A Whole New World
Saturday, March 10, 2007

March 10, 2007

By Jeff Rabjohns
Indianapolis Star
March 10, 2007

Mehmed Hodzic greets a visitor at the front door of his two-story home with a warm handshake and a smile. He limps as he walks toward the living room, a constant reminder of wounds from the Bosnian war.

Hodzic stretches out in a leather chair, a few feet from photos of his son, Adnan, who is wearing a North Central High School basketball uniform.

Adnan, a 6-8 senior, is the starting center for the Panthers, who play today in the Class 4A regional at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Before basketball was even a part of the Hodzics' life, they had to escape war-torn Bosnia.

Adnan, his mother, Mevlida, and sister, Amina, were allowed on an emergency flight out of their home in Sarajevo in 1994. They arrived in the United States not knowing a word of English and carrying little other than clothes. Mehmed wasn't allowed to leave for another year.

"What they were willing to do to build a better life for their children is amazing," North Central basketball coach Doug Mitchell said. "I don't know if I could do it."

Before war broke out, Mehmed and Mevlida, both 43, had a wonderful life.

They lived in a nine-bedroom home in Sarajevo -- not uncommon in Europe, where extended families normally live together -- and had five cars. They had apple and cherry trees in their yard. The majestic Adriatic Sea coastline was a couple of hours away.

"We had a very nice life," Mevlida said. "Every year we would travel. We would go to Istanbul for the food. We had very good jobs. We were like lots of people."

When the siege of Sarajevo by Yugoslavian-led forces began in the spring of 1992, their world changed.

Electricity and water supplies were soon cut off. Food was scarce.

The Hodzics stacked cement blocks waist-high around their house to protect it against the constant grenade and mortar fire. Mehmed and other men established a system of 24-hour lookouts to watch for potential attacks on their homes.

"One night, one of them counted 5,000 grenades," Mehmed said. "Just boom, boom, boom, boom."

Adnan remembers the fear.

"You weren't sure if you were going to see your mom or dad or son or daughter the next day," he said. "That wasn't just us. That was everyone. You weren't sure if you were going to see the next day."

Mevlida struggles to speak of her parents, who were killed in the war. They weren't shot. They had their throats slit.

Mehmed, an engineer for a textile firm in Sarajevo, also was a professional soccer player in Bosnia. He was ordered into the Bosnian Army when war broke out.

On Oct. 10, 1992, he was riding with another soldier when the two spotted an old man hunched over in the street, holding what looked like a jug of water. They stopped to help the man, who had been shot. A machine gun opened fire. Mehmed was hit in the foot.

Leaving Sarajevo

The journey to America began in February 1994, nearly two years after the siege of Sarajevo. Adnan was in a hospital awaiting eye surgery after a childhood mishap when then President Clinton sent transport planes for people needing medical attention.

Mevlida and the children would be allowed to go. Mehmed would not. They had two hours to pack. They could take 10 pounds each.

Initially, they didn't want to go.

"If your family is split up, it's not the point of life anyway," Mevlida said. "At that time, we didn't think about us or anything. We had to save our children."

They were flown first to Frankfurt, Germany, and then to Columbus, Ohio, where Adnan had surgery. Two months later, a Bosnian contact brought them to Indianapolis.

The three lived in an apartment. None of them spoke English. Mevlida attended English classes three nights a week. She studied a dictionary during the day.

An architect in Sarajevo, she found a job as a cook at Cracker Barrel.

"If I see I could make something better for my children, I would do it," Mevlida said. "It was very difficult, but I know I'm doing this for my children."

Mehmed, after getting a passport, had to wait for four months in Croatia until he was able to join his family in Indianapolis.

Adjusting to America

After arriving home from practice one day this week, Adnan took a plate of chicken, a rice and spinach mix, and four pieces of bread upstairs to eat while doing homework.

His mom makes Bosnian sausage, a saute of fresh vegetables and more chicken for her, her husband and a guest. The smell of the robust flavors fills the first floor of the house.

Mehmed sits in the living room sipping Bosnian coffee -- made with the grounds in the water. He watches a Bosnian station he has on his satellite television package then flips over to the Louisville-West Virginia college basketball game.

Mehmed does maintenance for a hospital service while Mevlida still cooks for the restaurant and runs a cleaning service. Amina, 21, is a junior at IUPUI.

Adnan initially tried to play soccer but quickly realized he wasn't going to succeed at his father's game.

"I was just flat-out terrible," he said.

His introduction to basketball came when his father took him to a Pacers-Bulls game and pointed out Michael Jordan. Adnan soon had a Chicago Bulls Nerf hoop on his bedroom door.

He tried out for the basketball team in seventh grade and was cut. He tried out again in eighth grade and made it.

"At first I wasn't playing much because I didn't know what I was doing, really," he said. "I started getting better and better, and when I realized my opportunity to seize this and use it as a tool to do something I love, I dedicated myself to it fully."

Adnan has a 4.1 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. When he was 14, his dad bought him a scooter with a seat that lifted up so a basketball could fit.

Adnan became serious about weight-lifting and fitness -- he's up to nearly 240 pounds -- on the way to earning a basketball scholarship to NCAA Division I Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

Sometimes, he practiced even when he shouldn't have.

"At North Central, I'd leave the door to the back gym cracked just a little bit so the janitors couldn't spot it and close it, then I go back when they'd all leave around 1 a.m.," he said.

Adnan, who averaged 20.6 points, has gone to school with North Central star Eric Gordon since elementary school.

"He's a pretty funny guy," Gordon said. "Everyone gets along with him. He hangs out with a lot of people, and he always has people laughing."

Adnan says he plans to return to Bosnia one day, even though the economy is still battling back from the effects of the war.

"We will follow our children," Mevlida said.

"At least," Mehmed said, "no one is shooting at each other anymore."