Rada Petric: Finding refuge from the Yugoslav wars
When war broke out in Bosnia, UNCG alumna Rada Petric ’08, ’10 MS, ’20 PHD was just a little girl living in Sarajevo.
Every day, her parents and two siblings packed their bags and headed to the airport, hoping their names would be called from “the list.” Being on the list meant you were chosen to leave the country that day, on the city’s one airplane. But every day, their names were not called.
As months passed, Petric’s older brother decided to sneak onto the plane. When a married couple’s names were called, he posed as their child and successfully flew to Serbia, where an aunt picked him up.
The rest of the family waited, bags packed. One day, the officer called two female names, but nobody responded. Thinking quickly, Petric’s mother called back, “It’s my daughters.” Because the girls were too young to have identification, the officer let them through.
“My mom told my older sister, ‘Just take her and go,’” recalls Petric. “It didn’t dawn on me until we were riding up the escalator to get on the plane that my mom wasn’t coming with me, and the waterworks started.” Petric was just 7 years old. She wouldn’t see her parents again for years.
The Yugoslav Wars
In the Eastern European region that was formerly Yugoslavia, religious and ethnic differences caused tension for many years – erupting in the Bosnian War, the Croatian War, and other armed conflicts in the early 1990s. Serbs against Croats against Bosniaks. Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians against Muslims. At least 130,000 were killed, according to the Humanitarian Law Center. Even more were displaced.
“It was all based on religion,” says Dr. Petric. “When the city we lived in got occupied by a certain religion, the other people were not safe to stay there. We were forced out because we didn’t belong to the majority.”
After fleeing Bosnia, Petric and her siblings lived separately with aunts and uncles in Serbia. Eventually they lost all contact with their mother and father. Three years passed. Back in Bosnia, her parents finally decided to try sneaking across the border – through a minefield. Terrified, their mother had to turn back, but their father pushed onward and made it. “It took him all night, crawling on all-fours and feeling for landmines.”
Shortly after, Petric’s mother was arrested and became a prisoner of war. For nine months, she shared a cell with six women, witnessing many of the horrors of war: rape, abuse, senseless killings. For the rest of the family, life in a war zone gradually became almost normalized. Petric remembers jumping rope with a friend when a bomb exploded just two blocks down, killing a neighbor they knew well. A piece of shrapnel grazed her friend’s leg.
“But five minutes later, we went back out in the yard and continued playing jump rope,” Petric says. “It sounds crazy now, but we were so used to shootings and bombings. You just followed protocol.”
One day, there came an unexpected knock on the door. Petric called out, “Come in – the door’s open!” A woman she did not recognize opened the door. “Can I help you?” Petric asked.
“Rada,” the stranger said. “It’s me. It’s your mom.”
Four years had passed since Petric had last seen her mother. Finally released from prison, she had ridden a bus across the border where the officers, drunk on a religious holiday, did not bother to check her identification.
Petric beams when recalling their reunion. “I almost broke my neck running down to her. For the next three days, I didn’t leave her sight.”
Refuge at Last
Though finally reunited, Petric’s family struggled simply to meet their basic needs. Living in a dilapidated building and forced to pick through trash for food, Petric’s parents decided to seek religious refuge in other countries. The United States accepted their application.
Petric was 13 years old when they were placed in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Part of the reason why I have such a strong connection with UNCG is because the very first place we lived was only three blocks from campus,” said Petric. “We would walk to UNCG and just enjoy the scenery.”
But even with a new sense of hope for a better future, tragedy struck again. Their father, a diabetic, fell into a coma before he could fly to the U.S. He never woke up.
Their brother worked three jobs to support the family, while Petric and her sister finished high school and learned English. “I no longer needed to worry about shelter, a safe place, or food. I could finally just focus on my studies.”
Petric excelled. She chose to attend UNCG, in part to remain close to her family. She joined the Biology Department, known for its many undergraduate research opportunities, and soon discovered her own love of research. She worked in the bat and mouse lab with Dr. Matina Kalcounis-Rüppell.
“While we were doing field work in the woods at night, I said, ‘Wait, you mean I can do this for a living?’” The joy of research fueled Petric’s decision to pursue a master’s degree in biology, and later, her PhD in environmental health science – both from UNCG’s Biology Department. She also worked as a lecturer in the department for several years.
“The Biology Department at UNCG provided me with a lot of opportunities, from paid internships to grant funding. That’s part of the reason I kept coming back for all of my degrees.”
She also built a strong community of friends, especially as a graduate student, who, she says, supported her through the “mentally and physically exhausting” process of earning a PhD.
Now, Petric is an assistant research professor at UNC Chapel Hill, where she also directs the Institute for the Environment at Highlands Biological Station. There, she conducts research on bats and other small mammals. She also runs a program that immerses students in the Southern Appalachians, teaching them about the environmental human impacts on the region.
Despite finding refuge and academic success, the trauma of war lingered. For many years, Petric suffered from PTSD and recurring nightmares. She struggled to be close to people. “But working through all of this has helped me become a more compassionate person.”
She says this compassion applies both to her own family that she started, as well as the students she mentors. If a student is struggling academically, she can almost always identify with what they’re going through – because she’s lived it.
“I’ve also become someone who really tries to live every day to its fullest,” reflects Petric. “Because I know that, in the blink of an eye, it could all be gone.”
By Elizbeth Keri, College of Arts and Sciences
Illustration by Antwain Hairston ’21