Fatima Said’s curly bleach-blond hair bobs along side her face as she holds up a large bag of potatoes. Wearing a clean, navy blue suit embellished with golden buttons, she offers the potatoes, naturally, without hesitation.
“Would you like some more?”
Reluctant at first, an elder Latina woman smiles as she accepts the gift, gently placing the bag into her basket.
Reaching for another sack, Said promptly presents the next family in line with the food, continuing to greet each of the following 16 immigrant families in this fashion as they attend the Project FINE food distribution in St. Charles, Minn. Nov. 18.
Founded in Winona, Minn. in 1990, Project FINE—Focus on Integrating Newcomers through Education, is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to assisting diverse immigrants with the adjustments to their new lives in America.
Each day, the dedicated staff of six employees work with as many as 50 families, helping to create personalized plans for each individual family that will not only meet their specific needs, but also supply the education and support necessary in adapting.
As executive director, Said, works one-on-one with clients, helping them with any complications and personal struggles they may be facing.
“My job is my passion and I love what I do,” she said.
Said also works hands-on with the community, creating partnerships with local businesses and organizations so that the needs of the newcomers may be fully met.
“She knows what she wants and she doesn’t settle,” German Victoria, program coordinator at Project FINE, said.
Emma Tilson, a family friend of Said, said Said has been an inspiration for newcomers and locals alike, proving that you can make it through the worst of the worst and still come out strong.
AN ORDINARY LIFE
Born and raised in Banja Luka, Bosnia, Said grew up in a large and loving family.
One of six, Said’s father worked in a factory making paper supplies, while her mother stayed home and cared for her and her siblings. Though the house was often lively, Said said she had a wonderful childhood and looked up to her parents as great role models.
“My parents did everything for me,” she said.
Obtaining a degree in education, Said went on to teach kindergarten, but worked jobs in sales and marketing as a businesswoman as well. After meeting Abdel-Karim Said, a pediatric surgeon from Jordan, she was soon married and created a family of her own.
Living under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia didn’t become it’s own independent country until 1992. As a socialist federation, Yugoslavia consisted of six republics—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
After the death of Yugoslavian Leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, the economy in Yugoslavia weakened, creating conflict and disorder among the republics. With a wide variety of ethnicities, Yugoslavia began to divide.
Objecting to their declaration of independence, the Bosnians were met with opposition from the Serbs in Bosnia who were supported by Serbia, leading to war and genocide.
The Bosnian Serbs proceeded to evict thousands of ethnic groups from their homes in a mass cleanse, destroying entire villages. Concentration camps soon emerged and as some Bosnians were sent there to die, others were raped, tortured and brutally murdered.
For a while, Said lived in denial. Though the Serbians continued attacking Bosnia, she convinced herself that the war hadn’t gotten out of hand and that it would soon come to an end. With a 16-year-old daughter and 14-month-old son, she and Abdel-Karim Said continued to work to support their family.
While working an emergency room shift one night, Serbian soldiers stormed the hospital and summoned all the Muslims in the building together. Holding a gun to his head, the soldiers demanded that Abdel-Karim Said leave immediately or he would be killed.
As he rushed home, Serbian soldiers carried on the invasions, now intruding into Said’s home and threatening to send Abdel-Karim Said to a concentration camp if they did not vacate in 24 hours.
Astounded and terrified, the war had found Said.
It was time to face reality.
Carrying important documents and a few pictures at hand, Said and her family left everything else they knew and owned behind.
Without any other options, Said and her family boarded a train to the refugee camps the International Committee of the Red Cross had provided. For the seven months to come, the camps would be their home.
Previously used by the military of Croatia, the buildings in the refugee camp were battered and broken. The walls were stained and the wooden floors were worn. Thin pieces of Plexiglas replaced the glass windows, generating unruly drafts.
Hundreds of refugees filled the camps. With limited space, each family was assigned a single bunk bed to sleep on, and was to share a room with other families at the camp. Said and her family roomed with 44 others.
As the days passed, the refugees grew hopeless.
“People were so angry, so mad, so depressed. They didn’t care,” Said said. “They were there, but not really.”
As the camps continued to fill, Said became concerned with the sanitation and the overall health of not only her children, but the children throughout the camp as well. With the help of her daughter who knew some English, she began working with the Red Cross to arrange for a sanitization room for grooming purposes. She also began organizing a school in the camp where the children could play and learn.
Supporting her innovations, the Red Cross cleared out an old storage room for Said to provide daily classes for the children and declared a space where refugees would be able to receive hygiene maintenance through haircuts and shavings.
As word spread, other refugees throughout the camp eagerly became involved.
Said helped organize support groups throughout the camp and before long, refugees began looking to one another for emotional support throughout the war, coping with the loss of loved ones together.
