Photos by Alexandra Schmidt
Hadis Fetic sits in a pristine conference room almost 500 feet above Michigan Avenue. Behind him is a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. Clean shaven and clad in a crisp dress shirt and well-tailored suit, the 26-year-old could be any of thousands of young Chicagoans working white-collar jobs in nice offices throughout the city.
Staring out the floor-length window at the cluster of skyscrapers ahead, he recalls landing in Canada with his family at age 7 as a refugee from war-torn Bosnia.
“Seeing cars, planes, buildings…it was all mind blowing,” Fetic said. “Which is now weird, because we’re on the 42nd floor and all I can see are buildings.”
Fetic and his family immigrated to Ontario in 1997 after being forced from their small village outside Czenica in 1994 at the height of post-Soviet conflict in Eastern Europe.
One of the earliest and most vivid memories Fetic has of his childhood is lying in bed at night as a sniper shot through their lights, instantly casting darkness over the whole house.
“Within 20 minutes, they dragged us outside,” Fetic recalled. “They had my father on his knees at gunpoint before finally releasing him…we left shortly after that.”
Fetic spent the next three years of his childhood living in a refugee camp in neighboring Croatia while Bosnian Serbs and Croats fought for control over the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Both groups reportedly committed varying degrees of war crimes before NATO interference ended the war in 1995. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that the United Nations convicted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic of perpetrating a genocide that slaughtered over 8,000 Muslim men and boys,the worst European mass-murder since the Holocaust.
Despite seeing these atrocities unfold, Fetic doesn’t view his childhood as traumatic.
“As a child, you have no idea that you’re in the middle of a war,” he said. “I remember waiting for the trucks to arrive at our camp each Friday with food and toys and being quite happy. As a child, you don’t think of it as sad.”
After applying for refugee status all over the world, Fetic, along with his parents and younger brother, received asylum in Canada. The family would spend almost a year living in the church that sponsored their arrival before finding a place of their own.
“We didn’t speak any English, and neither of my parents even knew how to drive,” Fetic said.
Although the family struggled to learn the language and obtain legal documents, they quickly settled into their new home in Burlington, Ontario.
“In Canada, they pride themselves on being very welcoming to foreigners, more so than here,” Fetic said.
This still holds true. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently made headlines after agreeing to accept a total of 35,000 Syrian refugees, while other nations, the U.S. included, balked due to terror concerns.
During their first several years in Canada, Fetic’s family was very close with the 15,000 or so Bosnians in the community. As white Europeans, Fetic and his brother Harry found it easy to fit in, and grew increasingly assimilated to western culture.
“By the time we arrived in Canada, we were just starting school, so our personalities and attributes were very much shaped by Canadian Society,” his brother,Harry, said.
Today, Harry, 29, works in finance and still lives in Burlington with his expecting wife. Although he was the one who stayed in Canada, he said it is Hadis who has more national pride.
“Hadis and I vary a little about our Canadian opinions,” Harry said. “I know Hadis considers himself to be a very proud Canadian, whereas I still consider myself more Bosnian, perhaps because I am a little older.”
Just weeks after receiving his bachelor’s degree in finance in 2012 from Sheridan College in Ontario, Fetic arrived in the U.S. for what he thought would be a short business trip; he didn’t particularly want to leave Canada, given the job opportunities and social well-being he enjoyed there.
“I told my parents I’d probably be back in three days,” Fetic said. Instead, he ended up relocating permanently for work.
He spent his first year in the U.S. in Morton Grove, a northern Chicago suburb, working for the Federation of Balkan Americans. Once he decided to pursue a graduate degree, he jumped between several universities and graduate programs, beginning with human resources at Robert Morris University in Chicago. He also attended the University of Kentucky for a short stint before eventually ending up at University of Chicago in the economics program with plans to become a professor.
“I’m a pretty lazy person; what’s better than only having to work nine months a year?” he joked.
