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The illustration shows adults and children of different ages, colours and genders laughing and enjoying themselves.
Seasons greetings

Meet Ada: The refugee & illustrator behind this year’s IRC UK festive card

Refugee and illustrator Ada was on one of the last planes out of 90s Bosnian war: Hear how her journey to the UK inspired her art

Photo: Ada Jusic

34-year-old illustrator Ada Jusic, now based in London, came to the UK as a refugee from Bosnia Herzegovina when she was a child - she was on one of the last planes that left the country in 1992. Today Ada still draws upon her experience as a refugee to influence her work as an artist. More recently, Ada has been running community art projects for young people living in London. Ensuring creative opportunities are open to people from all backgrounds. The IRC spoke to her about her experience as a refugee and how it influenced her career as an artist.

Could you tell me about your background as a refugee? 

I was born in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, and came to the UK in 1992 when I was 4 years old. My family were living in Sarajevo when the war first broke out. My parents didn't think the conflict would get as bad as it did, so by the time they decided that it was too dangerous for us to stay, it was already quite difficult to get out. My mum was fortunate enough to get me and my brother on a list for one of the last planes that were taking people out of the city. Our dad was on the list as well, but when we got to the airport, he was turned back by soldiers. So my mom took me and my brother to the UK where we had relatives.

We stayed with my auntie and uncle in Berkshire but my dad was suck in Sarajevo for a year. A year is a very long time when you're a child. By the time we were reunited, I'd sort of forgotten what he'd even look like. It was a confusing time for me as a child and quite distressing for my mum. There are a lot of periods where we didn't know whether he was alive or not. We'd received letters from him but you don't know what's happened since he last wrote that letter. Eventually, we were reunited. That was a really happy day. We've lived in the UK ever since. 

Do you have any memories of life in Sarajevo? 

I remember there was a day when we woke up and there were tanks rolling up in the fields behind the block of flats that we lived in. And I remember we had to take the mattresses off beds and sleep on the floor because it was too dangerous to be near windows. We moved our dining table into the hallway so that we could eat our meals and not be near any of the windows. Quite a few people died just in their own homes, with stray bullets coming in through the windows. I remember the sound of the fighter planes and the sound of shelling, which was very, very loud. And I remember just not really understanding fully what was happening.

How did your family find life in the UK?

It was definitely tough, to begin with. My mom was having to raise me and my brother alone, as well as retrain in her career. In Bosnia, she had a degree in both medicine and psychiatry. But in the UK, her medical degree wasn't recognised. She had to do a lot of additional training, as well as improve her English. On top of this she was worried about my dad and whether he was alive or not. We were fortunate that we had family already living in the UK so we had a network to support us, which a lot of refugees don't have. 

Illustration by Ada Jusic of Ali dreaming about his future with his uncle and as a mechanic.

Earlier this year Ada Jusic illustrated the story of Ali, a teenage boy supported by the IRC in Greece who was waiting to be reunited with his brother in Germany.

Photo: Ada Jusic/IRC

What was it like for you growing up as a refugee in the UK?

I was quite a happy child, but I think I was quite disconnected from my background. We grew up in a little town in Berkshire so it was quite middle class and there wasn't a lot of people who are from the same background as me. I'd get picked on for being a refugee, and that was quite tough. I didn’t have a lot of friends from the same background as me which left me feeling a bit isolated and very aware of being different. 

I stopped speaking Bosnian for quite a long time because I didn't want to be different. I felt like that part of my past wasn't valued, or wasn't needed anymore and it wasn't until I was in my late teens that I started to speak Bosnian again.

How has being a refugee influenced your art? 

When we first moved to the UK we had a family friend who was also from the same background as us and she was an artist. She would look after me and my brother while my mum was working and she'd give me her old paints and brushes. So I started making paintings, and a lot of them were about having to leave Bosnia and the war. From a very early age, I was exploring the themes of war and displacement and exploring my own story. That's something that continued as I got older and studied art. 

Then once I started to work professionally, I got the opportunity to work on projects that involve telling the stories of other refugees. So I’ve been drawn to tell other people's stories in the way that I used to tell my own story as a child.

Tell us about the card you designed for the IRC and what it represents? 

The illustration shows adults and children of different ages, colours and genders laughing and enjoying themselves.

This year the IRC UK commissioned Ada Jusic to design festive cards that will be gifted to some of our supporters and valued members of the IRC community.

Photo: Ada Jusic/IRC

With this design, I wanted to capture the feelings and emotions that I associate with the festive period, which is a time of togetherness, warmth and joy. I myself am secular, I'm from a Muslim family and because Bosnia was a religiously and ethnically mixed country, it would be quite common to celebrate your friends and neighbours holidays with them. So I wanted to capture that sense of celebrating something that's universal, enjoying being in each other's company, sharing food and seasonal festivities.

What would you say to young aspiring refugee artists? And what advice would you give them?

My advice for aspiring young refugee artists is to look for opportunities, wherever you can find them. Whether that's sending your work into magazines or blogs, collaborating with other refugee artists, or looking for competitions that you can submit your work to. Getting your work out there and getting your voice heard is probably the most important first step you can take. As long as you're confident in your work and your vision, and look for opportunities to get your work seen, then you'll do well. 

What gives you hope?

Looking at the situation that the world is in at the moment it’s easy to feel quite hopeless. What gives me hope is remembering how hopeless my parents must have felt at certain points, but that things always can get better. There is a lot of potential for us to create a better world and it's important to keep sight of that and not get too dragged down by negativity. It’s easy to focus on what's going wrong rather than see how much power we actually have.

This year the IRC commissioned illustrator Ada Jusic to design festive cards that will be gifted to some of our supporters and valued members of the IRC community. If you would like to know more about the cards please contact us at contactus [at] rescue-uk.org.