From Bosnia’s mines to WA’s Goldfields, how one refugee family rebuilt their careers in Australia

Martin Vukančić carefully repots a succulent. He has 450 pots and many more plants fighting to soak up every ray of sunshine in his small garden.

“I give [my plants] the place to start. I just give them the right place and they do their nature things,” he says.

The red dust of WA’s Goldfields is the ground where Mr Vukančić’s family also came to thrive after being uprooted by the Bosnian war.

A 60-year-old man checking a big plant.
Like his hundreds of plants, Mr Vukančić had to fight to put down new roots.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

Kalgoorlie’s mines are the one thing it has in common with Vareš, the Bosnian town at the bottom of a green valley the Vukančićs had to flee in the mid-1990s.

The mines were the Vukančićs’ workplace until the break-up of Yugoslavia triggered horrific conflicts.

Mr Vukančić is Catholic and his wife Mujesira, or Mussi, is Muslim.

As Yugoslavia started dissolving along ethnic lines, the mixed couple fled to avoid the violence of war.

Ground zero

In Bosnia, the Vukančićs had a tropical garden in the middle of their living room and $US100,000 in the bank.

When they landed in Brisbane, in the summer of 1995, the couple and their son Slaven only had $250 and the winter leather jackets on their backs.

Close-up of small succulents growing in soil.
When they landed in Australia, the Vukančićs had to rebuild their lives “from ground zero”.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

The war not only robbed them of their possessions, but also of their careers.

Mr Vukančić went from managing two open-cut mines to taking whatever work he could get.

“You start from the ground zero, from the bottom of the place,” Mr Vukančić says, sipping coffee.

Close-up of a lady's hands while she is making coffee in a kitchen.
Making coffee is a daily ritual for the Vukančićs.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

“I was the technical director, I came here and I was nobody.”

Mr Vukančić says his applications for several mining jobs in Australia resulted in similar phone interviews.

“When they asked for experience, I told them, ‘I got 15 years’,” he says.

“They asked: which mine? I said: in Bosnia. And then, bang, the line is cut.”

Two mine managers in a black and white picture in a Bosnian newspaper.
Mr Vukančić when he was managing five superintendents and two open-cut mines near Vareš, in Bosnia.(Supplied)

Chasing opportunities

The Vukančićs quickly realised that Australia was a land of opportunities, but they would need to learn English and go back to university to grab them.

The first thing that Mujesira Vukančić built was a study fort: a table, with chairs around it, all covered by open textbooks, exercise books and dictionaries, where she could “study like an idiot”.

A man checking the trunk of a tall tree.
Mr Vukančić says the war taught him to assess the environment.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

“I just jumped in and studied, studied, studied. No one could move anything, I jumped out to sleep or go to uni, and then again,” she says.

Her determination to succeed was one of the survival skills the Vukančićs learnt in the Bosnian war.

“Because of what we went through, there was something in me saying, ‘You won’t destroy me’,” Mrs Vukancic says.

“I will be again what I was, doesn’t matter how much energy I have to put into that.”

The couple gained their Australian qualifications: a degree in applied chemistry for Mrs Vukančić, and in mining engineering for her husband.

Three couples, smartly dressed, sitting around a table.
Martin and Mujesira Vukančić (left) with friends at a New Year’s Eve party in Bosnia before the war.(Supplied)

Hard work pays off

Looking at photos from her husband’s graduation makes Mrs Vukančić feel sad.

“You look like a ghost, pale and skinny,” she says, pushing them away.

But Mr Vukančić jokes he “looked great inside”, knowing he was finally free from the stress of studying in a language he’d just learnt, while working.

A man holding his diploma surrounded by his family.
“My skin had no blood because of the stress,” Mr Vukančić says, describing his graduation photo.(Supplied)

With the family travelling in different directions to study, he folded and distributed pamphlets to thousands of houses to cover their bus fares.

After losing all their possessions fleeing Bosnia in the middle of the night, the Vukančićs say they no longer value material things.

A man watering plants with a hose.
The Vukančićs say they never wanted anything for free, earning money to buy books from cleaning windows when needed.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

Nevertheless, the happiest day of Mrs Vukančić’s life was when she got a job, but only because she could stop receiving Centrelink payments, and start giving back.

“I want to live with what I earn,” she says.

Mr Vukančić is also eager to share his happiest memory.

Six months before graduating, he was offered a job at Kanowna Belle gold mine, near Kalgoorlie, and handed a $5,000 cheque.

Man in orange high-vis shirt standing in near-darkness inside a mine.
Mr Vukančić’s first mining job in Australia was at Kanowna gold mine, near Kalgoorlie.(Supplied)

“I was stunned, and I was thinking to myself, Martin say something, jump up or scream or whatever!” he says.

“I could not do it [jump] that time because I am bloody old.”

Mr Vukančić thanked the interview panel instead, but he did not know whether he could trust them.

The prospect of a $87,000 salary was hard to believe, but it turned out to be a genuine offer.

Strongest together

The Vukančićs say it is impossible to imagine the reality of war.

Martin describes it as all the worst scenes from horror movies combined into one, “but worse, because it’s a true story”.

Abstract painting with curved lines and grey tones.
A painting by Enes Kavgic, one of Mrs Vukančić’s relatives still living in Bosnia.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

But when they fled Bosnia, they arrived in a “dream country”.

“There is nothing we would change about Australia, zero … full stop, nothing,” Mr Vukančić says.

The couple was happy to put down new roots in WA’s Goldfields. They also had the determination to succeed for their son Slaven, who now speaks “like a real Aussie”.

Two cypresses close to each other.
Mr Vukančić says people in mixed religion marriages were looked down on in Bosnia at the time, but he feels free in Australia.(ABC Goldfields: Giulia Bertoglio)

“We are happy for the big fella. He kisses me here,” Mr Vukančić says, pointing at his bald forehead.

Slaven hugs his mum often too, squeezing her head against his chest, just as she used to do to make him feel safe during shelling.

“You can split an apple, but not us,” Mr Vukančić says, smiling at his wife.

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