Nev Judd: Online and out there

Archive for November 2019

Hearing is believing in the kindness of strangers

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Growing up in the shadow of war, Dzenana Osmanagic and Dzenita Dzemidzic made the best of childhood in the besieged Bosnian town of Goražde.

In 1995, when the Internet was still a novelty and people posted photos in albums, not on social media, Brian Sadler met Dzenita and Dzenana. He was in his early 50s, a 35-year veteran of the Canadian military and a civil affairs officer with the United Nations. Civil war was tearing apart the former Yugoslavia and Brian had just driven his rented 4×4 into Goražde, a besieged Bosnian town with no running water, no electricity, little food and a lot of bullets.

Dzenita Dzemidzic and Dzenana Osmanagic, then aged nine and 11, were among a crowd of children who gathered around Sadler’s truck, which carried a generator and six months’ worth of supplies.

“I pulled into this empty street and immediately all these kids appeared,” recalls Brian. “Through gestures, I asked them to help unload boxes of stuff. Two girls joined the queue and these Bosnian kids started waving them away, telling me that these girls couldn’t hear and couldn’t speak.

“Then I realized that the girls were being – shall we say – isolated. So, I shooed all the kids away, except for the two girls.”

Brian Sadler in Bosnia, circa 1996.

The story might have ended there. Except Dzenita and Dzenana, best friends unused to being singled out so positively, told their parents of the experience. Through an interpreter, the families thanked Brian and welcomed him into their community. He now found himself accompanied most days by his two new friends, communicating with them in a rudimentary sign/body language. “The girls wouldn’t leave my side!”

After a career spent parachuting into trouble spots from the Sinai to Somalia, the highly decorated peacekeeper was entrusted with overseeing the UN protection of 60,000 Muslim residents. But Dzenita and Dzenana needed more than just protection. Brian believed they deserved the chance to hear and speak, opportunities denied them because of war.

What followed was a story that embodies the kindness of strangers and an unlikely journey to the town of Gibsons on Canada’s west coast.

Coming to Canada

Within a couple of months of that first meeting, Brian was asked by the father of one of the girls whether it might be possible to get the girls examined by doctors. Travelling 100 kilometres to Sarajevo was ruled out because of the Bosnian Serb Army that had besieged the town since 1992.

“I came up with the idea that I would try to take them to Canada and get them examined by Canadian doctors,” recalls Brian, who contacted former air force colleagues about “catching a ride” on a regular scheduled flight. “They said, ‘we’d love to but you’re going to need a sponsor because you’re a civvy [civilian] now.’”

Dzenita Dzemidzic and Dzenana Osmanagic make themselves comfortable en route from Bosnia to Canada.

Brian contacted the Canadian ambassador’s office in Zagreb, Croatia. “Within days he said, ‘absolutely,’ insisting I bring the girls to his office, so he could personally authorize their visas.”

On April 24, 1996, Brian with Dzenita and Dzenana – who had never set foot outside Goražde, let alone Bosnia – stepped off a 437 Squadron Polaris aircraft at CFB Trenton for a layover, before continuing their trip west.

The girls’ journey and their 36-day stay in Canada is captured in a photo album. It’s one of three copies Brian made – one each for the girls and one for himself.

“There’s a wonderful photograph of the girls on the plane,” says Brian. “It amuses me because they’re pretending to read a newspaper. They loved reading the paper and they really enjoyed taking pictures of me with my camera.”

Travelling celebrities!

Dzenita and Dzenana underwent examination by a Vancouver doctor, who confirmed the girls could be treated. Treatment duly followed in Edmonton by an audiologist who provided the girls two computer-driven hearing aids and a year’s supply of batteries each.

“After they were fitted by the audiologist, we were driving along the three of us back to my home in St. Albert in my two-seater ranger – Dzeni would sit in the middle on a lunch box. They were exclaiming with noises or excitement because they had never heard the traffic,” recalls Brian. “It was a whole new life! I had to really concentrate on driving.”

Brian and the girls became local celebrities. They were guests of honour at Edmonton City Council, which made the newspaper! While the girls were visiting a school for the deaf in Spruce Grove, AB, Dzenana developed a serious toothache requiring immediate attention. The diseased tooth was extracted the same day for free by a local dentist contacted by the school.

Dzenita and Dzenana trying pizza for the first time.

When Brian brought the girls to Gibsons to meet his parents, Jack and Pat, Coast Cable featured their visit in a one-hour TV special. (The girls can be seen smiling and signing with Brian while he’s interviewed in the sunshine.)

“The girls charmed their way through,” laughs Brian.

Pat Sadler was part of a prolific knitting circle that created countless balaclavas and scarves, packaged up by Jack Sadler and flown in numerous standard military shipments to help children like Dzenita and Dzenana through cold Bosnian winters.

“I give credit to all the Canadians who helped the three of us,” says Brian. “The cooperation was phenomenal. And willing cooperation. I never went to anyone and said, can you help me by doing this gratis; I asked, can you help me by doing this and this, without mentioning gratis. And everybody reacted gratis.”

Brian’s mum, Pat and her Sunshine Coast knitting circle created countless balaclavas and scarves to help children like Dzenita and Dzenana through cold Bosnian winters.

Reconnecting

After retiring to Gibsons in 1998, Brian lost contact with Dzenita and Dzenana for 20 years. Last year, they reconnected on Facebook. Now in their 30s, both women have careers; Dzenana is married with two children. With the help of Dzenita’s English-speaking brother, Adi, they answered questions and shared their memories.

“Childhood during the war was tough,” they write. “It was scary for everyone; you can’t imagine how hard this was for two little girls.

“It was Brian who first told us we were going to Canada. We couldn’t believe it and we were actually a little bit scared. Brian told us that we were going there by plane. It was amazing for us and until the trip we were looking in the sky every day.”

Dzenita and Dzenana recalled Brian taking them to McDonald’s and also persuading them to eat pizza for the first time. (“He was begging us just to try it and we did, and we loved it!”) Bowling with new friends, trips to the cinema and meeting Brian’s parents also stand out. They still have the photo albums Brian made.

How did the experience change their lives?

“We came from a city that had no food, no water, no electricity. Here was a man who helped us; who found doctors to help us. We are very emotional when we talk about Brian and we really love him and miss him. He is true proof that kindness is a feature of great people. Brian is a great man and we will always be thankful to him.”

“The treatment helped us a lot. When Dzenita came home, we were sitting on the balcony. She said, ‘Dad, I can hear the birds.’”

Now in their 30s, Dzenana Osmanagic-Kovacevic (above) and Dzenita Dzemidzic (right) are still good friends and cherish memories of Brian and their 36 days in Canada.

Written by nevjudd

November 16, 2019 at 2:56 pm