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Tracy Briggs, Published May 12 2012

The Beauty of Courage: Sarajevo native overcomes childhood hardships to become strong, successful mother in Fargo

MOORHEAD - When Irma Ciber and her family lived in Sarajevo, all they wanted was a normal day.

“I remember my mother saying, ‘Maybe you can go to school today. Maybe they won’t shell us today.’ ”

But more often than not in 1992, in the midst of the Bosnian war, that wasn’t the case. Many days, 9-year-old Irma would set off on her 5-mile walk to school only to find herself, moments later, face down on the ground taking cover from the bombs.

By the end of that year, Irma would suffer third-degree burns, watch her mother die and be forced to leave her country – all the while becoming a surrogate mother to her 3-year-old sister. From that early hardship, she has grown into a strong, successful woman who chooses to always look at the positive.

For these reasons and more, Irma is our Beautiful Woman for the May.

As 28-year-old Irma reads a story to her 2-year-old daughter Lamya in their Moorhead home, it’s not hard to notice her accent. It’s definitely part Eastern European, but something about the way she says her O’s screams Upper Midwest.

“I’m just sooo grateful to be here,” she says.

It’s somehow appropriate that Irma’s accent would be a mix of here and there. After all, her life has taken her from war-torn Bosnia, to Italy, to the wide open spaces of North Dakota.

In 1992, Irma was living with her parents and her sister Dijana in Sarajevo. Her dad, Denial Ciber, was an auto mechanic and her mom, Vezira Ciber, stayed home. But that was before the war changed everything.

The war began in April of that year as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Ethnic groups within the country including Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats battled for territory and power and families like the Cibers were caught in the middle. More than 12,000 residents of Sarajevo were killed – 1,500 of them children.

“I was 9, so I had some idea what was going on. It was terrifying,” she says.

“One day, a man had been hit not far from us. I remember seeing blood running out of his body right down our street. My mother told me to look away. But it was hard to look away from all of it.”

Her father was drafted into the Bosnian army. By this point, the invading Serb army had cut off water and electricity to homes throughout Sarajevo. Food was just as scarce.

“I remember my mother taking dandelion leaves and trying to make a salad out of them,” Irma says.

The family had to sleep on the floor because it was safer than being in their beds close to the windows where the bombs could get them. But one night in November 1992, the danger came not from enemy shelling, but from the strike of a match.

When Irma had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, she asked her mom to light a candle for her so she could see. When her mother struck the match it set off an explosion that blew the windows out of the house.

“I just remember a bright flash of light then covering my face with my hands,” Irma says.

Her father and a friend had installed gas lines in the home, and something obviously had gone terribly wrong.

Irma’s mother had third degree burns over 60 percent of her body; Irma and her sister Dijana were burned on their hands, face and feet. Their father suffered only minor burns.

They were rushed to the hospital where Irma says she most remembers the sensation of her face swelling and awakening to the sounds of soldiers crying out in pain. She says it was terrifying. Even more so when she overheard doctors saying that they might have to amputate her hands.

“They just told us that we had to go to another country,” she recalls. “I don’t think they even knew where they were going to send us.”

They knew their father had to stay back and fight in the war. But Irma, Dijana and Vezira were sent to Italy where days later Irma watched her mother utter her last words.

“At the end, she just kept saying my uncle’s name,” Irma says, her voice breaking with emotion.

With her mother now dead and her sister so young, Irma knew what she had to do. “We were all we had. I remember thinking I had to take on the role of mother for her.”

Dijana cries when she talks about what her sister means to her.

“I had nobody,” says Dijana, who nominated Irma. “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have made it.”

But Irma says while she became her sister’s surrogate mother, Dijana was her “rock.”

“Without her I would have been so lonely all those months,” Irma says.

“It was because of her I wanted to be better. I was motivated to keep pushing ahead.”

While Irma mothered her little sister, she was still a child herself, taking comfort in a little stuffed dog someone at the hospital had given her.

He’s well worn and scraggily, but he still means the world to her.

“Even now when I hold him it brings back good memories,” she says. “I know that sounds weird, but this thing made me feel better when I was scared and lonely.”

They spent six months in that Italian hospital. Part of the stay was made better by an old woman, a member of a charitable organization, who would visit them.

But as the months wore on, the girls’ future was uncertain. The Italian government decided to put them up for adoption despite their father still presumably alive in Bosnia. It was too much for the old woman to adopt them, but Irma says soon a “wonderful family” came forward to take them in.

“We endured all this craziness. But we were blessed with these individuals, these people with huge hearts.”

But it wouldn’t last. After about a year and a half, Denial Ciber petitioned the Italian government to get his daughters back to Bosnia. Irma still has newspaper clippings from Sarajevo that detail the legal battle. After months, the Italian government granted his request to get the girls back, but required him to take them to a different country.

Irma says the hardest part was leaving her new Italian family for more uncertainty. Another country. Another language.

Fortunately, an aunt had already come to the U.S. – to Fargo. With the help of Lutheran Social Services, she flew over to Italy to help Irma, Dijana and Denial settle in their new home. Irma had just turned 12.

“I remember getting off the plane at Hector (Airport in Fargo) thinking ‘Where am I?’ It was so empty here,” she says.

But soon enough, Irma says the emptiness was replaced by warmth and inclusion.

“People were so nice here,” she says. “Even at school, they made me feel like the coolest kid on the block! I never felt out of place here.”

Still there were challenges. Irma says because they lived in Italy so long, they were beginning to lose their ability to speak Bosnian. Now they found themselves living with Bosnian relatives in America trying to remember their native tongue and learn a brand new one.

Plus, because of their burns, both Irma and Dijana would need multiple surgeries. She says the Shriner’s Hospitals really helped both of them.

Irma went on to graduate from Fargo South in 2003 and from North Dakota State University in 2008. She got a job at Family Health Care Center in Fargo first as a translator for refugee patients and now as an executive assistant.

“I’ve been so used to people helping me, giving to me. Now I’m giving back to the community!”

Through all of this, Ciber has avoided feeling sorry for herself.

“Certainly, I would never wish this on anybody,” she says. “It’s left its scars, but it’s also made me stronger. I’ve been through it and I’ve survived. You know everybody has challenges.”

Now on this Mother’s Day, as she celebrates with Lamya, her long time boyfriend Kevin Craddock, and Dijana (who is now pregnant with her first child) she still thinks of her own mother and her “sweet soul.”

“It’s been 18 years since I lost my mom. It’s still hard. But she’s here somewhere looking at what we’re doing. I hope she’s seeing that I’m successful and happy.”

Dijana and those who work with Irma say “happy” is a great word to describe her.

Irma says with a big smile, “Of course, I’m happy. I don’t have anything to be sad about. Life has given me challenges. But I just look at what I have now: a job, a home, a family. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”


Congratulations to our other finalists

Congratulations to our other Beautiful Women honorees for May: Vicki Berg and Nichole Peschong.

On TV: Watch Irma Ciber’s story with Kerstin Kealy Sunday, May 13, on WDAY-6 News at 10.

On radio: Hear Irma on “The Christopher Gabriel Program” between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday, May 14.