Finding “Home” in Empty Houses


By Katherine Matuszak Photos by Manny Espinoza

The house was livable: that’s what mattered. It still had all its doors, and most of the windows were left unbroken. It was a shell, of course: completely void of furniture, pictures, or any traces that a family once called this a home. The electricity was out. Turning a creaky faucet, it was clear the water hadn’t run for a while. This was all expected.

From 1992 to 2000, Nina Krunic and her family could not return to their apartment in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The family, refugees from the Bosnian Civil War, fled their home city and bounced around various family members’ homes for a few months before ending up living with a family in Serbia, where she finished fifth grade. Soon after, they moved back to Bosnia in order to keep their family together. For nearly nine years, they lived in a house another refugee family had left behind. Only 11 at the time, Krunic traveled with her family. They found a home by talking to people around who already lived nearby. Everything was empty, all of its resources previously scavenged. “You find something in other houses you can use,” Krunic recalls. They furnished their temporary home with pieces from other houses, along with old furniture they’d stored at her grandparents’ village.

Krunic says with a laugh, “In that town, trust me, it was so normal! It sounds crazy, right?” Looking back, Krunic speaks of these times with a fairly lighthearted tone, considering how her life was affected. She recalls the initial excitement she and her classmates felt when school was closed because of bombings. “But then you go on Saturdays to catch up with everything!” Rather than dwelling on the unfairness of the situation, she focuses on how they dealt with the problems they faced. When asked how they handled not having regular access to water, she states simply, “You go and fill the containers and bring them home, or if you have water, you store it and boil it.”

When Krunic was 18 and attending college, her family recovered their property and were able to return to their apartment. They were happy and excited to finally be home, but nervous about what they would find.

This apartment was only nearly empty. They found an old bed nestled in one corner of the building, but nothing else, not even the photographs from when Nina was very small. Thankfully, some old neighbors were able to supply some.

In 2007, Krunic’s graduation present from her uncle was a ticket to the United States, and her initial two-month stay extended into four. She learned some basic English, and the opportunity to find work in America stayed in the back of her mind even as she continued life back in Bosnia. Her aunt suggested she apply for the Green Card Lottery online. After paperwork and interviews, she immigrated to the U.S., where she moved in with family currently living in Monterey.

Before long, Krunic found a full-time job and saved up money for her first car. Now, she works at a career in her field at an engineering firm in Sunnyvale. She says moving was difficult, especially as she was still learning English and trying to find new friends, but that she is happy. She hopes to move forward in her career so she can make enough money to help with her brother’s new baby and the rest of her family back in Bosnia. Her focus is clear: “Instead of buying something I’d want, I’d rather give it to them.”


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