From war-torn Bosnia to the Purple Valley: The harrowing journey of Selma Kikic

There is a mistake on the 2000 Williams College women’s Tennis Roster. Sophomore Selma Kikic ’02 is not from Dallas, even though it says so under ‘Hometown. Dallas is merely where she lives now, not her hometown.

Selma Kikic’s hometown disappeared on May 3, 1992, when the Serbian Army rolled into Doboj, a city in Bosnia. “That morning the whole town was full of Serbian soldiers parading around shooting guns off into the air,” said Kikic. “The loudspeakers on the trucks told all Muslims to surrender their guns by 4:00 p.m. the next day.”

As a Bosnian Muslim family, the Kikic’s worst nightmare arrived that spring morning. Selma’s father, Mensur, had been born and raised in Doboj and remained certain that the hostilities of the region would never reach the city. In April, fighting had occurred three hours to the south, but it seemed to have quieted.

All Selma knew was that school had been cancelled for the year. “I was pretty excited to hear that there was not going to be any more school that year,” Selma said. “But I was not happy that the only time we could venture out of our apartment building was from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. each day.” Selma’s first boyfriend, Sreten, a 12-year old Croatian- Serb, had left Doboj in April without saying goodbye. Selma, at age 12, was more than a little confused. Many of her close friends were Serbs; she never had any problems with them, and could not remember a time when the fact that she was a Bosnian Muslim had been a problem for her many Serb neighbors.

The next day, Mensur was fired from his job because he was a Bosnian Muslim, but Selma’s mother Almira, a pediatrician, was allowed to continue to work.

“Not long after my father was fired from his job as an environmental engineer, it seemed like every day my mom would come home, meet with my father in secret and then she would come out crying and be upset for hours.”

Within the first week of the Serbian takeover, Selma and her younger sister, Sanida, were told to pack one backpack each. Underwear, T-shirt and jeans were about all that could fit in the small backpacks. Not long after, they could hear the gunfire and exploding bombs in and around Doboj. Sometimes, they would have to flee to the basement of their building until the fighting ceased. “When the windows in our apartment would start rattling my father would hurry us down to the basement where many others would also be hiding,” said Selma. “That was scary and it was always loud explosions that made us wonder what would happen next.”

Selma and Sanida were only told what their mother and father felt they could be safely told. It wasn’t until many months later that Selma learned of the events that caused her family to leave Doboj. “One day, my mother was walking to the bus stop to come home and she passed a woman whom she knew well. In fact, my mother had saved this women’s child shortly after the child was born with some heroic efforts, but the woman ignored her.” When the woman was about to walk by Selma’s mother again without speaking, Almira spoke up. The other woman motioned for Almira to step into a building.

The other woman told Almira, “I cannot be seen talking to you because you and your family are on the ‘Death List’ and anyone seen talking with you will also be killed.”

A few days later, Almira told Selma and Sanida that she needed to go to Belgrade to have some medical tests done. While she was there with Mensur, the girls would be staying with Almira’s parents in the city of Maglaj. Selma and Sanida did not know at the time that they were on the ‘Death List,’ and they did not know that Almira had concocted an elaborate hoax with some friendly Serbian doctors at her hospital. Mensur had also arranged with some friends at the police station to receive the necessary forged travel papers. Mensur was a prime candidate for the Serbian Army, as he was in his early 40s. “I know now that he was one that the Serbs would have used as a human shield at some point, by forcing him to join their army,” said Selma.

On May 30, a visit to Mensur’s parents’ house a short distance away was intended to inform them of the trip to Belgrade for Almira’s medical condition. Even Mensur’s parents were not told the real purpose of the trip.

Leaving Doboj on May 31st, Selma ran into her best friend Bilja, who was 11. “When I hugged Bilja I told her I would be back, because that’s what my parents wanted me to believe,” said Selma. “I never looked back at the apartment or Bilja because I just thought I would be away for a week or so. I could hear bombs and grenades on the outskirts of the city, but I was not too concerned, as I was going to my grandparents’ house.”

About 10 miles of the 15-mile trip would involve a bus ride; walking would cover the final five. Every three miles the bus stopped at Serbian checkpoints; armed soldiers would enter the bus and check everyone’s papers. Selma was stunned at how much of a military presence there was in Doboj. Everywhere she looked she saw armed soldiers, trucks with soldiers and tanks and trucks pulling cannons.

Almira and Mensur left everything they owned behind them in Doboj. They had only their family and a small amount of money, too little to generate suspicion. Later, Selma recalled that when she knew they would never return to Doboj, she could picture the Serbian soldiers looting their apartment.

“When we walked into Nana’s house, Nana was just overcome with tears and I remember telling her, ‘It’s okay, we’re all here together and we are safe; but I did not really know that what I was saying was so true.” Now that the Kikics were deeper in Bosnian territory, there would be no more Serbian checkpoints. They boarded a train for Zavidovici where they stayed two days with Almira’s youngest sister, Ajtena. Ajtena had a daughter, Nadina, who was Selma’s age. “I remember going outside with Nadina and I was struck by how quiet and peaceful everything was and we had a lot of fun that day.”

