Suljic uses childhood as a refugee to build relationships as Motor Vehicle Officer

IMG_4981It’s a rare gift to be able to connect with the customers you serve on a very personal level. A large portion of the professional drivers that the Iowa Department of Transportation’s motor vehicle officers come into contact with are not native to the United States. Most have immigrated to the U.S. to find a better life. Motor Vehicle Officer Senad Suljic can relate.

Suljic’s story begins in a small city called Bratunac, Bosnia, on the western edge of the current country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, only a river crossing away from neighboring Serbia. In 1992, war broke out between the two countries. Suljic wasn’t quite seven years old. When his small city was invaded by Serbian troops, the Suljic family, including Senad, his parents, two younger brothers, and grandmother, was forced to flee.

“For the first month we hid in basements in other villages. In May 1992, we were at a bus station surrounded by the Serbian Army. We were taken to a soccer field where the men were separated from the women and children. The Serbians took all our valuables. My mom, two younger brothers, grandmother, and many aunts, uncles and cousins were there. I remember my mom had a little bag of clothes. That was it. Since so many of the Serbs were our neighbors, we didn’t understand what was happening. Looking back, this was when my childhood ended,” said Suljic.

The Suljic boys
Senad and his brothers

Senad, his mother, grandmother, and younger brothers were loaded on to buses with the other women and children and driven to a remote area. The bus stopped on the highway and they were told to get out. “I remember the darkness and my mom crying,” he said. “We just started walking until we found the Bosnian army. They took us to a school where the Red Cross helped us. I still didn’t know where my dad was.”

Later, Suljic found out that his father and the other men had been taken from the soccer field to a different school building. “The men were taken to the gym. The Serbs had a list of the more successful men,” Suljic said. “One of those successful men was my uncle, whose wife was nine months pregnant. He was murdered in that gym. For whatever reason, they took my father to a concentration camp instead of killing him.”

After five weeks of separation, Suljic’s father, Sead, was released as part of a prisoner swap between the Bosnian and Serbian armies. “When we were reunited in a town called Visoko, he had not eaten or drank anything for a week. We were again staying in a school, sleeping on tables and begging for food from the Bosnian soldiers who were staying in another school building,” said Suljic.

“We stayed in an abandoned school for a while. There were 10 to 15 families in each room. We slept on tables or whatever else we could find. My grandma had a friend near the school who helped us get food. After about three months, my dad found an abandoned house in the small town of Dzurdjevik near Zivinice that we moved into,” said Suljic. “My grandmother went door to door to beg for food. Some days she would walk 20 miles just to find food for us. I owe a lot to her. She collected beans, rice, and especially flour. These were the things we needed to survive. I lost a lot of family members during the Srebrenica Genocide in 1995.” said Suljic. Those where though times for his family.

Fast forward to 1996, the war was officially over, the Suljic family moved to Ilijas, a small town near Sarajevo. Bosnians were considered refugees in their own country. Sead began to file paperwork for his family to immigrate to the United States. After many interviews, the family was set to leave Bosnia for Connecticut in September 2001. Suljic said, “Then September 11 happened and everything was on hold.”

Finally in December 2001, the family, not knowing a word of English, made its way to a cousin’s house in Connecticut. They were able to get government assistance, but because of state restrictions, Sead was unable to work. “As a man with a strong work ethic, that was not OK with him,” said Suljic. “He wanted to work and wanted us not to rely on the government. My father decided to move our family to Iowa with the assistance of another cousin in Des Moines.”

Senad with driver reviewing paperworkOnce in Iowa, Suljic and his brothers started school and Senad began working at McDonalds. To follow came jobs at Sam’s Club and then a bank. “I almost gave up a few times, but my dad pushed me. The bank job was good, but I had always wanted to be a police officer,” said Suljic. “After five years working on a Green Card, I became a U.S. citizen in 2008. In 2012 I had the opportunity to join the Iowa DOT as a state officer with Motor Vehicle Enforcement. I love my job. I get up every day wanting to go to work.”

Suljic’s duties as a motor vehicle officer include interacting with truck drivers during inspections, both on the road and in the scale facilities. He said, “A lot of truck drivers are from a different culture. Since I’ve been there, I can relate. ‘Where are you from?’ is always a question I ask them. I try to put them at ease.”

Senad and a driver inspectionThe level of caring that Suljic shows his customers can’t be faked. His genuine interest in fulfilling his mission of making sure the drivers and their equipment are safe is bolstered by his ability to relate to them. He said, “I’ve been where many of them are. You’re in a strange country and don’t speak the language. For the most part, these are people just trying to make a living and support their families. I know where they are coming from.”



Senad and family
The Suljic family

Suljic is married to Medisa and has two young daughters, Medina, 7, and Dzanna, 4. He said, “My journey really hit me when Medina turned 7. We had a party for her. I remember I spent my seventh birthday hiding from the Serbian army. She doesn’t know that I had no childhood. That’s why I want to make the best life I can for my family and I understand the people I interact with every day are just trying to do the same.”

As part of their wish to keep the Bosnian culture alive for their children, the Suljics are part of the Bosniak American Association of Iowa. The group recently celebrated the declaration of April as Bosnian-Herzegovinian Heritage Month in Iowa.



Bosniak American Association of Iowa
Representatives of the Bosniak American Association of Iowa with Governor Brandstad at the signing of the proclamation.

Senad and Gov

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