The Muslim Experience in Minnesota project aims to capture and convey the Muslim experience in Minnesota through oral interviews and photographic portraits. This Minnesota Historical Society funded project documented 40 Minnesota Muslims chosen carefully to represent a diverse collection of experiences.
Continuing in the series of interviews from the Muslim Experience in Minnesota project, in this entry, I feature Elvis Budimlic, a Bosnian refugee who survived the notorious Omarska concentration camp run by Bosnian Serbs in 1992 .
Transcript of Elvis Budimlic Interview:
My name is Elvis Budimlic and we are at my house in Rochester, Minnesota. I came from Bosnia to United States. It was in 1993 as a result of the war in Bosnia. My immigration status was a refugee, so I didn’t really come by choice—I came because I had to. My life in Bosnia was very good. It’s—I still miss it and I look upon it nostalgically. But I’m talking pre-war, here, so [laughs]. During the war, of course, it was horrible, so. I didn’t have any traveling documents because I didn’t want to go anywhere; I really liked it where I lived. But, the way life works out, I ended up in United States anyway, so [laughs].
Well, I was in concentration camps for about 200 days. When the Serbian paramilitaries came, they came with buses, tanks, battle cars, and their military and paramilitaries, and they picked up all males from 15 to whatever, 75, whatever it was. And that was the last time I saw my house, and during my stay in those concentration camps, the United Nations finally made it to our camp and they made a deal with Serbs to let us resettle to a third country in the world under the protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. My interviewer—I think his name was Jim—he asked me, how about United States? Because I already spoke some English and I said fine, and he asked me which part of the country—and I didn’t know United States that well—I just said I don’t want to go to a big city because I had enough violence and killing and all that. And the image we got from the movies over there in Bosnia is big cities equals big crime, and so I said I don’t want to go to a big city. And at that time, Rochester, Minnesota, was I think voted number one in Money Magazine, and he had that magazine and he said, how about Rochester, Minnesota? And that’s how it worked out.
My sponsors, who were the sisters of Assisi Heights—it’s a monastery here in Rochester. It’s sort of like a nursing home for elderly sisters. And they helped me a lot. I owe a lot to them. Especially in the, you know, the emotional side, they were really there for me.
When I came to Rochester, it was go, go, go. I mean, I was prepared and psyched to deal with anything. I mean, because I had just come out of hell. I mean, anything this country had to throw at me, it was a piece of cake. It was just me and my wife, so the first, you know, really first months were tough because I didn’t know how anything worked. We got, for example, from the government we got some assistance of I believe it was $260 a month, but our rent was $335. We got, I don’t know, $150 in food stamps, and that’s how much we ate because we didn’t have any more. But, so I had to get a job right away, and I got a job at the monastery part time washing dishes and pots and pans and whatnot. But then they cut my assistance [laughs] because I made more than 260 or whatever—I made $400. I didn’t realize that, so that was a harsh lesson, learning the hard way. I learned a lot of things the hard way, but, you know, after those initial kind of hits, you get used to things. Not having a car the first year was really tough because it gets cold here and snow gets really, really deep, and I had to walk to work and everywhere else, so. And enrolling into college was the best thing that happened because it kind of gave me something to look forward to, long-term. And it just so happens that at that time one of my professors was asking us to stay after class and I couldn’t, I had to catch a bus, and I said, no way, you guys do whatever you need to do. And she ended up donating a car for me, so. So, I mean, there was really helpful and good people that kind of helped me through things in different ways.
Other things that surprised me are the sheer size of everything. The houses are big, the cars are big, the streets are big, everything is bigger in United States. The sheer amount of corn in this state, it’s just unbelievable. I can’t even portray it to the people in Europe. I tell them, when you go out, you can drive hours and hours and it’s corn. It’s nothing else, it’s just corn everywhere. It’s like an ocean. So then when you think about it, this country really could feed the rest of the world, if it wanted to. And if the rest of the world could pay for it, that food [laughs]. But, so, then, you know, you think about it’s a good thing, you know, because I was hungry. In the concentration camp, I, those—in the first one, in the 68 days I lost like, over 60 lbs. So I know what hunger is, and it’s kind of comforting to know that, in this country, you really can’t go hungry. It’s—I know people here don’t think about that because they never were hungry, but for me, that’s important; it’s in my subconscious because the starvation had such an effect on me. Life in the concentration camp, it helps me respect some of the, you know, mundane things in life, I guess.
