Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Translator bridges gap to refugees' new world

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Irene Sliskovic, left, translates for host Mimi Gingold, center, and Fahriye Destani, a refugee from Kosovo.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
| ZOOM |
        When Kosovar refugees arrived on short notice last week,their lifeline proved to be a 22-year-old translator who fled similar bloodshed.

        “I hope they speak or understand Serbian,” Irena Sliskovic said, her brow furrowed with concern as she waited at the arrival gate at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. “I speak Bosnian and it's close to Serbian.”

        If the expected Kosovars spoke only Albanian, everyone was out of luck.

        Miss Sliskovic, who lives at Thomas More College, volunteered after a co-worker said he'd heard about the need for a translator on a local newscast.

        “I went to the radio station's Web page and found a number for Catholic Social Services and I called them and told them I'd like to do it.”

        Catholic Social Services told Miss Sliskovic where and when the three Kosovars would arrive and promised to pay for her taxi.

        It went well.

        Two newcomers spoke Ser bian as well as Albanian and Miss Sliskovic was able to ease their critical first encounter with local refugee workers, hosts Mimi Gingold and her husband, Al Gerhardstein, and supporters from First Unitarian Church.

        “Interpreting is hard work,” Miss Sliskovic said, in part because she tried to capture the tone as well as the meaning of what was said.

        Since then, she also has spent two evenings translating at the hosts' home. “When we get in a pinch, we call her,” Ms. Gingold said.

        “Irena's wonderful,” Ms. Gingold continued. Her experience as a refugee and her skill as an interpreter made her “absolutely essential” to establishing initial trust among the Kosovars and Cincinnatians.

        Miss Sliskovic was among 29 high school students airlifted out of bloody Sarajevo in 1995. She settled in Northern Kentucky with hosts Eileen and Jerald Messer on Pleasant Valley Road in Boone County.

        “She spoke pretty well,” Mrs. Messer recalled. “We didn't have a lot of trouble communicating.”

        Now, her slightly accented English is almost as colloquial as classmates'.

        Miss Sliskovic graduated from Notre Dame Academy and enrolled at nearby Thomas More College with a scholarship and financial help from the Messers' extended family and friends.

        She chose computer science, far more advanced than anything in postwar Sarajevo. “There, there is no equipment. Here, they teach the latest software.”

        Today, Miss Sliskovic works with computers at Alliance Research, a marketing research and consulting firm in Thomas More's back yard, and plans to graduate next year.

        Bosnia is enjoying relative peace, but Miss Sliskovic fears there is little chance of work there: the economy is shot, few jobs require her advanced skills, and employers might resist a woman with her expertise.

        Those issues are not pressing because she can work in her field as a student and for a year after graduation. However, her visa could expire in 2001 unless an American employer wins a renewal.

        Miss Sliskovic is in many ways a typical child of Sarajevo. Her father, Ivica, was Catholic, her mother, Razija, Muslim. “Sometimes I go to church, sometimes I go to mosque. I'm Bosnian.”

        However, tolerance only goes so far, she cautioned. Her family name, instantly identifiable in Bosnia as Roman Catholic, might invite discrimination if she looks for work there.

        She wasn't the only indirect victim of the war. In a sense, her diabetic father was “collateral damage.” He moved his family to safety and left Sarajevo in 1992 because the badly damaged power network denied him vital, refrigerated insulin.

        Miss Sliskovic never saw him again; he died of a heart attack in 1994 in Germany.

        Her mother survived the shelling and snipers and is rebuilding a hilltop Sarajevo house.


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