Soon, the Kikics headed further south towards the Adriatic Sea, stopping in Zenica to stay with Almira’s best friend, whom Selma was named after.

The Kikics continued south, with Almira and Mensur telling the girls that they were going to take a vacation on the Adriatic now. From Split, the Kikics took a ferryboat to the island of Korcula.

It was here, in late August, when Selma learned that she would not be going back to Doboj. Selma eventually asked her mother when they would be going home; she was told that that was out of the question. “My mother told me that it was not safe to go back to Doboj and that we would be staying on Korcula for a while. I cried for the rest of the day and the next day she explained why we could not go home.” My father, Sanida and I fished and my mom was the only doctor on the island – we stayed for a year.’

Mensur Kikic was a recreational tennis player who loved the sport immensely. He had built the first tennis court in the town of Doboj, finishing when Selma was seven. The minute she picked up a racket, she was hooked. “I played tennis every day that the weather allowed until we left Doboj in May of 1992,” Selma remembers. “I would watch the professional women’s matches on TV, and Monica Seles was my favorite. I just loved playing tennis.”

On Korcula, Selma had her first chance to pick up a racket since leaving Doboj. She became energized and excited again, playing tennis with her father. Mensur learned that the Bosnia Tennis Federation was holding tryouts at their Olympic Training Center in Umag for the upcoming 1996 Summer Games; Selma was invited to attend. Umag was a 12-hour boat ride from Korcula, but Selma went with her schoolbooks and returned to Korcula occasionally to take her exams. “Many of the other young players at the training center had no family and no school to return to, so [they] lived at the training center all of the time,” recalled Selma.

On one of the trips back to Korcula, Selma was informed that her family was signing up with the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) of the United States, who were interviewing Bosnian refugees for possible immigration to the U.S.

Selma’s parents were invited to one INS interview, followed by a request for a second that included the girls. The INS personnel met Selma and Sanida, but their parents would not allow them into the interview session. They did not want the girls to know that Almira had been strip- searched or that Mensur had been beaten in Doboj.

Word came that the Kikics and 10 other Bosnian families were approved to immigrate to the U.S. The Kikics took a bus to Vienna and boarded a plane for New York, with their final destination as Dallas.

In August of 1993, the Kikics arrived in New York’s JFK airport. Only Selma spoke English, if “Hi, my name is Selma, what’s yours?” and “Hi and bye” and “hot and cold” count as speaking a language.

On the trip to Dallas, Selma was absolutely freezing on the plane, so she put on her winter parka. She was shivering when a nicely dressed American woman said to her in the baggage claim area, “Honey, where are you from? You’re not going to need that jacket tonight in Dallas.”

When the man from the Catholic Charities Organization herded the Kikics out of the airport to a waiting car, Selma was stunned by the wave of heat that greeted her when the doors opened. “I could not believe how hot it was,” said Selma. “It was nighttime and it was hotter than an oven.”

The Catholic Charities representative took the Kikics to their modest apartment in a less-than-desirable part of the city. The Kikics found two mattresses on the floor and some food in the refrigerator when they entered. They were so tired that it did not matter that the apartment was unfurnished.

The next morning, they were taken to a Tom Thumb grocery store to shop. “When I went inside and saw how big the store was I though this must be the only grocery store in Dallas, because it was just so big,” said Selma. “I think I touched everything in the store in the two hours we were there. That was a huge culture shock for me. I was just mesmerized.”

School had already started in Dallas, but, by the third day, Selma and Sanida were in school at TJ Rusk, a poor, rundown, inner city public school. The two sisters were half of the white population at the school. Most of the students were African- American, Mexican or Vietnamese. “I was not very popular as I was only there to learn and not to wear the right clothes and the right makeup,” said Selma. “I was different and I was not well-received by the students. The teachers on the other hand just loved how interested I was in learning.”

“I was able to excel in school because my mother would sit with me to do my homework and every word we did not know she looked up in a dictionary – she would not let one word go by that we did not know.”

“Someone at the Catholic Charities organization found out that I liked to play tennis, so I was driven over to the University Club to meet Craig Bell, the head pro who ran a juniors program. When Mr. Bell saw me play, he offered me a scholarship to play in his program.”

Mensur Kikic was placed in a program to help him learn to speak English. He never thought that he would go back to being an environmental engineer, but he wanted to be ready for any opportunities. His first American job was gluing things together in a factory; later he worked for a grocery store, at the University Club and eventually as a clerk at the Embassy Suites in Dallas. Seeing what happened to Mensur, Almira vowed not to leave the apartment until she learned to speak English well.

