Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Refija Halilovic sits on a small stool bathed in late morning sunlight, her son Maumer resting quietly against her knee. It is a scene of almost bucolic tranquility, but one whose quiet belies the trauma that led these two to a tiny apartment here.
When fighting engulfed her home village of Krizevici at the outset of the Bosnian War in 1992, Refija and her family joined the estimated two million people uprooted by the conflict — nearly half of the entire population of the country. Local officials directed Refija's family to an abandoned home as temporary shelter; they settled in as best they could, making the site home for more than two years.
Though peace returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, thousands of homes across the country were damaged or destroyed, leaving many like Refija with nothing to return to.
Adrift in the war's aftermath
Despite being displaced, Refija tried to make the best of her situation. She married in 1996, and moved with her husband to yet another abandoned home. Though they had little, the birth of her son Muamer in 1998 seemed to mark a new beginning for Refija — the nightmare years of the war now increasingly distant. But just a few months later, the war came back in an unexpected and shattering way.
"My husband was killed when he stepped on a mine after returning to check on his family home," Refija said. "So I went back to the house where my parents lived."
She was displaced yet again, this time with an eight-month-old son.
The next years of Refija's life were spent largely adrift, until she finally found a small apartment in the city of Tuzla — one of 220 units built by an international agency and provided free of charge by the local municipality for those still displaced by the war.
"I keep chickens and plant food in the garden," Refija said. "Here, being alone with a child, it's difficult. It's better to have family around."
It was here in Tuzla that Refija first came in contact with Mercy Corps. One of the agency's staff members came through Refija's neighborhood, posting notice about the availability of housing built through Mercy Corps' local office.
She immediately envisioned something better for herself and her now eight-year-old son.
The keys to a new future
Refija applied to the Mercy Corps program, and in November 2006 received the news she and Muamer at first could not believe: they had been chosen to receive a home.
"I was first surprised, and confused, but I was very happy," Refija said. "My boy came to me three times that day to see if the contract had been signed."
In May 2007, Refija received the keys to her new home — one of more than 10,000 that Mercy Corps has built in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1995. The house, located in her home village of Krizevici, is only a few hundred yards from her family, who were eventually themselves able to resettle.
After more than 15 years of homelessness, much of that time spent in cramped confines amid the tension of war and its aftermath, the move this summer will mark both an end to the stress of these past years and an important new beginning.
"What I'm looking forward to most is the privacy, the peace and quiet," Refija said. "And for the first time, I will have my own home."