When Dragana Zaimovic moved to Lexington in 1994, she wondered why it felt so empty.
The streets of her hometown in Bosnia had always been crowded. Here, Zaimovic soon realized, people drove cars instead of walking around. It was one of the many surprises she encountered as a refugee in Kentucky.
The vacant sidewalks were disappointing, but Zaimovic was finally safe from the war and ethnic cleansing that gripped Bosnia in the 1990s. “Of course it was difficult,” Zaimovic said.
“It was very, very difficult to come to [a] country that you don’t know much about, that you don’t know the language, that you don’t have friends or family members.”
On Thursday, Kentucky Refugee Ministries held its fifth annual summit in observance of World Refugee Day. Panelists discussed topics from trauma care, to legal updates, to the resettlement ceiling— a limit on admitted refugees that changes each year.
This fiscal year, President Trump called for the country to accept no more than 45,000 refugees— the lowest cap a president has set since 1980.
But Zaimovic didn’t choose Kentucky. After leaving Bosnia, she trudged through a two-and-a-half year application process before coming to Lexington, where the Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church could sponsor her.
During the application process, she lived in geographical limbo, staying with friends and family in Serbia while waiting to regain control of her future.
“It was unpredictable,” Zaimovic remembered. “You really couldn’t plan anything.”
Others, she added, spend more than 20 years in refugee camps before getting to America— if they ever do. The process is more controlled than some people realize, said Mary Cobb, the director of KRM’s Lexington office.
Applicants face multiple interviews and are processed through international and federal systems.
“What most people are supportive of when they understand it, Kentuckians and Americans in general, is that refugees are a very specific population of people who have been forced to flee their homes,” Cobb said. “They would die if they stayed.”
After arriving in Kentucky, Zaimovic— a travel agent in Bosnia— began working in food service at the University of Kentucky. Without knowing English, she had few other options.
“That was the hardest part, actually,” Zaimovic said. “You feel isolated because you are not able to communicate of course, not carry a basic communication.”
Now, Zaimovic has lived in Lexington for 23 years. She works as a case manager for KRM, pairing new refugees with employment opportunities.
She considers herself a Lexingtonian, and a Kentuckian— “with a strong Bosnian accent.” Intent on improving her English, she watches TV with closed captioning. “I’m still learning,” Zaimovic said.