From Refugee To Lawyer
by U.S. Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. John Wilkes
U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Igor Petrovich is no
stranger to adversity. Born and raised in Travnik, Bosnia in 1989,
just two years before the Yugoslav Wars broke out in the region, he
lived with his parents and grandparents in a traditional farming
U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Igor Petrovich, a deputy judge advocate at the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio, provides legal support to the staff judge advocate and Airmen at the 180FW. Petrovich was born in Travnik, Bosnia and arrived to the U.S. in 1999 after he and his family were granted refugee status due to war in the region he was born. (U.S. Air National Guard
photo by Tech. Sgt. John Wilkes - June 5, 2022)
His family and heritage are diverse and
consisted of members of three warring sides of the Yugoslav Wars;
Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia.
“I think everyone faces
challenges growing up, and I was no different,” said Petrovich, a Deputy Judge
Advocate at the 180th Fighter Wing. “Although no one wants to grow
up in a war zone, my family stuck together through it all.”
Petrovich has many memories of growing up in Bosnia and remembers
the small town where he was born, surrounded by mountains. He can
still remember the natural beauty of it.
“Among my favorite
memories are walking with my grandfather to our farm and picking
berries off of wild bushes, building snow forts with the
neighborhood kids and having snowball fights,” he continued. “A lot
of people don’t realize just how ordinary life can be, especially
for kids, in extraordinary situations.”
When the war started,
his parents began exploring their options. Six years later, in 1997,
the possibility of moving to the U.S. became real and they applied
for refugee status.
According to U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services, refugee status or asylum may be granted to
people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on
account of race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular
social group or political opinion.
“My family sought, and
were granted, refugee status due to my mom being Bosnian and my dad
being Serbian and Croatian,” said Petrovich. “From a kid’s
perspective, it was all very odd. I knew that my parents wanted to
leave Bosnia and to move to either Canada, the United States, or
Australia. Then, one day, we got in the car and I never went back
Moving to a new country changed everything.
think culture shock doesn’t begin to describe it,” he said.
“Everything is new; language, food, music. We had TV, of course, but
seeing small snippets of American life on TV is much different than
living the not-so-glamorous life of a refugee.”
his mom, dad, brother, aunt and uncle landed in New York City, New
York in 1999 and ultimately settled in Akron, Ohio.
really hard to process and I remember not believing that it was
forever,” he continued. “When we first arrived, I just wanted to go
back home. I missed my grandparents who chose to remain in Bosnia. I
didn’t know the language or anyone in the entire country.”
a matter of days, Petrovich and his family went from living in a
small town in the foothills of a mountain to New York City and then
living in Akron.
“I really can’t put into words how different
it was,” said Petrovich. “It was like being dropped on a different
Fortunately, his 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Way, made
him feel at home and invited his family over for Thanksgiving. In
5th grade the following year, he started forming his core group of
friends, many of whom he is still friends with today.
there were struggles.
“I really struggled with my personal
identity,” Petrovich said. “What did it mean to be American? Was I
American? Was I Bosnian? Serbian? Croatian? I have come to accept
that I am all of the above and that to deny any part of me is to
deny the people who made me, me.”
Petrovich graduated high
school and went on to college. After a long journey and years of
hard work he graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer because I saw what life without
rule of law was like,” he said. “My time at Georgetown allowed me to
meet extraordinary people, and opened so many doors for me,
including working at the International Criminal Tribunal for the
Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. My education opened every door for
me and as cliché as it sounds, made my American dream come true.”
Even after everything Petrovich had been through and
accomplished, he still felt there was something missing.
had always been interested in public service and especially military
service because I saw it as a way to give back to the country that
gave me everything,” said Petrovich. “Life kept getting in the way
and I kept putting it off. Finally, everything fell into place for
me in 2020 and I reached out to a recruiter.”
A few months
later, Petrovich was contacted by the Ohio Air National Guard and
his military career began.
“I have just been blown away by
the quality of people I have met in my short time with the 180th
Fighter Wing,” Petrovich said. “Whether it’s on base or at training,
I have already made lifelong friends and have met some of the most
incredible people I have ever known. I think it is a true credit and
testament to the U.S. Air Force and shows the quality of the people
who answered our nation’s call.”
Petrovich has enjoyed seeing
the impact he has on Airmen and it has been very rewarding.
“Recently we had an Airman facing eviction,” said Petrovich. “We
were able to get the issue resolved and keep that Airman in their
Petrovich also helped a fellow Airman obtain their
“My biggest goal is to just make a
difference in any way that I can,” he continued. “I would love to go
overseas and get an opportunity to serve in an active role. I am
also greatly looking forward to being involved with our State
Partnership Program with Serbia and Hungary.”
Still, he has
more aspirations to come and you can sense the gratefulness in his
voice when he tells his story.
“One thing I like to point out
to people is the difference between is and was,” said Petrovich. “On
Wikipedia, Yugoslavia was a country. The United States is a country.
Freedoms are never guaranteed. They are fought for and protected. I
am honored to serve my country and to serve alongside people who
ensure that our freedoms remain.
When I look at my wife and
three children, I am forever grateful that my parents chose to bring
me here and to give me the life they gave me,” he continued. “I
could never imagine a better life.”
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