Among the distress, a community grew.
“It was a beautiful thing,” Said said.
CAUGHT OFF GUARD
Captured by Serbian soldiers, Said’s brother, Elvis Budimlić, was sent to a concentration camp to die.
After discovering the camps, the Red Cross worked with the Serbian military to arrange for sponsorships that would not only free some of the prisoners throughout the camps, but allow them to be transported anywhere of their choosing to live out the rest of their lives.
Having heard through his profession about Mayo Clinic, a worldwide leading medical center located in Rochester, Minn., Abdel-Karim Said had informed Budimlić of the area, and encouraged him to choose to be sent there if he were ever to receive a sponsorship. Having been one of the lucky prisoners to be chosen, Budimlić was rescued from the camp.
Expecting a big-city name, the Red Cross was taken off guard when Budimlić requested to be sent to Rochester; however, they supported his decision and made the arrangements for his transportation.
After word of Budimlić’s safety two weeks later, Said received paperwork from the Red Cross granting a sponsorship for her and her family to join Budimlić in Rochester.
Though the war had only worsened, Said convinced herself the destruction would end and that she and her family would soon be able to return home.
Knowing only what the media had portrayed, her perception of America was of more crime and danger than anything else. She longed for her life prior to the war and wished for things to return to the way they once were.
“I was afraid,” she said. “All I knew was crime, drugs, prostitution. We didn’t have friends, money, nothing. How were we going to survive?”
Acting on impulse, Said hid the paperwork inside her pillowcase, keeping the sponsorship a secret from her family and decided to wait out the war.
Months later, Abdel-Karim Said husband discovered the papers and though initially upset, understood Said’s fears. He explained to her the reasons why moving to a new country would be the best choice for their family, and although it took convincing, Said said her husband was “an extraordinary man” and was able to persuade her to accept the sponsorship and start over.
A NEW BEGINNING
On Dec. 9, 1993, Said and her family landed at the Rochester International Airport and began their new lives in America.
Walking into the airport lobby, supporters and strangers alike greeted Said and her family, holding welcome signs and offering fruit baskets and flowers as gifts for comfort.
With such low expectations, Said was at a loss for words as she became overwhelmed with joy at the hospitality that was shown to her and her family.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of pleasure that came on that cold winter night,” she said. “How beautiful it is that they offered their support when they had no idea who you are.”
For the next month, Said and her family lived in at a guesthouse through the Sisters of Saint Francis at the Assisi Heights Spirituality Center. Having decorated the house for Christmas, the nuns took down the Catholic ornaments in the guesthouse not wanting to offend the family as they were of Muslim faith.
Upon discovering the gesture, Said was amazed with the respect the Catholics had shown.
“It was the first time we saw that regardless of religion, we weren’t persecuted,” Rawhi Said, Said’s son, said.
After getting settled, Said and her husband enrolled at Rochester Community and Technical College. Both taking English classes, Said registered for additional classes in child development, while Abdel-Karim Said pursued the medical field, which later resulted in employment as an assistant surgeon at Mayo Clinic.
Said soon found work as an assistant teacher at the Head Start program at Child Care Resources and Referral where she specialized in a preschool program helping children and families in need.
Throughout her education and her experiences with working at Head Start, Said strengthened her English and over time, received her license to teach. After leading her own classroom at Head Start, she was promoted to a director’s position where she was then able to use her experience in business as well.
Said worked for Head Start for 12 years before hearing about Project FINE through a neighbor who immediately considered her for their open position. After looking into the organization, Said was invited to an interview and was very impressed with the company’s community support and mission to help others.
Though unsure of leaving Head Start, Said decided she was ready for a change and accepted the position of executive director at Project FINE in 2005.
Currently involved with the Winona County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Council on Diversity, the Winona Area Public Schools Diversity Advisory and Staff Development Committees and the Winona Human Rights Commission, Said has become active in the community of Winona, pursuing her passion in helping others.
“Passion is something that keeps you going and even going through what I went through, I am very passionate about what I do,” Said said.
But as she hugged and thanked each family at the food distribution, it became apparent that this passion wasn’t her only motive for her work in Project FINE.
Sharing similar past experiences, Said is able to empathize with each family she works with, understanding what they’re experiencing and feeling.
“I learned through the war,” she said. “You miss food, miss safety, miss family. But then you’re rewarded with something very surprising—humans helping other people in need. A smile and kind words help so much.”
In a single-file line, the families walked alongside the tables arranged at the St. Charles City Hall, holding out their baskets as volunteers fill them with donated food.
Looking over what’ll be their next meals to come, their faces are filled with joy and gratitude at the simple gift of sustainable food.
“Everything comes back to people,” Said said. “The Serbian people chased me out and the American people opened their hearts and homes to me. I feel like it’s my time to give back.”