How Lutonians helped heal the heart of this Bosnian refugee

Bosnian refugee Kelima Dautovic with her Remembering Srebrenica bag
Bosnian refugee Kelima Dautovic with her Remembering Srebrenica bag

Luton Culture community development officer Kelima Dautovic was at her desk at Farley Community Centre as usual this week.

But her heart was miles away, back home in the Bosnian village of Kozarac. There 284 of her countrymen were finally being laid to rest with dignity and respect, after being discovered in a mass grave containing more than 1,000 bodies.

“I should have been there,” the mother-of-three said simply.

Earlier this month, people across Europe supported Srebrenica Memorial Day, commemorating the 8,000 men and boys who died during the genocide in July, 1995. Kelima, 49, who has lived in Sundon Park for more than 20 years, was a key speaker at the Luton event.

She was nine months pregnant with her second child when she arrived in this country on a coach with 32 other refugees.

She spoke no English, had a six-year-old daughter and her husband was incarcerated in notorious Omarska prison.

Yet in spite of all she suffered at Trnopolje concentration camp, where women were regularly raped and beaten, Kelima regards herself as lucky – not only because she lost no immediate family members but also because Lutonians welcomed her and her fellow fugitives with open hearts.

“We didn’t want pity or benefits,” she said. “We wanted to work. We wanted people with ready smiles on their faces who, even though they couldn’t comprehend what had happened to us, would understand the effect it had on us.

“And this we certainly got in Luton . . . bountifully.

“We have shown our gratitude by raising our children to respect and accept what this country stands for, to encourage them to make British friends of all creeds and colours.”

She added: “But we have also taught them never to forget who they are and where they come from. They must know their identity, their language, their history. For that is their foundation.”

Felima and her lorry driver husband Enver, 51 – freed from prison four months after his family arrived in Luton – are enormously proud of their children.

Daughters Ena, 28, and Victoria Amina, 21 - the first Bosnian refugee to be born in this country – hold university degrees while son Sead, 17, is on a sports scholarship at Oxford United.

Kelima, a driving force in the Bosnian UK Network, says she and her husband have worked hard to provide them with a secure background: “But it’s thanks to the strength and kindness of the good people of Luton that we were able to build our lives anew.”