Something for the Pain | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Something for the Pain 

A relief agency that has helped heartbroken refugees and torture victims may need some help of its own.

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"I ask my husband often, 'How old would they be if they were alive?'" says Zineta Ibisevic, fingering two small, well-worn identity booklets. "I was watching as the Serbians arrested the older one, Salko. I was in a truck with other women. He had his hands behind his head. There were a lot of paramilitary forces around them. They had him at gunpoint, and the men were walking in lines two by two. I wanted to jump out of the truck, but some old women held me back. They said the soldiers could kill me or even rape me in front of my own son. Salko turned his head. He could see there was a truck full of women, but he didn't see me."

A heavyset Bosnian nearing 50, Zineta is a modest Muslim, and her head scarf is firmly in place as she tells her story through an interpreter. Suddenly she pulls off the scarf, revealing close-cropped gray hair. Then she acts out the scene she's imagined over and over during the last eight years. She folds the scarf in a long roll, then wraps it around her eyes. "We heard later they were blindfolded, killed, and pushed into mass graves," she says, pausing for a moment, then pulling the scarf away from her eyes. "Those who survived talked about it."

The question that haunts Zineta is where the bodies of her two sons, Salko and Samir, are buried. Salko was 22 and Samir 21 when they disappeared in the summer of 1995. Their identity book photographs are like night and day: Salko is ruggedly handsome and fair; Samir has wild black curls, a sparse mustache, and his mother's big brown eyes.

Zineta and her husband, Ahmo, arrived in Chicago this past January as part of a refugee resettlement program. Zineta has suffered from depression and nightmares for years now. In February she went for the first time to the Horizons Clinic in Albany Park, a mental health agency for refugees run by World Relief. She's now a regular, going there at least twice a month for counseling and psychotherapy and for medication to help her sleep.

Since 1996 Horizons has provided mental health services to victims of war, torture, and other forms of persecution, one of three clinics in Chicago set up specifically to treat the mental health needs of refugees. Its 380 clients all left troubled homelands in an attempt to start over in America, but their pasts often make adjustment to life here difficult. They suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other traumas, and their emotional pain is often accompanied by physical problems.

Bosnians are the largest group being treated at Horizons--World Relief settled more than 7,000 of them in Chicago between 1993 and 2001--but the clinic also serves adults, teens, and even children from Africa, the Middle East, and other roiling corners of the globe, many of whom have needed treatment for years. Some of the eastern European women were held in rape camps and are consumed with shame. Many of the Iraqis suffered serial torture.

Dr. Steve Yousha, a psychologist who's also the clinic's director, says he couldn't say who among them has suffered the most. "What's more severe," he asks, "watching your children being shot in front of you or experiencing an electric shock?"

For many of these refugees, the terrorist attacks of September 2001, the crackdown on immigrants, and the recent war in Iraq ripped open emotional wounds, and more of them have turned to the clinic for help. Many recent arrivals have also had to stay longer than usual in refugee camps, where their problems were exacerbated by the lack of treatment; more of them seem to need the clinic's services once they finally get here.

Yet just when more people are seeking help, Horizons is facing its biggest budget crisis since its creation. A steep drop in the total number of refugees being resettled in America--partly the consequence of new security checks implemented since 9/11--is squeezing refugee organizations like World Relief, which are paid by the government for each new arrival they resettle. Fewer refugees means less money for the programs these organizations run.

World Relief has seen its state grants cut by 20 percent, according to Dori Dinsmore, who heads the Chicago office. Several of the agency's programs have been eliminated. With nine staff members and four graduate students helping clients, Horizons is World Relief's largest program in Chicago, accounting for about a fifth of its staff and a quarter of its budget. Employee hours have been reduced, and further cuts are now likely.

But Yousha says he can't let needy people go untreated. "We don't turn anybody away. Our hours have been cut back, effective in July, and we may have to have a longer waiting list. But we're going to do the best we can with progressively shrinking resources."

Yousha's staff includes five mental health counselors. These counselors, some of whom were themselves refugees, aren't trained therapists but speak the clients' languages and listen to their concerns. Yousha says, "I've been impressed with the amount of progress in symptom reduction occurring with the mental health counselors."

Zineta, who says she's too old to learn English, seems to find solace in her regular talks with Amela Cenan, a young counselor at the clinic. Amela arrived from Bosnia as a student and has heard the most heart-wrenching parts of Zineta's story many times. "I talk with her about her depression and what she does to cope with it," she says. "Zineta has gained a lot of weight since experiencing this trauma. She finds her comfort with food and cooking." Zineta spends her days at home, cooking or staring out the window. "When I go to the store," she says, "I get a headache, because I can't understand."

Before arriving in Chicago, Zineta and Ahmo spent years in Bosnia looking for evidence of what had happened to their sons. They finally applied to go abroad when they learned that the U.S. resettlement program for Bosnians was about to end, but they left behind DNA samples in hopes a match might someday be made if the young men's remains are ever recovered from mass graves.

The couple first wanted to go to Canada to join a relative, but Canada turned them down. They were then approved for resettlement in Chicago, not far from Zineta's sister-in-law, who lives in the suburbs. They were sponsored by Catholic Charities, which found them a small apartment on the northwest side.

The couple's home in Bosnia was destroyed when their village was bombed. They then lived for three and a half years with relatives in Srebrenica, crammed into a small apartment with no electricity, no water, and little food. So the one-bedroom apartment in Chicago seems a godsend. "This is a wonderful country," Zineta says. "I like it a lot. Catholic Charities bought a phone for us. We have everything now--shower curtains, a broom, pots and pans."

She still feels overwhelmed by her loss. "Sometimes I lose my vision when I'm crying," she says. "I don't have anyone to call me mother. I don't know where their bones are."

Ahmo, who worked in a mine much of his adult life, is studying English and looking for a job. He's also made Bosnian friends here, and Cenan says he's more intent than Zineta on adjusting to Chicago. "He gets up and jogs every morning," she says. "He didn't want counseling. He has his own way of coping. He looks much younger than Zineta. Actually she looks more like his mother than his wife." But Yousha says the drive to move on with his life could mask deep psychological scars--men are less likely than women to seek help in coping with their emotional stress and depression.

Salko and Samir aren't the only family members Zineta and Ahmo lost in the Bosnian conflict. She flips through a small photo album with grainy black-and-white snapshots. Her two brothers were executed in 1992. "This one had two children and a wife seven months' pregnant," she says. Her aunt is missing. So are both of her husband's brothers.

Yet Zineta is determined to go back home. The State Department has deemed Bosnia safe again, and she sees shows on Bosnian television featuring people who've returned. "I'm saving money," she says. "I hope someday to buy an apartment in Bosnia. My husband wants to work here, to earn his pension, so we can go home someday." She says she has to know what happened to her sons. "I would give my own life if I could have just one of my children back. That would be such a precious thing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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