A 30-Year American ‘Adventure’ Celebrated
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
February 22, 2024

ROCKFORD—It’s  been 30 years since the Bilic family arrived in Rockford — the first refugee family fleeing the Bosnia-Herzegovina War to arrive in Rockford.

An article from the Feb. 25, 1994, Observer quotes the then-28-year-old Croatian couple about the two years of war they had endured.

“My father is killed, and my uncle is killed. I not cry,” husband and father Serif Bilic said at the time, describing with words and actions how he had finally cried as he pleaded with United Nations officials to find a safe place for him, his wife, Vikica, their son Jasmin and daughter Maja. “I tell him, ‘My nerves is destroyed. Please help me.’”

Like in 1994, the Refugee Resettlement Office of Catholic Charities today helps men, women and families who have been granted refugee status by the U.S. government to settle in and begin to rebuild their lives.

The office’s list of needed household items is ongoing throughout the year, and donations of the following items are greatly appreciated.

-- Toiletries: shampoo, razors, soap bars, toothbrushes and paste, body lotion, deodorant, feminine products and bathroom tissue;

-- Kitchen items: new cookware, silverware, can opener, cutting board, knife set, foil wrap, freezer bags (quart and gallon), colander, dinnerware, mixing and serving bowls, dish pan, dish drainer, and kitchen garbage can;

-- Bathroom items: shower curtain, rings and rod, bath rug, towels, small trash can, toilet brush, laundry basket;

-- Cleaning supplies: for cleaning dishes, floors, laundry, plus paper towels and garbage bags;

-- Linens: new twin and queen sheet sets and comforters, new pillows;

-- Baby items: (given out only on request) diapers, wipes, baby shampoo, soap, lotion, playpen and padding foam;

-- Misc.: over-the-counter pain and fever relief for kids and adults, alarm clock, light bulbs (60 watt);

-- Winter clothing of all sizes.

The Refugee Resettlement Office can be contacted at: 815-399-1709; email: [email protected]

The couple explained how different people in their photos of a happier time were killed. “So many bodies in river … that first summer. Summer so hot. So many bodies,” Vikica said, adding that Jasmin still wanted to hide under the bed whenever he heard an airplane fly over.

Still exhausted from their journey during the interview, the family persevered in the following days, months and years in the place where war and many circumstances had brought them.

On Feb. 17, 2024, the Bilic family celebrated three decades in Rockford at Murphy’s Pub and Grill with family and friends in the city they have long called home.

Their last name now is spelled “Bilich” to make it easier for others to pronounce correctly. Vikica goes by “Viki,” again to make it easier for others. Serif is now Josip Serif, although Viki says most everyone calls him “Boz.”

Jasmin goes by “Jas” and will be 35 in March with two kids of his own. Maja is 31 and has a child. Their U.S.-born brothers, Antony and Elvis, are 27 and 24.

Viki laughs as she describes the shocking news she received a few years after coming to Rockford when she tried to arrange permission to return home to Croatia for a visit when her father was ill. The war had ended in December 1995.

“I was calling the Immigration Office to request passports only to be told we do not exist in the system!” she says, adding, “so, we started conversations,” enlisting the help of Catholic Charities and others. Their documents, apparently collected when they arrived and then left behind at the airport, were eventually found. Her father had passed away in the meantime, but still, Viki is grateful for the timing.

“It’s funny, thank God,” she says, speculating that if they had waited a few years more when they were able to apply for citizenship, “who knows what would have happened … (the documents) could have been thrown away. It was thankfully resolved.”

Calling U.S. citizenship “the biggest reason we came to the U.S.,” as soon as it was possible Josip became a U.S. citizen in 2000 and Viki in 2001.

Viki says she and her husband are “workaholics” and held a variety of jobs over the years before purchasing Murphy’s Pub and Grill in 2010. While working in construction in 1995, Josip saw the inside of St. Anthony of Padua Church in southwest Rockford. He came home and announced to Viki, “I found you a church.” They’ve been parishioners at St. Anthony since then.

They also are familiar with St. Bridget Parish in Loves Park because it is the site of a monthly Mass for the area’s Croatian community, which is said in their native language by a priest from Chicago. They remain a part of and “try to keep up with” that Croatian community, but Viki says their friendships span many other kinds of people.

“We are integrated,” she says, adding that they know “all kinds of families, really.” She mentions friends from their children’s years at public schools and at Boylan Central Catholic High School, other friends from various jobs particularly those in construction, and she adds that they meet people every
day at their restaurant.

The Bilich’s have had their share of challenges, of course. Josip had a heart attack in 2012 and “has been a patient at OSF for a very long time,” Viki says, adding that Maja is an emergency room nurse there. The economy, changing demographics and certainly the pandemic have impacted their restaurant business.

“It’s been up and down,” Viki says. “We try to do the best we possibly can, to accommodate.”

She has returned for short trips to Croatia the past few years because of her mother’s failing health and to see other members of her family.

“I want to see her while she’s alive,” Viki says, adding that last summer they all went to Croatia for her mother’s 80th birthday, and her children know about the culture there where “everything is so much better. Croatia (now) is very safe and a very nice place to be.”

She says she is grateful to the U.S. for giving them the opportunity to build a life here, filled over the years with their children’s sports and activities, now adding special grandchildren activities
to the fun. All along, they have focused on their little family and expanding into the greater community.

“We were living a life, trying to survive and … you meet people every day,” Viki says. “That literally is a blessing.”

The celebration on Feb. 17 was open to the public, welcoming a wide variety of people from the area as well as the Bilich’s friends and their children’s friends.




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