Doboj, Bosnia and Herzegovina - Selma Samail is a hero.
However, when she looks in her hairdressing mirror, she doesn't see it that way at all. Humble and quiet, she only sees a daughter who works hard to support her father, mother and older sister.
A Mercy Corps grant of a chair, mirror, hair dryer and other styling equipment has helped Selma earn the first income her family has seen in years. The last decade has been extremely difficult for the Samail family.
As Bosnian Muslims living in a predominately Bosnian Serb area before the bloody conflict of the mid-1990s, they were forced to flee their home when the fighting escalated. Threats of violence forced them to the city of Zenica, a town with a Bosnian Muslim majority, where they had family members. The family of four stayed in cramped quarters in Zenica for a few months.
Eventually, the Samail family was able to find a small house that they could afford on Mr. Samail's small disability pension of 160 Convertible Marks, or KM (about $100) a month. Life was still difficult, but they were together, safe and in their own home.
They had found peace, quiet and relative comfort in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. Unfortunately, their struggles were just beginning.
Nowhere to turn
In 2001, the Samail's older daughter, Aldina, was diagnosed with diabetes and kidney failure. The closest hospital that could meet her needs was in Tuzla, well over an hour away. As a result, the family incurred substantial transportation costs as well as medical bills, which cost at least 150 KM (slightly less than $100) per visit - nearly as much as Mr. Samail's entire monthly paycheck.
Aika, Aldina's mother, was identified as a kidney donor, and the two of them underwent surgery in late 2001. The transplant was successful, but the cost of required treatments and medications continued to pile up. In 2004, the Samail family ran out of money and was evicted from their house in Zenica.
With nowhere else to turn - and with the war years in the past - they decided to return to their hometown of Doboj and move back into their old house. When they arrived, though, they found their house a complete shambles: squatters had looted and burned it. What remained was rain-soaked and useless, as the roof was severely damaged. The family again packed in tightly with relatives, moving into a small house in Doboj owned and occupied by Mr. Samail's brother.
Although they had a roof over their heads, the outlook was bleak: Aldina's health continued to waver, Aika's health grew gradually worse and Mr. Samail was unable to work to support the quickly-failing family.
Then young Selma rose to the occasion.
A family rebuilds
Selma had heard about Mercy Corps' assistance to returned families from her friends. She encouraged her father and mother to apply to the local municipality for help with the reconstruction of their house, her older sister's health and their economic dilemma. They did so, and their application was reviewed and accepted. Days later, a Mercy Corps caseworker and engineer visited the family to determine what assistance was needed.
The Samail family signed an agreement with Mercy Corps in September 2004, at which time the organization committed to provide materials for reconstruction and a small business grant. Adisa, a Mercy Corps engineer, worked with the family to make sure that the construction was done in a safe, complete and timely manner. Since the family couldn't complete the rebuilding on their own, friends and family helped with the construction.
"Adisa kept us to a strict schedule," Selma commented, smiling as Adisa sat across the room. "It was difficult, but we appreciate her hard work, guidance and support."
Aldina and Selma did their parts, picking out the colors for wall paint and helping out however they could.
The rebuilding was completed in March 2005, at which time the Samail family was able to move into their home again. Soon afterward, an unseasonable cold snap froze and busted a water pipe in the house. The family didn't hesitate to call on a reliable friend.
"Adisa came out right away, all the way from Tuzla to help us repair the pipe," Selma said. "Mercy Corps has also gone the extra mile, for which we're very thankful."
An economic makeover
Their home restored, it was now time to concentrate on the family's economic prospects. Again, Selma came to the rescue.
She had started hairdressing as a hobby while still living in Zenica, but soon developed a devoted clientele. When the family returned to Doboj and were faced with both medical bills and day-to-day living expenses, she turned her hobby into a profession.
The small business grant from Mercy Corps enabled Selma to buy some better equipment, with which she has been able to improve her techniques and expand her client base. Today, she spends two or three days a week as a hairdresser in Zenica, and the rest of the week working from her small salon in the family home in Doboj.
While she doesn't make much - she charges 2 KM (about $1.25) for a haircut - Selma is keeping the family afloat. She even manages to buy something nice to cheer her older sister from time to time.
It's been ten long years but, with the persistence of a loving daughter and a little help from Mercy Corps, the Samail family is finally back.