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Once an immigrant, now she helps others

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Saska Icitovic was 5 when her family fled Yugoslavia during the Croatian-Serbian war.
Saska Icitovic was 5 when her family fled Yugoslavia during the Croatian-Serbian war.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

When refugees and immigrants meet Saska Icitovic, they have no idea her background is a lot like their own. Her flawless English betrays no trace of an accent.

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But as one who was born in the midst of the Croatian-Serbian war, fled to a refugee camp with her family, and experienced how her parents struggled when they came to America, Icitovic connects with clients in a visceral way.

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Newly graduated from Suffolk University, Icitovic, 22, who grew up in Lynn, began as an academic and financial coach at Jewish Vocational Service's Boston office in October.

It's an anxious time to be an immigrant in the United States, considering President-elect Donald Trump's hard-line stance during the presidential race.


"I think it is fair to say that given the election rhetoric that targeted vulnerable individuals of color, the poor, the disabled, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and many others who walk through JVS's doors every day, there is a great deal of anxiety among our inspiring clients and staff," Jerry Rubin, the nonprofit's chief executive, said in a statement after the election.

Icitovic is determined to do her job, no matter who is president.

"At its core, the United States is built on refugees," Icitovic said of Trump's election. Her clients have been focused on their studies, not politics.

"Their path toward college "might not have been an opportunity in their countries," she said.

Icitovic's father was born in Serbia and her mother in Croatia. Saska, an "ethnic Serb," was born in Croatia in 1994 during a civil war that broke up Yugoslavia, leaving 100,000 dead and about 500,000 refugees.

For those victims, it was not unlike what's now going on in Syria and in western Sudan.

"Because of the differentiation of an ethnicity, thousands and thousands died," she said of her childhood. "You see that it can happen in Africa, South America, Europe."


In 1995, Icitovic's parents bundled up their infant and fled to Pristina in Kosovo.

"I grew up in a former military barracks," Icitovic said. "It was converted to house families that had fled."

Icitovic was 5 in 2000 when her family boarded a plane filled with refugees. With the help of Catholic Charities, the Icitovics settled briefly in Malden and then moved to Lynn.

Icitovic's parents landed jobs right away, which allowed them to purchase a home in Lynn only four years later. They became US citizens in 2005. Her mother, Nada, graduated from Salem State University and opened her own day care in 2008. Her father, Vladimir, is a bus driver for Peter Pan lines.

Meanwhile, Icitovic worked hard, graduating from Suffolk University cum laude last spring.

Besides her background in Europe, growing up in Lynn shaped her world view.

"Lynn is diverse," said the Classical High School graduate. "There are people from all over the world. It opened my eyes. Seeing the hardships that my parents went through, it triggered me to see what others were going through."

Icitovic said it wasn't coming from Serbia but her American hometown that has caused some backlash.

"When I say I'm from Lynn, that's when people discriminate against me," she said.

The more she heard about displaced immigrants from all over the world coming to America, her future in the workplace became clearer.

Two internships counseling new arrivals prepared her for her role at Jewish Vocational Service. Last month, Icitovic participated in a State House celebration of a graduating class of immigrants from JVS's Bridges to College program.


The students had completed intensive six-month courses enabling them to continue their education.

"They were beyond elated," Icitovic said.

Bette Keva can be reached at bettewk@gmail.com.