When Craig Bell opened his arms to Selma, he also opened a lot of doors for the Kikic family in Dallas. As word spread of Selma and her family’s tragedies and needs, Dallas took them in. Almira was hired as a nurse for Dr. Amanullah Kahn, an oncologist, and Selma received an opportunity to attend Hockaday, Dallas’ most prestigious girls’ preparatory school.

By the time Selma got to Hockaday, the Kikics had moved to north Dallas and even had a car. With the situation far different than at TJ Rusk, Selma blossomed as both a student and a tennis player. Under Bell’s tutelage, she quickly climbed the junior tennis rankings in Dallas en route to the top twenty.

In Selma’s years, the Hockaday Killer Daisies won three Southern Preparatory Conference titles. Selma’s first coach was Jill Berg, who had been at Hockaday for 11 years before leaving after Selma’s first year. Berg’s one-year replacement was not as well received, so Selma looked forward to her junior year and a new coach.

Her junior year, Selma was coached by Becky Mallory ’95, a four-year letter winner in both tennis and basketball for the Ephs, earning an NCAA Doubles title with current women’s head tennis and squash coach, Julie Greenwood ’96.

“Miss Mallory was a lot like Miss Berg … and I loved going to her practices and playing for her,” said Selma, who played number-one doubles and either number two or three singles every year at Hockaday. Kikic’s performance on the tennis court and in the classroom did not go unnoticed. She and her family were soon involved in the American phenomenon of recruiting.

“Becky was fairly involved in Selma’s college search because her parents knew very little about the American system,” said Greenwood. “The Kikics were a little reluctant to have Selma go far away, but Becky encouraged Selma to take a look at Williams because she thought it would be a good place for her.”

By the time Selma got around to visiting Williams she had received heavy recruiting from Division I schools such as Tulane, Vanderbilt, SMU and Baylor. In the end, her decision was between a full scholarship to Baylor or paying to go to Williams.

Miss Mallory finally convinced Selma to at least send Williams a common application and make a visit.

“Julie met me at the Albany Airport and talked to me about Williams the whole way,” said Selma. “I was listening but I was also leaning forward in my seat to look out at the mountains and the countryside and I was overwhelmed by a feeling or being home – home in Bosnia. When I met the team and attended some classes, I knew that I wanted to go to Williams even if it was a long ways from Dallas and my family.”

“My host was Alison Swain (’01), who was so nice and friendly … I had a lot of fun with Tyler Lewis (’99) who was really funny – I just fell in love with Williams right away,” said Selma. As soon as she went home she told her parents that she wanted to go to Williams. But then as the days passed and the great distance was discussed again and again, her friends began to ask, “How can you turn down a full scholarship?” Selma began to have second thoughts.

“It was weird that all of my friends were saying go here and go there and none of them said go to Williams, mostly because they had never heard of it,” said Selma. “On the other hand all of the teachers and administrators at Hockaday and the people I knew at the University Club were saying, “You just cannot turn down a Williams education – it’s a great school.”

In the end, the Kikics left the decision up to her. After tossing and turning in her sleep for nearly a week, she came to a decision. She was walking in the hall at Hockaday when Miss Mallory stopped her. When Selma told her that she really wanted to go to Williams, Mallory grabbed her hand and said, “Let’s go.”

“Next thing I knew we were on a phone in the hallway and she was calling Coach Greenwood,” said Selma. “Julie wasn’t in but Miss Mallory told me to leave her a message so I yelled, THIS IS SELMA KIKIC – I AM COMING TO WILLIAMS!!”

Selma Kikic, who loved tennis in Bosnia, now loves tennis at Williams. She plays number three singles and number one doubles. In less than two years, Kikic has helped the Ephs finish second in the nation and recapture the New England Division III title. Her personal record in singles at Williams is 41-11; currently, she ranks 30th in the nation. In doubles, playing with Jasmine Bradley ’02, she has posted a record of 40-14 and the duo is ranked fourth nationally.

“Selma is, bar none, the best competitor I have seen at this level,” said Greenwood. “She is a natural athlete who thrives on competition and has that championship combination of intensity, talent, confidence, and fight that as a coach you want every player to have. She gets herself up and pumped for every match and she brings her teammates (as well as any fans who are watching) along with her. When she leaves the court, win or lose, she has poured her heart into every point; she is both a joy and an inspiration to watch play.”

Kikic also letters in varsity squash for the Ephs, though she had never played before arriving at Williams. This winter, Kikic moved up to number two singles for the Ephs.

“Selma finds a way to befriend everyone, no matter how much or little she has in common with them, and makes sure that they feel a part of the team,” said Greenwood.

Along with lettering in tennis and squash, Kikic also holds down two work-study jobs to help defray her college costs.

The backpack she carried out of Doboj that May morning is still with her at Williams, reminding her of the cousin who gave it to her and then died fighting for his country. She remembers where she came from and she knows where she is going. Fortunately, though, she’s here with us right now.