Former refugee reflects
on the war in Ukraine

Darko Mihaylovich, seen in this undated file photo, serves as Catholic Charities of Louisville’s director of programs. (Record File Photo)

On an afternoon in May 1994, Darko Mihaylovich and his wife walked to a nearby market, then stopped for cappuccinos at a sidewalk cafe in their native Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The sound of gunfire suddenly interrupted the idyllic afternoon and signaled a siege of the city that lasted 1,425 days and an end to the life he knew in his homeland, he said.

Mihaylovich, director of programs for Catholic Charities of Louisville, said as he watches the war unfold in Ukraine, it takes him back to that day three decades ago.

“No one expects this to happen. You’re living your life,” he said during a recent interview in his office. “There were some indications (that a war might start) but I was blind to it.”

His wife had heard talk about a possible conflict, but he didn’t believe it.

“Who would attack an Olympic city?” he’d asked her then. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 1984.

As people went about their lives, Yugoslavian forces were working to completely surround the city, he said.

The day the conflict began, Mihaylovich and his wife managed to escape the gunfire and reach their home.

“We were lucky because they (Yugoslavian armed forces) were taking hostages,” he said.

Before the conflict, they lived a normal life. He was a businessman managing his family’s marketing company. When the conflict started, though he was still working, his priority was getting out of Sarajevo alive, he said. A few months into the siege, his wife fled to Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia.

She was resettled by Catholic Charities of Louisville in 1995.

Mihaylovich said his wife asked him to make her a promise that he would not be killed. Soon after, he said he was seriously injured by explosives.

“I was praying to God, because I’d promised my wife.”

Mihaylovich was resettled in Louisville in 1997.

As he sat in his office at the charities’ headquarters on Fourth Street, he reflected on the effects of war.

“The war in Bosnia destroyed the fabric of society. It will do the same in Ukraine,” he said. “War crimes and genocide create hatred.”

The “total disregard for human beings” he experienced in his country is happening now in Ukraine, he said.

“How can a human being kill and rape?” asked Mihaylovich. “I can’t comprehend. I never will.”

He said that it’s important for people not to forget what’s happening in Ukraine.

During the war in his country, “We would scream to the world, ‘Do you see what’s happening?’ It’s hard to follow because you have to live your life,” he said. “We have to make sure our government is doing everything they can to stop this invasion.”
Mihaylovich said corruption also tends to spread in the wake of war. He witnessed it in his country and it’s one of the reasons he never returned to live there, he said.

“The world must make sure there will be checks and balances” in Ukraine to prevent this from happening, he said.

As Louisville starts receiving families fleeing the war, Mihaylovich said he wants people to know how important it is to feel welcomed in a new country.
When he first arrived, people would hear his accent and they’d say “welcome,” said Mihaylovich. “Refugees appreciate this word. … No one wants to leave his or her country, their home. Feeling welcomed and having an opportunity to show what they can do to become members of the community” is important.

Mihaylovich said he found a purpose in his new home working for Catholic Charities.

The agency recently started resettling Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Allison Voit, who serves as assistant director of Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), said the agency is offering case management services to two families. They are not considered refugees, she noted. Ukrainians are entering the U.S. on humanitarian parole, which allows them to reside in the country legally for two years. After that time period they may be able to apply for a long-term option, she said, adding, “It’s a safe option for folks trying to flee war.”

MRS can help the families apply for benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and enroll them in English classes.
The families are also able to receive assistance through Catholic Charities’ Youth Services Program, which offers assistance enrolling children in public schools and mentoring for middle and high schoolers.

Ukrainians on humanitarian parole are not formally assigned to Catholic Charities, said Voit. They need to call or go to the agency’s MRS office located at 2220 W. Market St., in order to receive assistance.

“If you know a Ukrainian family, help them call or reach out to us for the services they are eligible for,” said Voit.

Other ways individuals in parishes and the community can help is through donations, she said.

“We always need the community’s support. We can’t do this work without them,” said Voit.

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