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From Refugee to Lawyer

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Wilkes
  • 180th Fighter Wing

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Igor Petrovich is no stranger to adversity. Born and raised in Travnik, Bosnia in 1989, just two years before the Yugoslav Wars broke out in the region, he lived with his parents and grandparents in a traditional farming community.

His family and heritage are diverse and consisted of members of three warring sides of the Yugoslav Wars; Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.

“I think everyone faces challenges growing up, and I was no different,” said Petrovich, a Deputy Judge Advocate at the 180th Fighter Wing. “Although no one wants to grow up in a war zone, my family stuck together through it all.”

Petrovich has many memories of growing up in Bosnia and remembers the small town where he was born, surrounded by mountains. He can still remember the natural beauty of it.

“Among my favorite memories are walking with my grandfather to our farm and picking berries off of wild bushes, building snow forts with the neighborhood kids and having snowball fights,” he continued. “A lot of people don’t realize just how ordinary life can be, especially for kids, in extraordinary situations.”

When the war started, his parents began exploring their options. Six years later, in 1997, the possibility of moving to the U.S. became real and they applied for refugee status.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, refugee status or asylum may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

“My family sought, and were granted, refugee status due to my mom being Bosnian and my dad being Serbian and Croatian,” said Petrovich. “From a kid’s perspective, it was all very odd. I knew that my parents wanted to leave Bosnia and to move to either Canada, the United States, or Australia. Then, one day, we got in the car and I never went back home.”

Moving to a new country changed everything.

“I think culture shock doesn’t begin to describe it,” he said. “Everything is new; language, food, music. We had TV, of course, but seeing small snippets of American life on TV is much different than living the not-so-glamorous life of a refugee.”

Petrovich and his mom, dad, brother, aunt and uncle landed in New York City, New York in 1999 and ultimately settled in Akron, Ohio.

“It was really hard to process and I remember not believing that it was forever,” he continued. “When we first arrived, I just wanted to go back home. I missed my grandparents who chose to remain in Bosnia. I didn’t know the language or anyone in the entire country.”

In a matter of days, Petrovich and his family went from living in a small town in the foothills of a mountain to New York City and then living in Akron.

“I really can’t put into words how different it was,” said Petrovich. “It was like being dropped on a different planet.”

Fortunately, his 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Way, made him feel at home and invited his family over for Thanksgiving. In 5th grade the following year, he started forming his core group of friends, many of whom he is still friends with today.

Still, there were struggles.

“I really struggled with my personal identity,” Petrovich said. “What did it mean to be American? Was I American? Was I Bosnian? Serbian? Croatian? I have come to accept that I am all of the above and that to deny any part of me is to deny the people who made me, me.”

Petrovich graduated high school and went on to college. After a long journey and years of hard work he graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer because I saw what life without rule of law was like,” he said. “My time at Georgetown allowed me to meet extraordinary people, and opened so many doors for me, including working at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. My education opened every door for me and as cliché as it sounds, made my American dream come true.”

Even after everything Petrovich had been through and accomplished, he still felt there was something missing.

“I had always been interested in public service and especially military service because I saw it as a way to give back to the country that gave me everything,” said Petrovich. “Life kept getting in the way and I kept putting it off. Finally, everything fell into place for me in 2020 and I reached out to a recruiter.”

A few months later, Petrovich was contacted by the Ohio Air National Guard and his military career began.

“I have just been blown away by the quality of people I have met in my short time with the 180th Fighter Wing,” Petrovich said. “Whether it’s on base or at training, I have already made lifelong friends and have met some of the most incredible people I have ever known. I think it is a true credit and testament to the U.S. Air Force and shows the quality of the people who answered our nation’s call.”

Petrovich has enjoyed seeing the impact he has on Airmen and it has been very rewarding.

“Recently we had an Airman facing eviction,” said Petrovich. “We were able to get the issue resolved and keep that Airman in their home.”

Petrovich also helped a fellow Airman obtain their U.S. citizenship.

“My biggest goal is to just make a difference in any way that I can,” he continued. “I would love to go overseas and get an opportunity to serve in an active role. I am also greatly looking forward to being involved with our State Partnership Program with Serbia and Hungary.”

Still, he has more aspirations to come and you can sense the gratefulness in his voice when he tells his story.

“One thing I like to point out to people is the difference between is and was,” said Petrovich. “On Wikipedia, Yugoslavia was a country. The United States is a country. Freedoms are never guaranteed. They are fought for and protected. I am honored to serve my country and to serve alongside people who ensure that our freedoms remain.

When I look at my wife and three children, I am forever grateful that my parents chose to bring me here and to give me the life they gave me,” he continued. “I could never imagine a better life.”

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