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Immigration Service

Bosnian Refugee Makes a New Life at the Navy Seabee Base in Port Hueneme

March 15, 2000|TONY LYSTRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Asim Durakovic is not your average Seabee.

When he speaks, a Bosnian accent--softened by six years in the U.S.--rolls off his tongue. He stands out in his pea-green T-shirt, dog tags exposed and dangling, while his comrades in this bustling Navy base office wear thick, long-sleeve shirts, buttoned up and formal in comparison.

Durakovic, at 23, is one of only a handful of Seabees in Battalion 5 who is not a U.S. citizen. And Durakovic--who along with his colleagues is stationed at Port Hueneme's Naval Construction Battalion Center--is the only one who would be considered a bona fide refugee.

At the age of 17, he paid $900 to escape his former life. It was a bribe, he said, to Serbian soldiers so that he--and his mother and little sister--could leave their hometown of Banja Luca in Bosnia--and cross the Croatian border to safety, en route to the U.S.

There were other costs: The jewelry from his mother's fingers and wrists was snatched by Serbian soldiers. The title to his family home had to be signed over to Serbian officials. Family photos were seized. And he left behind many friends, including one who lost his leg to a land mine.

These days, Durakovic, who has applied for U.S. citizenship, struggles to maintain the uniqueness of his Bosnian identity in the face of a new life in the U.S. Navy.

"I don't want to lose me," he said, even as he punctuates his sentences with youthful American idioms.

"I'm trying to be cool with everybody. I want to keep me--cool Bosnian guy."

Durakovic, who with other members of Battalion 5 will deploy to Puerto Rico for field exercises this month, doesn't think his story is extraordinary. His friend and fellow Seabee, James Pinsky, sees it differently.

"I view him as an underdog," Pinsky said. "At any point in time he's willing to die for a country he's not a citizen of. Basically he's willing to give his life to become a citizen of the United States."

Durakovic moved to the U.S. in December 1994. His mother, a brother and two sisters settled in Texas. His father died in Bosnia in 1990. His other siblings had been in other parts of the world when Durakovic fled with his mother and sister.

In 1998, like many recruits, he joined the Navy to see distant ports. He enjoys the lifestyle. Like a kid, he talks of things that blow up, not in Bosnia, but here, in California. During a recent weekend drill he learned to launch mortars.

"That rocked," he said.

*

But now Durakovic has more ambitious dreams. He hopes to move up the Navy's ranks and someday become an officer, an impossible goal unless he gains citizenship. Citizenship also would bring prestige. He'd love to travel back to Bosnia and show off his U.S. passport. And besides, being embraced by the U.S. would "feel cool," he said. "I want to be an American."

Immigrants who join the Navy usually gain citizenship a year after they apply, said Anthony Williams, a civilian who retired from the Navy and now supervises the branch's enlisted processing department in Los Angeles.

Naval personnel without citizenship can't get security clearances for high-tech jobs, he said, so most eagerly apply, hoping to gain technical skills. To join the Navy, immigrants must have a green card and pass a language and math skills test taken by all Navy recruits.

The Navy has accepted noncitizens among its ranks for as long as Williams can remember. When he joined in 1976, Williams said, noncitizens from the Philippines, Jamaica and Latin countries were common on ships.

Now, with the Eastern bloc dismantled, more Eastern Europeans like Durakovic are joining U.S. military branches. It's a stark contrast to Williams' Navy days during the Cold War when Eastern Europeans were more likely to join the Soviet military.

"It's sort of ironic that they are in this country taking advantage of some of the same [opportunities for advancement] as our kids," Williams said. "Like Don King says, 'only in America.' "

*

Since Durakovic applied to Immigration and Naturalization Services nearly a year ago, he's waited impatiently for word on his bid for citizenship. So far, he's heard almost nothing.

Meanwhile, he wakes each morning and heads to an office on the base where he handles payroll and paperwork for new Seabees. And plans for his next promotion. An E3 now, he will soon take a test to become a Petty Officer 3rd Class. "I'll make it," he said. "I just have to take that exam. Man, that's going to be a big study for me."

Durakovic said he spends much of his time by himself, although he is not sure why. Partly, he said, it's because he doesn't drink, which makes him somewhat of an anomaly on a military base.

"If you want to go out with these guys, you've got to drink," he said.

But a need for solitude may also be the logical consequence of a past filled with tribulation. Or perhaps he's simply still adjusting to American life.

"I don't belong anywhere," he said. "I don't have a lot of people I hang out with."

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