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Fulfilling the American dream: city's first Bosnian refugees celebrate 20 years in Lincoln

Fulfilling the American dream: city's first Bosnian refugees celebrate 20 years in Lincoln

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Emsud Deumic asks to speak. All eyes turn to the family patriarch.

“God bless America,” the soft-spoken Bosnian American states.

They are words from his heart. The most succinct and accurate way to capture the overwhelming mix of gratitude, pride and joy of the past 20 years -- living the American dream after fleeing war-torn Bosnia, political imprisonment and torture, and a nine-month nightmare housed in a Croatian transit camp, sharing a single room of living space with 40 other displaced Bosnians.

***

On Sept. 15, 1993, at 9 p.m., a travel-weary Emsud, his wife, Samka, and their children,  son Salko, then 14, and daughter Alma, then 7, landed at Lincoln's airport, climbed a staircase to the concourse and were greeted by strangers carrying signs proclaiming: Welcome home.

Home?

Just a few hours earlier, the Bosnian refugees thought they were going to Lincoln, Nev.

Their tickets said Lincoln, NE. -- NE? Wasn’t that the abbreviation for Nevada?

When helpful New York passengers corrected them, the family was left wondering: Nebraska. What is Nebraska? Where is Nebraska?

The Deumics arrived carrying two small suitcases -- filled with Salko’s and Alma’s outgrown clothes.

“I did not even have one penny,” Emsud said.

What he had was determination -- and an army of unimaginable support from the refugee family’s sponsor, First-Plymouth Congregational Church.

The Deumics were the first Bosnian refugee family to arrive in Lincoln.

More would arrive in the months and years to follow. Today, about 500 Bosnian immigrants call Nebraska home.

In Bosnia, Emsud was a tailor -- like his father and grandfather, his brothers and sisters. Emsud and Samka owned two clothing shops. They were about to open a third shop, when war broke out.

The Yugoslavian government sent Emsud to a concentration camp. He was beaten. His bones broken. Samka and the children fled their home.

The family eventually reunited in a Croatian transit camp. The family was given a choice of countries to which they could migrate. Samka’s relatives went to France. Emsud’s family selected Sweden.

But Emsud wanted the United States.

“He said, 'America is the best country,'” Samka recalled. “And that is true.”

* * *

Their first two weeks in Lincoln, the Deumics lived with a First-Plymouth family.

Then the church found them an apartment -- furnishing it with everything the family would need. Church members even stocked the refrigerator.

Two decades later, the family still gets emotional remembering.

“My God, it was like yesterday. How time goes fast,” Emsud said.

Emsud and Samka worked odd jobs -- raking leaves, cleaning people’s houses. Emsud became a tailor at Ben Simon’s Clothing Store. They took English classes at Southeast Community College. Alma and Salko, both English as a Second Language students in school, often spoke English at home to help their parents learn.

Using a donation and meager savings, Emsud and Salko bought their first sewing machine -- a machine they still use in the store.

Samka smiles -- she was not happy when Emsud came home with the sewing machine. She wanted to buy dishes.

Dishes could wait, Emsud said.

“Always, first the shop,” Samka recalled. “He was always right.”

They set up the sewing machine in the basement, opening a small alterations business on the side.

In 1998, they opened Emsud’s Expert Alterations in Williamsburg Village. In 2000 they began Emsud’s Clothiers at 29th Street and Pine Lake Road. Four years later they relocated into the strip mall adjacent to Red Robin, across the street from SouthPointe Pavilions.

By fall 2014, the Deumics hope to move into their own building -- which they will break ground on this fall at 56th Street and Pine Lake Road, beside Security Bank and just behind Walgreens.

“To Emsud, nothing is hard. He is never tired,” Samka said of her husband of 37 years.

* * *

For Emsud the secret to success -- any success -- is simple: “Be the best. Be honest. Treat customers like family.”

Always modest, Emsud admits his family has done OK.

They became American citizens in 1998. Salko and Alma graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. They both married. Salko and his wife, Mandy, have two children Kenan, 5, and Mina, 3 months. Alma married Armin Sehic in June 2012.

All three families live within eight minutes of each other and the store. Alma and her parents work full time at the store. Salko, who works full time for a Lincoln technology company, spends nights and weekends helping out.

* * *

The Deumics say there is little doubt, that Lincoln, Neb., is the best place in America. Other Bosnians who arrived in America with them went to Chicago and Dallas, where they mostly were left to fend for themselves.

By contrast, First-Plymouth members have treated them as family from the moment they stepped into the airport terminal on that September day in 1993.

And still do.

“The people from the church made everything easy. They took us everywhere. Helped us get our Social Security cards. … It made a world of difference,” Salko said.

Church volunteer Alma Vlasak has been by their side all of those 20 years.

“She is like a sister,” Samka said. “She is second mom to my kids. … They are like family. … Nebraska is like home.”

Emsud clarifies: “This is our home.”

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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