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By Scott Dietz
Merzudin Ibric, in white, runs for Wheaton College at a track meet.
Merzudin Ibric knows more about running than anyone should ever have to know. Long before the track star got a chance to run for Wheaton, he had to run for his life.
A Bosnian refugee, Ibric fled his war-torn native land with his family and arrived in the United States in 1998. His journey since—filled with challenges and triumphs—is an inspiring lesson in courage, perseverance and unending hope.
For a while after he arrived in the United States, he only knew two English words: “okay” and “bye,” which he picked up from watching movies like Rambo. Today, Ibric is an outspoken activist against genocide as well as an academic achiever and nationally ranked athlete. He has reached the Dean’s List while earning All-America honors in the 400-meter dash, and he has his eye on becoming Division III’s top 400-meter runner. He also has written a book about his experiences called Running for My Life, which he hopes to publish.
Ibric has come a long way.
He was five when war broke out in Bosnia. After the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats fell into a war that lasted nearly four years. The conflict claimed over 100,000 lives and uprooted more than two million people.
In 1992, struggling to eat and endure extreme living conditions, Ibric's seven-member family fled from village to village praying for the atrocities to end.
His uncle was killed during the genocide. Shrapnel severely wounded his sister and injured his father. Forced to flee Srebrenica, the family was bused to Tuzla. As a grown male, Ibric’s father was not permitted to leave but later escaped the village and joined his family. Eventually, they gained permission to immigrate to the United States to get medical care for Ibric’s sister.
On a gloomy, yet hopeful, night in June 1998, Ibric’s family landed at Boston’s Logan Airport and was taken to an apartment in Revere, Massachusetts—to start their lives over.
"It was difficult learning a new language, being in a new country and not knowing the people," said Ibric. "As time wore on, things became easier. There were Bosnian people from the Balkan region who my parents started meeting. When we went to the beach nearby, it was like a whole Bosnian community."
For Ibric (also known as “Zoom”), soccer helped bridge the communication gap, as the sport proved to be an escape in Bosnia and a connection to American children. His athletic skills led him to become a sports star at Revere High School, which gained him attention from college recruiters.
However, he is most proud of his academic accomplishments, and credits his Revere High English teacher and mentor Nancy Barile, who also introduced him to track.
With a combined six months of education in Bosnia, Ibric struggled mightily after being placed in sixth grade in Revere. Having to learn a great deal of material while keeping up to speed, Ibric would later be reminded by Barile to keep things in perspective.
"No matter the hardship, Nancy would say, 'You lived through a damn war,'" Ibric recalled.
The challenges of making it in this country were endless, but not wanting to disappoint supporters like Barile kept him determined. Succeeding academically allowed him to compete on Revere's outdoor track team, as his failing grades eventually turned into all As and Bs. After Revere High, he spent a post-graduate year at Phillips Academy Andover, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts.
Ibric’s desire for community led him to Wheaton. “Everyone here has been extremely supportive,” he said. Wheaton head track and field coach Paul Souza had followed Ibric since his junior year of high school. And, after learning more about Wheaton's athletic program, academic offerings and size, Ibric was sold.
"I wanted to do something with international relations, something with diplomacy, something that would help the situation in the Balkans," said Ibric, who is an international relations major. "That was the big draw for me to come here."
Merzudin Ibric talks at a Darfur awareness event.
Already, Ibric, who is now a U.S. citizen, is trying to make an impact on the world. In 2005, he was the keynote speaker at the New England Commemoration for Srebrenica held in Cambridge, Mass., on the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. In the fall, he joined Boston-area genocide survivors in a march against genocide. He represented Bosnia, spoke at the demonstration and lit a torch to encourage 2008 Olympics host China to use its influence on the Sudan to address the crisis there and to bring the Olympic Torch relay and rally to Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people have been massacred.
"What's happening in Darfur is something that I went through," Ibric said. "If there's a way I can make a child's life better by speaking about it, I'm more than glad to help out. I don't want young children seeing the things I saw and living in fear for their lives."
At age 22, Ibric still has two years remaining at Wheaton. But the sky is his limit.
He’s considering competing for Bosnia's national team. Having already run the indoor 400M in 48.24 seconds, the Bosnian outdoor record of 48.26 is within his grasp. The possibility of running track for his native land is an intriguing one, as Ibric hasn't seen Bosnia in a decade.
Beyond track and Wheaton, Ibric foresees himself impacting many lives. "I envision myself working in government down the line," Ibric said. "National defense or clandestine services are areas I've been thinking about. Working to better the situation around the world, not just the Balkans and where I'm from, I’d like to do anything that could help out in some way."
Scott Dietz is the Assistant Director of Athletics for Media Relations at Wheaton College.