War Survivor Amira Drljacic Wins Housekeeper of the Year Award

by Nat Frothingham

Amira Drljacic. Photo by Michael Jermyn

In the lives of most people, it’s a rare day to be honored with an award from a statewide organization.

But that’s just what happened when Amira Drljacic was honored on September 26, 2017 as “Housekeeper of the Year” by the Vermont Health Care Association, which serves and advocates for the residents, staff, and communities that depend on Vermont’s nursing, residential care, and assisted living homes across the state.

In the words of the award certificate presented to Amira Drljacic—who is called “Amira” by her friends, colleagues, and residents at The Gary Residence in Montpelier, where she works—Amira won “in recognition of significant contributions and personal dedication to the long-term care profession.”

“Significant contributions and personal dedication”—what specifically do these words mean?

Here’s how Amira’s work performance over the past 15 years at The Gary Residence was described in the written nomination by supervisor of nursing and RN, Mary Beth Watt, and executive director, Dawn Provost

“I have witnessed Amira caring for plants and flowers in the garden. If there is a computer down, a broken fax machine, a DVD glitch or television problem in a resident’s room, she can fix it. If she is on her way out the door, and I ask a question about a problem, she is immediately ‘on it.’”

And these additional words from the nomination: “What is exemplary is her tender attention to detail. One resident may like the collars of her shirts ironed in a unique fashion, another resident likes a particular fragrance in her bathroom. Amira does her job thoroughly, well and lovingly.

Then these final words from the nomination:

“It should be mentioned that this amazing woman is a war survivor. Amira experienced privation, loss, and separation from loved ones during the war in Bosnia. Some individuals, having experience the horrors of war at close range, could understandably become somewhat “hardened” as a survival tactic. This is certainly not the case with our Amira who is a warm, generous, kind and thoughtful woman.”

During a face-to-face interview with Amira in the library of The Gary Residence, she shared the story of her personal experiences as a survivor of the Bosnian War (1992–1995).

Amira Drljacic was born in Bosanski Šamac, a small city of about 20,000 that was once part of Yugoslavia, then Croatia, then Bosnia before the Bosnian War. In the early days of the Bosnian War, the city was occupied by the Bosnian Serbs.

“I was born there. I went to school there. I was married there,” Amira remembered, “My whole family was there—my family, my husband’s family.”

Before the war, Amira—then 22 years old—and her family lived side by side with the Serbs. “We trusted them,” she said. She remembered the hours before start of the war–April 17, 1992. “Everyone was talking. But they didn’t know it was going to happen here.” 

Speaking about what happened on April 17 and the days that followed, Amira said. “I was married and pregnant with my first child.  Our town was taken by the Serbians. They went street to street. If you were not a Serbian, they would come to your home with guns. They would move into your house.”

Resistance was futile. The Serbians came to the house and said, “If you don’t leave this house, we will kill you. They would send you to work or send you to a concentration camp.”

Amira was fortunate. Her sister, who lived in Croatia, came and took her to Croatia. “I lost all contact with my family,” Amira said. She also lost contact with her husband. “He didn’t know we had a child. I didn’t know about him for four or five months. Was he alive or dead?”

Fortunately, her husband escaped. “He swam over the river. After a month he came and saw the child.”

In due course, Amira and her husband were offered the chance of coming to America. “If you want to go to America,” Amira said, “you have to be healthy; check everything. We couldn’t stay in Croatia.”

So they came to America, flying to Vienna, then New York City, next to Burlington and then to join her husband’s two sisters in Montpelier, arriving here on May 9, 1996.

When they arrived in Montpelier, they had no belongings. “Some people gave us furniture,” she said.  The young family took English classes at Bethany Church, Amira’s husband got work at the Vermont Tax Department and eventually finished college, first at CCV, then, at Johnson State.  In 2003, Amira flew back to Croatia. “I went to see my mother.” She visited her old town. Since her trip her parents and a sister have died. Speaking about her old town, she said, “Everything was just destroyed.”

Clearly, Amira is drawing on her life experience in her work at The Gary Residence. She described her duties at The Residence with these words, “At The Gary Residence, I work Monday through Friday–40 hours. My work is cleaning and laundry. I help when they need it. If someone is in need, they only have to ask for my help and I will gladly give it.”

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