I have two children now: Laila, she’s 16, and Amin, he’s 14. They’re doing really good. I don’t know, they’re really good kids. I really lucked out, so.
Interviewer: What about your wife? Was she Bosnian as well?
She is Bosnian as well. We were married back in Bosnia and she took a different route during the war. Like I said, they separated men and women, so. It was really unfortunate. She’s originally from a little town close to the city that I lived in—it’s not really little, it’s, I don’t know, maybe 15,000 people. It was predominantly Muslim, it was 99% Muslim. So, when these troubles were kind of brewing, she went there, thinking it would be safer there than in the city, but it turns out that was a mistake because they leveled her town—I mean, they destroyed everything, burned it to the ground, killed a lot of people. And killed her father, brother, nephew, brother-in-law, all pretty much in that one day, so it was bad. So she was in house arrest for a couple of months and then they walked them to the front lines—I mean, took them to the front lines, dropped them out, and said, you walk across the next couple of miles, so. She got out to the Bosnian territory and she got out to Croatia then, I don’t know, after couple months.
Interviwer: So what does she do now?
She works at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester here. I believe her current title is IV technician, so she inserts IVs into patients. My hopes, of course, is for my children to succeed more than I did, and that’s kind of what my wife and I are focused on. And long-term, I guess, maybe, at some point in time, do—when I retire, maybe—spend a lot more time in Bosnia. But who knows, I mean, how that’s gonna work out. Short-term, I guess it’s just do well at my profession and maintain my health.
Interviewer: Well, let’s talk a little bit more about your life here. What’s your day-to-day routine? What’s a normal day like for you?
It was very exciting the first maybe, 10 years, and now it’s kinda settled down. I have a full-time job that keeps me very, very busy. I graduated computer science degree in 2000, I believe—yeah. And I’ve been working with computers since ’97 now. And I just—it’s very busy. I work for a small start-up now, so it’s a lot of hours and I don’t really have time for other people that much [laughs]. It’s mostly family. I brought over—I sponsored my sister and two brothers and my mom, so then they have children and their children have children, so I have a large extended family now, so I primarily visit with them. Really, I can’t handle any more than that, so. There is such a thing as Bosnian food. My wife cooks every day, even though she works full-time. We eat a lot of pies, and they’re not pies in the traditional American sense, they’re sort of a rolled-up dough with something in it. So it’s either meat, cheese, or I don’t know, spinach. So then—so you have meat pie, cheese pie, spinach pie, and whatever else kind of pie you can think of. We really like our pies. Another thing we like is, it’s sort of like a kabob in a pita bread—we call it cevapi. We just don’t watch our calories; we just eat whatever because I guess in Bosnia, the food itself wasn’t highly caloric, so—and we walked a lot—so we didn’t have to worry about gaining weight and what not.
Well, I went—I must say, I went through a period where I was very religious for a long, long time and it’s relaxed a little bit now. I think more people have went back to religion after the war, much more than before. So, I guess if anything good came out of the war, it’s that. But yeah, it’s still not very, very religious country; it’s mostly secular, so. I must say, I have personally never experienced any discrimination—I haven’t even witnessed any discrimination here. So, I—I mean, I really like this town, Rochester, Minnesota. Another thing I like about this town is it’s very diverse because it has the Mayo Clinic, which is internationally renowned, and IBM, which are two major employers here in town. So you have people from all over the world. So, I don’t feel like I’m out of place, I guess. Everybody came from somewhere, so even the native-born Americans, very few were born in Rochester—I mean, they came from somewhere else, so, I feel like I belong.
