By Shelly Makrugin; photos courtesy of Alen Okanovic

Red Cross Societies around the world have been working with refugees displaced by violence and hardship. One Canadian Red Cross employee has a personal perspective on refugees – as he was once a refugee himself.

Alen Okanovic became a refugee in 1992, at the age of 17, after war broke out in Bosnia. He was away from home at the time, in grade 11 in Military School.

"My dream was to be in the air force because I liked airplanes. When the war started in Bosnia and former Yugoslavia, we were airlifted to Serbia, where there weren’t any conflicts at the time. That was the good news, but the bad news was I was a Bosnian in Serbia and, at that time, our countries were at war," Alen remembers.

Alen pictured between his uncle and aunt in OntarioAn uncle was able to take Alen to Slovenia, where he reunited with his older sister Zlata. They registered with the local Red Cross as refugees. For two years, the Red Cross provided food, clothing, and medical services, and enabled them to exchange letters with their father, mother, and another sister, who were trapped in their hometown of Bihac.

In 1994, as war raged on, Alen and Zlata immigrated to Canada. It was a difficult, but necessary decision.

"It wasn’t our choice to be refugees. It was forced on us by circumstances out of our control," says Alen. "I was homesick. I missed my family. I didn’t speak English, but local people and organizations around us helped guide and support us."

Alen Okanovic was a refugee before working for Canadian Red CrossOkanovic’s first contact with the Canadian Red Cross was as a newly settled immigrant searching for an aunt and uncle who had also immigrated to Canada. Through Restoring Family Links, Okanovic was reunited with his family in London, Ontario.

Okanovic’s next contact with the Red Cross was as a job applicant. He began working in 2002 as a Donor Relationships Representative and is now Manager of Legacy Giving in Alberta.

"It has come full circle. I am working with those who help others, who helped me and my family. It has given me the opportunity to share my story and give back."

Okanovic and his sister were reunited with their parents and older sibling after the war and have visited as often as possible over the years. Okanovic says from his experience refugees need time to adjust.

"When you’re a refugee, you may be lonely, isolated, and traumatized. It’s important that people are patient, understanding and compassionate. Everything takes time."

Find more information on Migrant and Refugee Services.