In the spring of 1992, as most seven-year-olds in America were just finishing the first grade, Boris Nikolic was packing up his belongings in Banja Luka, Bosnia. Two months earlier, Bosnia had declared its independence, and, with Slobodan Milosevic encouraging Bosnian Serbs in a vicious campaign of "ethnic cleansing" to create a "Greater Serbia," suddenly there was no room for Croatians like the Nikolics in their home country. "Basically, if you stayed, you were taken to a concentration camp or shot," Nikolic says.
Though his mother is Serbian, Nikolic's father is a Croat, as is his sister, Ivana. On May 22, 1992, just two hours before police came to their home searching for Boris' father, the Nikolics departed for Croatia. (His mother stayed in Bosnia for an additional year to take care of the disposal of their property and handle the paperwork necessary for their move.)
After a three-day "hell ride" through Serbia--a trip that normally takes four hours--the Nikolics began life as refugees in Croatia. There, it was a constant, stressful search for jobs and cheap apartments. Nikolic's father, who holds degrees in philosophy and sociology from the University of Zagreb, refused jobs offered to him by the Croatian government because, at the time, Croatia and Bosnia were involved in a war of their own. In 1995, trying to distance himself from the conflict yet still provide for his family, his father took a job in construction in Germany. Boris Nikolic didn't see him again for two years.
For his mother, a Bosnian refugee and Serb, finding work in Croatia was even more difficult. For the next two years, the family was split up. While his father worked in Germany and his sister attended a high school for music in Zagreb, Boris Nikolic and his mother were shuttled about the country, continually forced to change residences and schools. "You don't have any peace of mind," Nikolic says of being a refugee. He and his mother were repeatedly evicted from apartments, watched closely by the government, and tormented by waning finances.
In 1997, an enormous explosion ripped through town. Nikolic, who was in school, remembers running back to his house "literally dodging bullets." At home, he learned that a nearby ammunitions factory had blown up. Boris, his mother, and his sister huddled in the basement, watching the bombs dropping all around them.
The Nikolics decided it was time to move once again. In October 1997, a little more than five years after they first came to Croatia, the family, now reunited, left for the United States. Working through Lutheran Family Services, they were assigned residence in Greensboro, North Carolina, a city with a large refugee population. Last spring, at age nineteen, Nikolic graduated from Greensboro Day School, where his father works as a janitor, and entered Duke this fall as a Robertson Scholar.
Enrolling in the Humanitarian Challenges FOCUS program for freshmen, Nikolic seemed immediately at ease. His sister, Ivana, a medical student at Duke, is nearby; her presence was a powerful influence in Boris' decision to come here. Although the FOCUS workload was "intense," Nikolic says, the program had "a truly diverse group of people with unique stories to share." Through FOCUS, he volunteered at A New Day, an outreach program for troubled youth, where he taught once a week and worked at its "teen court"--a model courtroom where teenage lawyers defend real-life first offenders.
Although he says he's still unsure of his major, Nikolic is dedicated to both the sciences and the humanities. "I remember while we were refugees in Croatia, I would read about three books a week, because it was a way for me to escape, for a while, the harsh realities of life."
Despite all he's been through, Nikolic maintains that he is in no way special. "I mean, I like Starbucks," he says in a low, modest voice, still colored by an Eastern European accent. "I'm just a regular guy."