Being Muslim in Minnesota, I think it’s pretty easy to be a Muslim in Minnesota—in America in general—because Muslims don’t need much to be Muslims. It’s very personal and private religion. We don’t have a hierarchical structure that controls our religion—it’s whatever you get out of it yourself, that’s it. And it’s very structured, though, because it doesn’t only rule your spiritual life, it rules your secular life as well. So that’s the main difference with Christianity—Christianity is more spiritual, less secular. But for the masses, really, I think Islam works. It’s—it gives you structure in life, and structure is good, for most people, anyway. And in this country, basically then, you set your own pace, right? I mean, you do things your way, you pray whenever you need to pray, and I did that for a long time, I mean, and my employers would accommodate, so. I think it’s—it’s easy to be Muslim in Minnesota, it’s just you have to make your personal resolve with God.
One thing that’s challenging for Bosnians in particular is, we do not speak Arabic. And in Islam, you have to pray in Arabic. So that’s the challenging part, but that’s what’s challenging back in Bosnia as well. So in Bosnia we would have imams, which were people that we would send to be trained especially in Arabic, theology, and then they would help us with the prayers and organize the group prayers and things like that. But again, they were just there to help us, they weren’t there to control us. The thing that we’re missing in Rochester is we don’t have an imam. There is one in Minneapolis and we visit with him. And people here in local mosques, they don’t understand our culture, so that’s the challenging part. But as far as the Americans themselves, and the laws here, like I said, there’s no hindrance here that I see, so.
Interviwer: So is there some segregation or separation between Bosnian Muslims and other Muslims?
No, not officially, it’s just fewer people go to the local mosque because they—the khutba, or the sermon, is, the guy will give it in Arabic. Well, what’s the point in sitting there for an hour if you don’t understand what the heck he’s saying? So that discourages a lot of people from going to that particular mosque. And the other one is in Minneapolis. So it’s challenging for people in Rochester, but again, like I said, it’s more of a personal and private religion anyway, and it’s set up so you can, you know, be a Muslim really anywhere, you know, you can pray anywhere. There’s no rules that say you have to pray at certain spot—you can be in the middle of your travels and, if it’s time to pray, you stop and you pray, so. And people do that all the time. There is a requirement to go for the Friday sermon, so that’s the, I guess, one thing we’re missing out on [laughs], it’s the Friday sermon, but. Ah, who knows, maybe we’ll solve that pretty, you know…
I really think most Americans don’t understand what a Muslim is. And I think that’s part of the reason you’re doing this. They don’t know I’m a Muslim if they see me, you know, I’m white, I speak relatively good English. So that’s the part of the challenge is you can’t stereotype, right, I mean, and there’s of course some politicization of that because, you know, the al Qaeda and 9/11 and whatnot. I think it’s just, some people are taking it more in political terms. It’s not like all Muslims of the world joined up and attacked the, you know, the Twin Towers—it was al Qaeda and those 19 guys, and I’m all for getting them and killing them because they’re bad people. And for Americans themselves, you know, if they say something bad about Muslims, I think it’s more out of ignorance, just because they don’t know what Muslims are about.
I think Islam and Christianity have been tied with each other for 1400 years now, and they coexisted and they can coexist—it’s been proven many times over. I mean, there was many conflicts as well, but, again, I think it’s more people that are power-hungry, you know. So. How did we live with Muslims the last 100 years, you know, in this country, and nobody raised that issue. It’s just now it’s more of a political hot topic, and that’ll pass. That’s again, I’m looking long term—this is all temporary. It used to be Germans, it used to be Japanese, it used to be blacks, it used to be Irish, it used to be Italians. Now, you know, we’re the hot topic—Muslims.
But the problem is, we’re not one large entity ourselves. I mean, we’re coming from probably 100 different countries with our own cultures, and religion is just one part of our daily life. It’s not like we’re some cohesive power, you know. And once Americans realize that, it’s really not much different than their own religion. I mean, you got—why do you have 600 churches? It’s probably 600 denominations, right? I mean, they’re not all teaching the same thing. The same with Islam, there is a lot of branches of Islam, a lot of nuances. So, as long as we keep the politicians out of it, I think we’ll work it out as people, so.
I guess the only other thing I would say is, you probably—the American people—probably know Muslims and see them every day, and maybe even work with them, they just don’t know it. And that’s the way it should be. The religion isn’t the only thing that defines people, I mean, that’s one of the things. So, I’m really hopeful that this will pass, and I’m actually quite convinced, and it’ll work out just fine. Yeah. That’s it.