Ismeta Omerovic: Thoughts on Struggle and Survival

July 27, 2022

Ismeta’s personal trials have fueled her passion for teaching children, especially those who’ve been through trauma. She saw the impact it makes when she lived through the Bosnian Civil War. “I was a young grade school teacher in 1992 when the first refugees came to Srebrenik, the city where I lived,” Ismeta recalls. As a teacher for the MIS Refugee School, she volunteered for nearly two years serving these children in the basement of a building. “It was very hard,” she recalls, “because food was in short supply and the power was sometimes out in the building for months. I wasn’t getting any help except from my parents who made their home nearby. My father carried water into the building. And my mother scrounged up food that kept the children alive.” But they needed something more to feed their souls, as Ismeta came to see. “These children came from a city where 800 people were killed in one day, and they were waiting for parents who would never show up.”

Everything had changed for these children, and Ismeta lacked the extensive trauma training she’s picked up in recent decades. “I didn’t know how to work with these kids,” she admits, “but I kept showing up so the children would know someone was there for them.” Besides, it took her mind off her own worries and fears. The sound of sirens scared her since it signaled an air attack. “It was hard to walk down streets where people had been killed the night before,” Ismeta recalls. And her husband wasn’t there to comfort her because their jobs had forced them to live in different cities. “When the war began,” she recalls, “we couldn’t get in touch, and I didn’t know what had happened to him for seven months. Finally, I got a letter from the Red Cross saying he was in Germany, where we reunited after more than two years, and the first of my two daughters was born.”

She and her husband were afraid to go back to their hometown, so they lived in Edinburgh until moving to St. Louis, Missouri, in 2004. Ismeta had lost her country. She had also lost her calling since she didn’t speak enough English to get a teaching job. So, she stayed home with the children while her husband went to work. “I couldn’t drive and didn’t go out much,” she says, “so, I started learning English by watching TV and reading the news. After six months, I could speak English well enough to get a job at Panera,” she recalls. “I worked nights while my husband worked in a factory during the day. And it was a challenge for our family to spend time together.”

These ordeals gave Ismeta a strong sense of empathy for the people she served after a co-worker at Panera helped her find a job helping young children and their families. “He was a baker from Bosnia, my homeland, where they have a huge respect for teachers,” Ismeta recalls. “He had a child enrolled in a home-based program at Youth in Need, a nonprofit that supports families and children in eastern Missouri. That baker put me in touch with the group, and I started there as a preschool teacher for children ages three to five. I had never worked with children so young, but I began falling in love with them.”

And her passion for the early childhood field led to a series of promotions at Youth in Need. Her leadership skills and commitment to getting things done also helped her go on to become a family specialist, compliance manager and director of quality assurance, a role where she helped write grants, assisted in accreditation of teachers and monitored staff performance. She also oversaw the curriculum component for the group’s Head Start program, which served a lot of immigrant families. “I loved the diversity of the people we helped, and being with them made me feel at home,” Ismeta recalls.

Many of these families didn’t speak English well and everything was strange to them, she says. “I knew the trials these families were going through, since I had been through them, too, when I first came to this country. I could also put myself in the shoes of those who’d been through trauma before coming here because of my ordeals during the war. And I was able to help them more because I received a lot of trauma training at Youth in Need.”

Fortunately, her own life had taken a more tranquil turn, and her family was doing well. “My husband had started a small trucking business, and I was helping him with the billing and accounting,” she says. “By 2014, I had left Youth in Need to work with him full time. Then the following year, a former colleague called me up and asked for my help at Flance, an early childhood program in St. Louis that fosters a creative learning approach and encourages community interaction. I wasn’t planning to go back to the ECE field full time and had only considered doing some consulting work. But I changed my mind when I saw the kids, and they hired me on the spot to be their Head Start director.”

Ismeta has been there ever since, overseeing the program, making sure everything works well in the classrooms, keeping records and providing information to families. Though she now mainly plays a leadership role, she still has a lot of contact with the children. “I’ll go in the classrooms to observe,” she says, “and they’ll talk to me about what they’re doing. Some days, they’ll stop by my office to give me a hug at the end of the day.”

And Ismeta wants the best for the children. So, she wants her teachers to be at their best. She knows she can’t achieve excellence alone since “team work makes the dream work,” as she explains. So, she sets professional development goals for her staff, and urges her teachers to earn a Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™, especially if they don’t have much experience in the ECE field. “We pay for their classes and books because we figure it’s the best way for them to get the training they need. Not only do they do coursework, but they also dig deep and learn more about themselves when they put together the portfolio for the credential.”

And that changes them for the better, as it did one Somali teacher who was noticeably quiet and shy, Ismeta explains. “After her CDA® training, she began to talk more and gained confidence in her skills. So did a teacher who had only a high school diploma. She was very defensive and nervous about the idea of going to school. But I urged her to earn her CDA, and after completing it, she thanked me. I felt so proud when she told me she never would have succeeded if I hadn’t believed in her.”

Ismeta is happy when she knows she’s made a difference in people’s lives, and her sense of mission is especially strong at Flance. “Many of the communities I work with have been through trauma, including shortage of food and shootings. These are different from the trauma I’ve been through, but all of us are survivors. I know what it’s like for them, and I see myself in these children and families. So, I’ve continued to get all the training I need to help these communities heal.”

That’s been especially crucial in recent years because COVID has caused many children to act out more than they ever did before, Ismeta says. “They became used to being home with their parents and couldn’t learn to socialize on Zoom. They don’t know how to express how they feel about being away from mom and dad, and some of them now bite and scream in class. So, I obtained funding to hire Resilience Builders, a Missouri company that helps organizations create trauma-informed policies and practices. Last year, the company sent in therapists to observe classrooms and talk to the children. This year, it’s about self-care for our teachers since they, too, have been through trauma. It’s hard to know whether the problem is with you or the children when there’s a lot of challenging behavior in a class. All of us needed the chance to sit down with somebody and talk,” she says.

Still, Ismeta finds it hard to talk about the tragedies in her life, despite surmounting all the challenges she’s faced. “I’ve helped build a safe, stable life for my family, and my two daughters are now successful adults who are working and going to school. I have a sense of belonging and feel at home in the U.S. Yet there are pieces of me left in all the places that I’ve lived, and I still feel alarmed when I hear sirens ring out,” she admits. But the memories of her ordeals, plus all the knowledge of trauma she’s gained, have only increased her commitment to help the community she serves. “I stay in this work because of my personal experiences,” she says. “My own struggles make me want to help struggling children and families.”


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