
Belma remembers being struck by the large billboards along Alcoa Highway as they left the airport for the apartment Bridge Refugee Services and a local church had arranged for them to share.
“For the first month, I really struggled,” she said. “I was homesick, missing family. The climate was different, and I couldn’t stop coughing.”
But simple acts of kindness, such as a Bridge volunteer who introduced her to the University of Tennessee Gardens, helped her acclimate to her new community.
“It wasn’t costing her anything, just the gas, to take me, but it’s one thing I remembered the most,” she said of that first visit to the gardens. “It’s something that just stayed with me.”
Belma quickly found work with Goody’s, where she prepared clothing for shipping to the company’s retail centers, and her co-workers helped her learn English. Her husband was hired as a car mechanic, though she said he was overqualified for most jobs in the field.
“That was one of the culture differences,” she said.
German teens don’t experience “high school” the way American teens do, she explained. Her husband spent four years earning a degree in auto mechanics, while Belma earned a degree in sales after three and a half years of study.
The couple was able to move into their own apartment about eight months after coming to Knoxville, and Belma’s parents and brother joined them from Germany a few months after that.
Belma’s husband later became a self-employed truck driver, a job he’s enjoyed for 17 years. Belma worked for Goody’s until the company went out of business. She went back to school and now splits her time between her part-time job as a certified nursing assistant at the UT Medical Center and being mom to her son, Arnel, and Anela, who is set to attend her graduation ceremony on June 15 and will start college in the fall.
Belma continues to support the mission of Bridge and has involved her children in giving back to the organization.
As the Denic family heard about camps and sporting events being canceled over the summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, Arnel, a rising 6th grader who plays soccer on a travel team, suggested donating soccer balls to Bridge clients who might be looking for ways to stay active at home.
“He thought, some of the boys and girls could really use it now,” she said. “We also see Bridge has a lot of people from countries that play soccer.”
Belma and Arnel delivered their soccer ball donation to Bridge in mid-May.
“You’re changing somebody’s life,” she said of why she continues to support Bridge’s work. “You’re changing somebody’s day.”