But for someone who calls himself lazy, he keeps a busy schedule. Fetic currently serves as the Operations Director for the Niagara Foundation, a nonprofit promoting interfaith and intercultural cooperation and understanding. Founded in 2004, the organization now has 70 offices nationwide. Today, he’s been with the nonprofit for a year, overseeing operations for the foundation’s four centers.
Additionally, Fetic serves on the Graduate Student Council, the disciplinary board and the admissions board at University of Chicago.
As for balancing coursework, a full-time position and his other commitments, Fetic claims he has one secret.
“I knew this man who trained his body to function on less than two hours of sleep,” Fetic said. “Although the first few months were incredibly rough on me physically, I now sleep about four hours a night now and feel just fine.”
Erik Levine, a graduate student studying anthropology and linguistics and one of Fetic’s close friends, said that it’s not uncommon to see him awake in the early hours of the morning, studying in the lounge of the International House, where he lives with about 100 other graduate students from the U.S. and abroad.
While the academic rigor at University of Chicago often demands all-nighters, according to Levine, few students go so far as Fetic.
“I don’t understand it, but somehow he makes it work,” Levine said.
These days, he’d be considered incredibly ambitious to most people, but he claims that he was much less driven growing up.
With higher education in Canada being more affordable, Fetic said that there was less academic pressure placed on students and more time for social development.
“I was the worst student you could imagine,” he said. “They only passed me because I looked older than all the other kids.”
While school in Canada may have been easy on him, his Eastern-European parents were not.
Fetic said his father, a former military officer in Bosnia, believed that hard work was its own reward and pushed his children to succeed without the need for praise.
“Having Eastern-European parents means you have to work hard and adapt quickly,” said Harry.
Faced with minimal skills in a new country, Fetic’s parents were hard workers themselves. His father, working as a language tutor at the time, would go on to start the community’s first Bosnian cultural center, all while working towards his own college degree. He is now a physics professor at one of Canada’s top universities and speaks 14 languages.
“My parents, like most Eastern-Europeans, believe that if you throw someone in the water, they’ll learn to swim,” Hadis said.
He isn’t kidding. When Fetic was just 18 years old, his parents put him on a flight to Nigeria to spend two weeks in a cultural exchange program and see firsthand how others in the world lived.
“I didn’t know where I was going until they handed me my ticket at the airport,” Fetic said.
However, Fetic said it was the summers he spent traveling back to his native Bosnia and the surrounding countries during college that would change the trajectory of his life. He met people, often relatives, who didn’t know how to read or write.
“It made me realize that I was a refugee just like them, but I had been given opportunities they hadn’t,” Fetic said. “I became much more serious about my studies at that point.”
Fetic is well aware that his academic and professional success is an anomaly among Bosnian refugees, especially those in the United States.
“My life would have been very different in the states,” Fetic said. “I probably couldn’t have gone to university because of the finances. You pay $2,000 for an Ivy League education in Canada; you can’t afford community college at that price here.”
Between 1992 and 2007, the U.S. took in approximately 131,000 refugees from Bosnia, and 9,000 ended up in Chicago, mainly in the Rogers Park and West Ridge neighborhoods.
Faced with language barriers and little education, many parents ended up working minimum wage jobs while their children struggled to keep up in school, often dropping out to work the same low paying jobs or turning to crime.
Living in Hyde Park, Fetic sees firsthand the roadblocks that keep many lower-income residents from moving upward.
“This is one of the worst countries to live in, in terms of personal security,” he said, drawing on his experience as an economics student. “We pay the most out of any country in the world for just healthcare… 15 percent of people here can’t even afford food. That’s worse than some African countries.”
He doesn’t sugarcoat the lack of resources here, but Fetic still believes in the opportunities available in America, and particularly in Chicago.
“In a lot of the countries where I’ve lived, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how hard you work,” Fetic said. “This is one country – and one city – where you can really move up the corporate ladder if you commit to it.”