Amra Dautovic is the managing director of My Time, an organisation that helps people from all backgrounds suffering from mental health problems.
Amra Dautovic is the managing director of My Time, an organisation that helps people from all backgrounds suffering from mental health problems. Here she tells Anuji Varma of her own past experiences of war and how she has helped others suffering a similar fate.
The banging on the windows startled little Amra Dautovic.
“You’ve got to get out,” shouted the voice.
The nine-year-old knew exactly what to do. Already fully clothed she slipped on her shoes and ran downstairs with her aunt, Hajra Mekic, opening the door to their frantic neighbour.
“The enemy is coming,” she told them.
Fleeing their home, with just the clothes on their backs, Amra and Hajra congregated at a house at the top of the road in their leafy village in Bosnia with other residents.
Civil war was raging in the cities across the stricken country in 1992 and Amra found herself in the midst of the terror.
The conflict, which came about as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia, resulted in more than 100,000 people being killed and up to 50,000 women raped, in just three years.
Amra, now 27, and managing director of Birmingham-based organisation My Time, which also helps refugees suffering mental health problems, was determined not to become a statistic as she fought for her life.
“That day we walked and walked,” she recalled. “It took us the whole day to get to the next village. If the enemy had caught us, they would have raped the women and killed all the men and children.
“They torched the houses we left behind.”
Amra, who lived in Sarajevo with her dad Himzo Mekic, mum Semsa, and sister Arnela, had gone to visit her aunt in the countryside before the war started in March 1992.
But while there the conflict between the different factions escalated and the bloody battle began.
Hajra was desperate to get Amra back to her parents in the city, but their terrifying journey took a year-and-a-half.
“Almost overnight roads were barricaded and it was safer to stay where we were until we knew the enemy was coming,” Amra explained.
“We slept in our clothes because we knew we would have to flee at a moment’s notice. The men would be on the look-out because when the enemy did come they would leave a trail of destruction.
“When we finally got to the next village we relied on the goodwill of others to give us food and shelter.
“At other times we would root through abandoned houses to find clothes and food.
“We got whatever we could. I think we ate rice with everything – now I never eat it!
“We continued to travel from village to village. Sometimes we would stay for just one night, sometimes it would be a few weeks that we were safe.
“We had no access to electricity, but every now and then we would stumble upon a house where there was a connection and a television.
“It was then that we would find out which city had fallen. I remember once watching a clip about Sarajevo and there were just pools of blood everywhere. I didn’t know whether my parents and sister were dead or alive.”
The pair stayed at the last house for six months, when they were found by another uncle who told her that her family were alive, while her dad was fighting on the frontline.
Amra, is now happily married to Anel, also 27, who took her, along with her aunt back to Sarajevo.
But when they arrived, they were met with a shocking scene of devastation and danger.
“The buildings had been bombed, buses were abandoned in the street and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” she said.
“And then I was reunited with my family. I hardly recognised them. It was all so weird.
“It took a while to get used to being back in the city. You couldn’t play outside. There were snipers around the streets and you never knew when a bomb was going to fall. The roads were always soaked in blood. Every night I would go to bed to the noise of bullets being fired.”
Just a few months after returning, tragedy was to strike.
Hajra had been queuing at the bakery for bread when a bomb fell on her.
Amra recalled: “That was the first personal tragedy I suffered. She was such a good person and I couldn’t believe that really kind people could be taken away from you for no reason.”
In 1994 her father was badly injured when a bomb fell on him, and the whole family were flown to Birmingham, where he would undergo treatment in hospital for his serious injuries.
The family were put up in the Chamberlain Hotel, now known as the Paragon Hotel, in the Digbeth area of the city.
None of them spoke a word of English.
Amra added: “Doctors told us it was a miracle my dad had survived.”
Amazingly, despite not having any sort of education, Amra went on to get A* in English GCSE, as well as passing other subjects with B and C grades. She also successfully passed her A-levels and went on to Wolverhampton University to study psychology and criminal justice.
Before going to university, she went back to Bosnia, along with her mum and sister, to see family.
They were shocked at what they saw.
“Our house was completely destroyed after it had been bombed. It had been reduced to just rubble,” she said.
“Everything around had been ruined and everything in the countryside, including my grandad’s house, was burned to the ground.
“It was all very upsetting. But we did see family members over there, which was nice.”
Amra goes back to Bosnia every year and she still sees reminders of the brutal war, despite the people rebuilding their lives.
“There are some houses with bullet holes in them. And on the ground where people were killed, there is red tarmac marking the spot.”
It was her past experiences that eventually led to Amra wanting to work with victims.
She also draws on her own experiences, when appropriate, in dealing with fellow refugees as she says it helps her to deliver a better service. “I know what it is like to lose everything and being thrown into a country you know nothing about. I know what effect this can have on you psychologically.
“I don’t think I will ever get over what happened. But I have made peace with it and am able to move on. I have built a new life for myself here.”
She started working at My Time as a receptionist and in the space of seven years has worked her way up to managing director.
“I love working here, and helping people from so many different cultures.”
Time proves a great healer for the victims
SOCIAL enterprise My Time offers a unique approach to mental health which tailors treatment to culture.
Offering services to various races, experts have helped many families suffering from anxiety and depression. That includes refugees, like Amra, who fled to the UK and needed help coping with the horrors they witnessed in their own countries.
“People come here with a variety of problems, including women suffering from domestic violence and depression as a result,” explained Amra Dautovic, managing director.
“However, we have found that no-one is looking at the men in this situation and their behaviour, which is what we do as well as delivering victim support.
“We also support people in their own homes who have debt or isolation issues.”
My Time has helped numerous refugees to be reunited with their families, including one man who fled his African home to escape death.
Through working with the Red Cross, My Time was able to bring them together in Birmingham. And when the father suffered a nervous breakdown experts at the organisation were able to support him.
My Time, based in Small Heath and formed in 2002, works closely with the NHS and takes referrals from GPs, as well as children’s centres and a wide variety of organisations.
* For more information about My Time call 0121 766 6699 or log on towww.mytime.org.uk .