Princeton University’s ivy-covered buildings and sprawling campus contrast starkly with Emina Kobiljar’s native Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). At age five, Kobiljar, an MPA I in the Woodrow Wilson School, and her family fled the country when the Bosnian War broke out.
They escaped a few days before the Siege of Sarajevo, an unrelenting military attack on the city that lasted nearly four years. They made their way as refugees nearly 850 miles to Germany, where they were granted political asylum. For the first few months in Germany, Kobiljar lived with relatives. She and her family then moved from one refugee camp to another, before finally settling in a small town called Ravensburg.
“My father visited Bosnia after the war ended in 1995,” she said. “The entire country was destroyed. There was nothing to go back to, so my parents decided to come to the United States.”
Kobiljar and her family were granted asylum via the U.S. Asylum and Refugee Policy, under which 48,000 European and Bosnian refugees were admitted to the United States in 1998.
Life in the United States
“Distant relatives who had been resettled in the United States a few years prior sent us immigration and refugee paperwork. We ended up in Houston. We didn’t know anything about Texas or the United States. Nobody in my family spoke English. Our family was on Food Stamps and Medicaid, and I was in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for the first year and a half of my schooling,” Kobiljar said.
In high school, Kobiljar developed an intense interest in economics and international affairs. She studied abroad in France for a trimester, excelled in her economics classes and was accepted to Harvard University. Receiving the acceptance letter from Harvard, she noted, was the happiest day of her family’s life since the war.
The summer before leaving for college, Kobiljar returned to BiH. As a counselor at a camp that unites children from all over the Balkans to heal and to interact, Kobiljar reconnected with her past. “I knew there was the possibility of reconciliation between countries and ethnic groups because of my experience with these kids.”
At Harvard, Kobiljar again had the opportunity to return to BiH and learn more about her homeland. As a freshman, she received a $10,000 Project for Peace grant to rebuild a sports facility. She was amazed at how open people were. “The facility was built in a small Muslim village in the Serb republic, and there were donations coming in from Serbs and Croats, offering free architectural and civil engineering services. It was a real showing of support.”
Humanitarian work abroad
Kobiljar started a mentorship program in BiH to help kids apply for educational opportunities abroad. In addition, she traveled to other countries to learn about international development. For a summer in college, she worked in Buenos Aires at a non-governmental organization that helped young people become more employable and educated. She also did volunteer work in Guatemala and El Salvador.
After graduation, Kobiljar moved to New York City to work in the financial services industry. She was involved in the nonprofit and education sectors, helping foundations, endowments and schools – mainly in New York City – manage their asset portfolios. She needed a change, though, after two years on the job. Kobiljar says she wanted to be involved in the field and the humanitarian aspect of international development.
“I’ve experienced being a recipient of humanitarian aid. I realized I wanted to design programs and policies to help other people and to be on the giving end of aid,” she explained. To do so, she moved to Panama in 2012 to work with the U.N. World Food Programme. There, she helped design regional projects to help local populations become more resilient to shocks and crises.
Kobiljar’s international experience led her to the Wilson School. She noted, “The program here is so special because of the students’ intellectual caliber. I haven’t seen this level at any other program I’ve visited or am familiar with.”
Of all the offerings at the School, Kobiljar most enjoys the Wilson School’s speakers and events. “When I saw the PLO chief representative, I was amazed at the turnout, the level of discussion and the respectfulness that was coming from our students and community members.”
After graduation in 2015, Kobiljar will attend Rice University to pursue her MBA. “It will help integrate my experiences and interests: the private, economic side and the development and humanitarian aspect,” she said. Ultimately, she wants to help design more sustainable aid interventions.
When asked where she considers home, Kobiljar laughed and said, “I once spoke at a conference on third culture kids. I feel like I’m fifth or sixth culture kid. I’ve lived in so many different places and in so many different settings that there’s something special about each place.” She added, “Wherever I am at the moment, that’s home. I’m Bosnian-American, a proud American citizen, and right now my home is Princeton, New Jersey.”