News & Views

Meet Our Staff: Dzemila Bilanovic

“I really want to work with immigrants and refugees, and work to help the world in some way. I want to be a part of the good. I’m glad I get to do that every day at HIAS PA.”
-Dzemila Bilanovic, Refugee Case Manager

We spoke with Dzemila Bilanovic, our Refugee Case Manager, about what her role at HIAS PA means to her. Read the extended interview below!

Can you describe your role at HIAS PA?
As the Refugee Resettlement Case Manager, I work with people with Special Immigrant Visas and with refugees when they first arrive in the US for their first three months. We deal with everything from finding a home, to making sure they have enough food when they arrive, to signing up for benefits, coordinating health insurance, getting them settled in schools, and more. A lot of things happen in the first three months that are important to starting a new life in a new country. As the case managers, we get to be with them along the way as they’re navigating new systems and learning new things about the US, but because it’s only a three-month program, we only get to work with our clients for a short time.

What brought you to HIAS Pennsylvania?
I am originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and I found HIAS PA when I was searching for places that helped refugees in the Philadelphia area. I’m really glad I found this organization, because I really want to work with immigrants and refugees, and work to help the world in some way. I want to be a part of the good. I’m glad I get to do that every day at HIAS PA. There’s also a personal reason – my family came to the US as refugees when I was six years old.

What languages do you speak, and how does this help you when working with your clients?
I speak Bosnian, which isn’t actually helpful, and I speak some Spanish. Knowing another language and having had to learn English when I was younger has definitely helped me in my job. I know how to navigate conversations with clients because I understand some of what they’ve been through.

What does a typical day look like for you?
I don’t know if there is a typical day. That’s part of why this job is so fun – no day is the same. One day I go to the Social Security office with clients, another day I might run around the city dropping off home goods, or trying to help clients enroll at the bank. There are a lot of different components, but in general, talking to my clients every day is a constant. I like that I have that personal connection with my clients on a daily basis.

What is one interaction that you’ll remember for the rest of your life?
I haven’t worked here for very long – only since February – but I would say that this would be meeting a family at the airport. Meeting a family after they’ve been traveling for hours, days, is just special. It’s a special thing to hold onto, to know that they’ve finally made it to their destination and that we’re one of the first people they speak with.

One of my recent families arrived a month ago, and on the way to the AirBnB, one of the kids threw up in my car. That wasn’t great, but I’ll remember it forever. There are always interesting things that happen, and I think it’s fun meeting people right when they’ve arrived.

What’s the most meaningful part of your position here?
Being a refugee myself, I have a connection to what my clients are experiencing. I know what it’s like to be new in a place and not know the language. I know all of these feelings, and it’s fun to be able to share a connection with people who have probably gone through so much, who are excited and scared and every emotion in between. It’s also scary sometimes, to have other people’s lives who are dependent on us for a few months, but our clients are so resilient and could do anything on their own – they’re going to achieve so much in life, and probably already have, and it’s nice to be the person along their journey who they are working with for a few months at the start of their lives in the US.

What is some advice that you would give to someone who wants to work in your position?
It’s important to be patient and understanding with ourselves and with our clients. I have to remind myself every day that my clients and I will get frustrated because the systems that we’re working under can be frustrating. Things will happen as they do. Know that at the end of the day, we’re just the people who are helping them figure out these things, but they also have a strong network of friends and family, and they’re not alone. We’re the ones who are lucky enough to work with them.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
This kind of work is really important all the time. Working with immigrants and refugees is special, now more than ever.

What is your favorite thing to eat in Philly?
My favorite thing is the veggie soup at Good Spoon Soupery!