A refugee story at Northeastern

Portrait of Denis Skarep.
Denis Skarep, a senior production artist at Northeastern, was 21 when he and his newlywed wife fled the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Denis Skarep was 21 when the police came to his door. The Yugoslavian civil war was in its third year. More than 2 million people had already fled their homes as the country disintegrated. 

And yet … 

“I definitely didn’t see what was coming,” says Skarep, a senior production artist at Northeastern. “My father was talking about the war and swearing at the TV, but I never paid attention. You have a good life, you’re young, you are going out partying—a lot of people didn’t see it coming. Maybe the older ones knew, but not us.”

No sooner had the officer departed than Skarep’s father arrived at home. Skarep told his dad that the police had taken his passport.

Skarep and his wife, Alma, were refugees for six years in Europe before finding asylum in the U.S. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I was totally naive, but my father read the situation quickly,” says Skarep. “He said, ‘You gave your passport?’ I said, ‘What else am I supposed to do—it’s police.’ 

“My father goes running after the policeman. A little later, he comes back with the passport. I don’t know what he did. But my father was an engineer, he knew a lot of people in town. So he saved me right there.”

That 1993 incident was the lesson that convinced Skarep to escape. A plan of survival was devised. He and his girlfriend, Alma, were married in a brief ceremony. By 1994 they were boarding a train away from everything they knew in the former Yugoslavia. 

They set off with no idea that they would be living as refugees for the next six years, passed back and forth from one country to another in their search for a new home.

Denis Skarep reviews childhood photos from the former Yugoslavia.

“My search for a home has shaped me as a person in terms of surviving in this world,” says Skarep. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“You think you’re going to go to school, finish college, find a job, live your life,” says Skarep, who escaped to Austria on a visa that falsely claimed he would be performing with a band. “And then suddenly you are forced to react to the things that happen to you.”

Today there are at least 82 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. They represent all kinds of religions and colors and cultures and orientations. Skarep empathizes with all of them.

“I’m thinking it can happen to anyone,” he says.

His cousins in Austria, with whom Denis and Alma were staying, helped arrange an overnight border crossing to Germany that is worthy of a spy movie. A man in his 30s drove them to the foot of the Alps in Innsbruck, Austria, site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. At that time, Austria was not yet part of the European Union. 

After nightfall, the young couple followed their guide on foot through a forest. Despite his experience in this line of undercover work, he spoke little English and was highly anxious.

“He would tell us when to be quiet,” Skarep says. “It wasn’t a long walk, but it felt like slow motion. At one point we had to cross a small creek, and I guess he told us to take the shoes off. But I was in a state of shock. I completely ignored that, so I walked through the water with wet shoes.”

They crossed paths deep in the woods with another man who exchanged car keys with their guide. At last they emerged from the trees in Germany to find an empty car waiting for them.

“Our guide was very nervous, and that made us really nervous,” Skarep says. “He was worried that Germans will pick us up, because they were patrolling at the time. So he drove fast. He would see lights in his rear-view mirror and think that it’s the police following us. But then as soon as we got on the highway, he was back to his old self.”

The Skareps presented themselves as refugees to the German authorities. Denis found a job as a construction worker. It was instantly discouraging. Instead of attending college, he was learning to build houses. 

“I was a student, I never had a real job, and it was too hard for me,” Skarep says. “I didn’t know how to pace myself. On the first day I wanted to leave before breakfast. A couple of guys from Bosnia, they were older, and they took me under their wing. They said, ‘Just stay with us.’”

He worked a variety of jobs and took college courses during their four years in Germany. In 1998, Denis and Alma were forced to relocate to Sweden, using purchased Slovenian passports. 

“We were just trying to survive,” Skarep explains. “Germany says we have to leave, and you have to go somewhere. How do you get there?”

After one year, two Swedish officials boarded a flight with the Skareps to escort them back to Germany. After a half-dozen years in limbo, they received asylum in the United States. 

Denis, Alma, and 5-year-old son, Alen, followed the advice of a U.S. official and settled initially in Utica, N.Y., an historic destination for immigrants. Four years later, they moved to the Boston area, where Skarep earned a degree in graphic design, enabling him to pursue his current work at Northeastern in graphic arts—a career he had envisioned before fleeing the former Yugoslavia.

“I am lucky in the sense that it happened to me when I was young,” Skarep says. “I think about refugees who are older—doctors, lawyers—who have to clean houses and do other kinds of jobs just to get by because it’s too late for them.”

Skarep has developed a close friendship with Francis Oywech, an IT operations manager at Northeastern, in part because they have both had to adjust to a new country. 

“So many things are different,” says Oywech, who moved from Kenya to the U.S. when he was 27. “We see the differences in what we have here in the U.S. versus how we grew up. I think we are both trying to instill some of this in our kids. There’s some good that you want to bring from there to here, to bring those two worlds together into one place.”

The lessons of their transition have been hard-earned for Denis and Alma as they have raised Alen, now grown up and living in Maine, and Zaria, their 12-year-old daughter. 

“If you believe in the idea of the U.S., then you can be American,” says Skarep, who no longer relates to the flag as a symbol of identity. “I find a common ground and very quickly connect to people who are immigrants, and it doesn’t matter from which country.

“My search for a home has shaped me as a person in terms of surviving in this world,” Skarep says. “I definitely feel for all the refugees, all the immigrants, and all the people who don’t have the same chance I’ve had. I know it’s hard for some people to understand how it feels to believe that you are starting a race and everyone else is already 10 miles ahead of you. But it’s easy for me to understand how that feels.” 

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