Nela Hasic’s Remarkable Journey and Her Battle to Beat Bosnia’s Cancer Taboo

A group of women participate in the first Race for the Cure® event in Bosnia, co-sponsored by JDC's WHEP and Susan G. Komen for the Cure®.
A group of women participate in the first event in Bosnia, co-sponsored by JDC’s WHEP and Susan G. Komen®.

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzogovina – In Bosnia-Herzegovina, discussion of women’s health issues, and especially breast cancer, remains something of a taboo. “During my childhood, I never heard the word ‘cancer.’ If that was the situation in my home, what was it like in the rest of the country?” Nela Hasic, Regional Director of the Women’s Health Empowerment Program (WHEP) in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Montenegro, told me. “When you don’t talk about something, it becomes mystery and it becomes taboo.”

Since 2004, WHEP as a non-sectarian program jointly funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and Susan G. Komen – over 6,000 people from 42 towns and cities partook in Sarajevo’s Race for the Cure last year – has been working across Bosnia’s ethnic and religious communities remove the shroud of taboo surrounding breast cancer. “You just need to provide the right information to people – that breast cancer can be a death sentence but if it is diagnosed at the earliest stage, then there is a more than ninety percent change that it will heal,” Hasic said.

Education is one critical competent of WHEP’s work, in a country where health and social studies is not part of the national curriculum and people living in rural communities or a religious environment do not have regular or easy access to vital health information. Aside from going into high schools, WHEP set up an SOS line to provide emotional support and information about where to find resources. The number has no area code – critical in a divided country where residents of one entity, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina for example, would be reluctant to dial a helpline if it had a Republika Srpska area code.

Hasic told me that the principal thing WHEP discovered, during preliminary investigations into the situation on the ground in Bosnia, was that there was no “psychosocial support – not in the system nor in the civil society” for either victims or survivors of breast cancer. “It’s a fantastic tool that works all over the world but we knew we needed to modify it to the reality of Bosnian women, that is comfortable to them.”

Bosnian women, it was supposed, would not be willing to merely sit down and begin to talk, as might happen in the United States. They would have to be coaxed into it, with the conversation as an organic part of group or individual activities. Indeed, initially WHEP found that women didn’t want to be part of peer group support, not quite understanding what it was or why they needed it, but over time Hasic said women have been empowered to volunteer, lead, and partake in peer support sessions.

Hasic, the child of Holocaust survivors “who shared the minimum of facts – nothing more,” grew up in Sarajevo in a non-religious Jewish environment. She went to a kind of Sunday school, played the mandolin in the community’s orchestra, and the Jewish community celebrated the major holidays together. While recognizing that in remembering the past, people in Bosnia-Herzegovina can be guilty of so-called Yugonostalgia, Hasic does not remember experiencing anti-Semitism as the only Jewish girl in her public school and recalls an atmosphere of coexistence in her neighborhood.

At the beginning of March 1992, during the violent disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the first barricades went up in and around Sarajevo, erected by Bosnian Serb forces, including in the neighborhood where Hasic lived with her husband, Mustafa, and two children, Benjamin and Maya (then, 5 and 3). This naturally aroused a great deal of concern, and on April 8, Hasic left hastily for her sister’s apartment in another part of Sarajevo with her two children, two sets of pajamas, a winter jacket, and her purse, but believing she would soon return home.

Two days later, in the early hours of the morning, now at her sister’s place she received a call from the Jewish community. With each hour, the situation in Sarajevo was deteriorating, and the JDC was organizing an airlift out of the city. She had less than an hour to get to the airport. Hasic was reluctant to leave, believing that war would soon pass over the city, “but my father said to me, ‘Once in my life, I lived through a similar situation. We thought everything would be okay, that nothing would happen – and then I ended up alone in the world.’”

Hasic and her children, her sister’s children, her brother’s children, and her father were on the airlift out of Sarajevo to Belgrade. By May 2, 1992, Bosnian Serb forces had established a total blockade of Sarajevo and taken control of the city’s airport (later handed over to United Nations control). Six months later, Hasic’s husband joined her in Belgrade, evacuated via a road convey. Reunited, while other Yugoslav Jewish refugees decided to find safe haven in Canada or the nations of western Europe, the Hasic family decided to make aliya and move to Israel.

“I had never been to Israel before, but I realized that it is not just a symbol of a Jewish homeland but that Jewish people actually have a home that they can go to. I wanted to feel safe. I had lost my safety,” Hasic told me. “There was no question about where we should go. I knew we should go to Israel.”

Hasic and her family lived initially in an absorption center near Jerusalem. Her husband found a job at a gas station working the night shift, while she worked as a cleaning lady. The family who employed her in the beginning “adopted me,” she said, treating her kids as if they were their own grandchildren, but still until their Hebrew was sufficient enough, it was a hard experience. Once they could understand the news and the jokes, she said, they became better integrated. “We realized that we are new immigrants and we have to adapt to Israeli society. We cannot wait for them to adapt to us.”

After ten years in Israel, in 2002 Hasic moved back to Sarajevo, but the upheaval of war meant that, “although we knew the language, we felt like new immigrants.” War had physically changed the city, displaced people and altered the whole ethnic structure of society, created complicated new political structures (that took her at least a year to decipher and haven’t changed since), and due to fear and trauma altered the Bosnian people psychologically. If not for the work she is doing with WHEP, Hasic said she would have left Sarajevo a year or two after moving back, such was the extent of the change and the chaos it had created.

“This is not my job,” she concluded. “This is my life. What I am doing gives meaning to my life. I feel really blessed that I do what I do.”