Nela Hasic: from Jewish Evacuee to Bosnian Breast Cancer Advocate

March 1, 2011


In 1992, when civil war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nela Hasic received a call from a leader in the Jewish community. “We are under attack, and the JDC is airlifting members of the Bosnian Jewish community to safety,” she recalls hearing. “You have to be at the airport in half an hour.”

Nela, whose family roots in Bosnia date back 500 years to the Spanish Inquisition, was reluctant to leave her home and the life she knew. “I did not want to go…I did not want to leave,” she said. But her father insisted. Having watched his entire family perish during the Holocaust simply because they were Jews, he felt that waiting was not an option. “War has started,” my father told me. “You do not have the right to stay here and protect an apartment. The most important thing is your life and that of your children.”

So Nela, then 28, and her children—Benjamin, 5, and Maya, 3—were flown to Belgrade, where JDC provided them with food, clothing, and other services. Nela’s husband, Mustafa, stayed behind to protect their property. A few days later, Sarajevo was under siege and intense bombing began. “I quickly learned that I had made a good choice,” Nela said. Over the next six months Nela heard only sporadically from Mustafa, and her sister and brother. For four of those months, she didn’t even know if her husband was still alive. Mustafa survived, and was eventually reunited with Nela and the children in Budapest. From there, the family made aliyah to Israel.

Once the owner of a small graphic printing business, Nela was forced by circumstance to take on work as a housekeeper and perform other odd jobs to earn small amounts of money, first in Jerusalem and then in Rehovot. “I was angry because the people who made war made me leave my country…I didn’t make that decision,” she says emphatically. But Nela was determined to overcome the challenges and make her life in Israel fruitful. While the children went to school and Mustafa worked, she learned the language. “Knowing Hebrew helped me understand and love the people,” she said. Following a few years of hard work and perseverance, the family was living comfortably.

Nonetheless, after spending what she describes as a rewarding decade in Israel, Nela longed for her home in Sarajevo. “I began to feel that all of the important things in my life were happening just within my own nuclear family,” she explained. Nela didn’t want to deny her own children a chance to have their extended family because of geographic distance.

The family’s return to Sarajevo in 2002 was bittersweet. Their apartment had been destroyed in the war and Nela again was jobless and forced to readjust to new circumstances. “It was a very hard period,” she said. Nela volunteered almost full-time, and started a catering business. “I love to cook,” she exclaimed. But ife then was quite difficult, and Nela admits it tested her faith.

In January 2004, Nela received her second fateful call from the Jewish community. She was offered a job with JDC as the Project Director for the Women’s Health Empowerment Project (WHEP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Established in 1995, WHEP is a JDC partnership with the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The program encourages the early detection of breast cancer, creates support groups and hotlines, strengthens doctor to patient communication, and facilitates partnerships among government agencies, NGOs and the medical community. WHEP programs have impacted the lives of women in Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegro, Georgia, Israel, Ukraine and the Palestinian Territories.

With her trademark ingenuity and people skills, Nela has conceived and conducted 9 conferences on a national and regional level on breast cancer awareness that inform participants of the psychosocial support services that already exist for Bosnian women with breast cancer; create a network that will lead to new partnerships between sectors; provide skill-building workshops in areas such as advocacy, NGO/government partnerships, and outreach; introduce the participants to the “peer support” model of assistance through which breast cancer survivors are trained to support other women with the disease; and define priorities on which the participants want to work to create new education and emotional support services.

Additionally, under Nela’s leadership, the Race for the Cure in Sarajevo—which has thousands of participants annually—continues to ensure a public image for fighting the disease. The funds raised at the 2011 and 2010 Races were used to distribute immediate post-surgery medical kits to women and provide free mammogram checkups for uninsured women (in Bosnia, 1 in 7 do not have medical insurance). Proceeds from 2009 helped to purchase vital medication that significantly improves breast cancer survival and is not affordable for many Bosnian women.

Prior to the creation of this project, women with breast cancer in Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced total emotional isolation. “It was taboo to speak about this kind of cancer, so women were forced to waste their energy covering up their pain and sickness rather than on helping themselves get better,” said Nela. “Women in my country had access to some doctors, but emotional support and information they did not have. There is a real need here.”

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