From war survivor/refugee to Mennonite administrator

From war survivor/refugee to Mennonite administrator

Amela and Randy Puljek-Shank with their son, Isak (Photos by Jasmin Sakovic/Bulb Art Studio)

Amela and Randy Puljek-Shank with their son, Isak (Photo by Jasmin Sakovic/Bulb Art Studio)

By Bonnie Price Lofton

In her wildest dreams as a middle-class person in Yugoslavia, Amela Puljek-Shank never thought she would be in a war. Never thought she would be a penniless, hungry refugee. Never thought she would be married to an American.

She crossed each of these thresholds, one at a time, before she turned 30. At last she came to Eastern Mennonite University where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees to prepare herself for returning to her home region to work for peace and justice.

Randy Puljek-Shank came from Ephrata, Pennsylvania.  After high school in Ephrata, Randy earned a bachelor’s degree at Brandeis University, a Jewish-sponsored university in Massachusetts. Next stop was an international Mennonite organization based in Germany, which sent him to do relief work with refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There in 1994 he met Amela who worked for the same organization.

“We were co-directors of a team of 10 people—a mix of ethnicities—distributing material relief like food, hygiene items, notebooks for school,” recalls Amela. Randy was the only non-local person in the group.

Amela had been disillusioned by the religious groups she saw around her. “If faith was what I was seeing in my environment—where the Catholic and Orthodox churches were enticing each other to hate each other, and the Muslims were the same way— then I thought it was better to not be identified with any religion.”

But working beside Mennonites day after day under stressful conditions helped her to see that their understanding of Christianity was different. They offered spiritual nourishment and hope and worked to heal rather than hurt people.

Amela was a 22-year-old college student in 1992 when war came to her hometown in western Bosnia, Jaice.  Her parents were aligned with no side in the conflict. Her mother, an accountant, had Bosnian Muslim roots. Her father, manager in a chemical factory, had Catholic-Croat roots.

“There was pressure to choose a side, but my family did not want to be affiliated with any agenda, with any nationalist group,” Amela recalls. “This made things more difficult for us. There was no group to turn to for support. We couldn’t get food or work. When the shelling started, we had to flee our home.”

Amela, her 15-year-old sister and parents left home on foot one night, just ahead of an invading Serb army. They carried just two suitcases filled with some essentials. After two days of walking toward central Bosnia, “we were so tired, we wanted to throw away even these two suitcases.”

They stopped in a town called Kakanj—the first safe area where they could stay. For a year and a half, Amela’s family lived with four other people in a one-bedroom apartment.

“Mom and Dad dug coal to keep us warm over the winter, and Dad would sometimes be able to do manual labor in return for a kilo of oil for cooking.”

Amela calls the Red Cross their “saving grace.” The Red Cross kept the family from starving, though they were hungry from October ’93 to May ’94. To sustain the Puljek family of four for about 10 weeks, the Red Cross supplied oil, beans, lentils and laundry detergent—about enough of each to fit into a quart-sized milk jug. Toward the end of this period, the Red Cross opened a soup kitchen that served one meal a day.

After Amela and Randy were married by a Mennonite minister in a Bosnian Catholic church, they headed to Amela’s home town with a group of 20 international volunteers to help returning Muslim refugees reclaim their houses or rebuild them.

Amerla discovered that the family’s home was occupied by a Croat family. She found that old acquaintances and schoolmates dodged her, perhaps embarrassed or fearing the consequences of acknowledging her. She ran into former school buddies who were working for the secret police. Randy and Amela were shadowed, and their phone was tapped.

This period gave us a taste of what fascism was like,” says Amela. It also left them feeling utterly empty. “Randy wanted to come to the Conflict Transformation Program [at Eastern Mennonite University] and study, and I just wanted to get out of it,”

From 1997-1999, Randy completed his master’s degree in conflict transformation while Amela worked on finishing her bachelor’s degree. Taking classes at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute opened Amela’s eyes to the possibilities of being equipped to return to Bosnia, and she enrolled in the master’s program.

In 2003, about the time that Amela finished her course work in conflict transformation, her mother and father were able to return to their home in Jaice. None of their furniture or other belongings remained, but they were thrilled to have a home again after 10 years as refugees.

What about Amela’s initial skepticism of Randy’s Anabaptist faith? “Theologically I am a follower of Christ. I have felt sustained by reading the Gospels and answering Jesus’s call for justice and peace. Anabaptist peace theology is the core on which my personal faith and call to serve is based.”

Reprinted/republished/published with permission from Eastern Mennonite University. This article appeared in the 2014-2015 issue of Peacebuilder, a magazine of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, available online at www.emu/edu/peacebuilder.

A version of this article also appeared in the fall 2005 issues of Peacebuilding, when Amela and Randy were representing Mennonite Central Committee in Southeast Europe. As of 2014-2015, Amela oversees MCC’s Europe and Middle East operations and Randy is pursuing a PhD through a university in the Netherlands.