In pursuing her education, Community College of Rhode Island student Fatima Hasukic overcame a war, a language barrier and a toothache.
When Hasukic immigrated to the United States from Bosnia with her family in 2000, she could not speak a word of English. "I couldn’t even count to 10," she said.
Having developed a severe toothache on the journey, some of the first words she had to learn when she arrived in America were about dentistry.
Inspired by this experience, Hasukic is graduating from CCRI in May with an associate degree in general studies and will enter the school’s dental hygiene program in the fall.
Hasukic said she is looking forward to a career in which she can help people but, before she could start studying for it, she had to help herself by overcoming problems most students don’t have to face.
Hasukic was born in Bosnia, where she lived with her husband and three boys, who are now age 18, 17 and 10. Formerly part of the Republic of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, Bosnia experienced years of warfare and ethnic cleansing in the chaos caused by the Yugoslavia’s breakup in the early 1990s. Warfare between ethnic Croats, Bosnians and Serbs culminated with a Serbian genocide against the Bosnian people.
Hasukic’s family survived four years of warfare, during which her husband was imprisoned in a Serbian detention camp with many other men to keep them from fighting in the war against Serbia. The prisoners faced torture while Hasukic and her children were not allowed to leave their village or visit him.
The United Nations forced an end to the war in 1995 but Hasukic’s husband remained in prison. When he was finally released, Hasukic and her family decided to leave the country and they were accepted by the American embassy in a relocation program.
"We were looking for freedom," she said. "I left my mother and brother in Bosnia but I had my closest family with me, my husband and my children, so I’m glad. Now we are in a safe place."
The family went to Woonsocket to be near some of Hasukic’s relatives who also had immigrated. Hasukic tried to adjust to her new life while her husband took a job. She took a few English classes when she first arrived in America but her abilities remained limited. She tried to use the television as a teacher and became frustrated that she couldn’t help her children with their homework, as the language barrier proved too difficult.
In 2004, Hasukic’s husband was laid off from work and suffered bouts of depression from his memories of the war in Bosnia.
"I decided I needed to go to school and provide something for my family," Hasukic said.
Her nephew told her that the Community College of Rhode Island was her best option for learning career skills.
Hasukic had some doubts: "I thought, ‘How can I attend college if I don’t know how to speak?’"
But she was also determined. "I didn’t feel like there was something some person can do and another person can’t," she said.
That determination was necessary for Hasukic to do college-level academic work while improving her English skills. She wanted to join the dental hygiene program but was told there was a three-year waiting list.
"I didn’t want to just stay home so I figured I could study something else while I’m waiting," she said.
She has used that time to take more English courses and earn a degree in general studies.
There were times at first when it seemed like the language barrier would be insurmountable.
"I put in so much effort," Hasukic said. "I cried. I tried, tried, tried."
She added, "If someone needs two hours to study I probably need five or six hours."
Hasukic often stayed after class to work with her professors, who helped her to translate and understand the course work. She said this was important to her success. "The teachers are great. They always have time to explain," Hasukic said.
Now Hasukic has improved English and is ready to start learning her new career.
"I’m looking forward to helping people and working with people," she said.