I built a life: Sabina’s story

Sabina Krusevljanin knows the importance of welcomes. You might recall her welcoming smile from your last visit to the Gallery. As a host, she stands at the threshold of our building to greet visitors and answer questions about the art within.

But Sabina also has her own extraordinary story of coming to a new place and hoping to be welcomed. Twenty-five years ago, she fled war-torn Sarajevo with a rucksack and little else, seeking shelter, peace and a new life in Sydney.

As Together In Art celebrates Refugee Week, and as the Refugee Council of Australia marks its ‘Year of Welcome’, Hannah McKissock-Davis sat with Sabina to discuss her anniversary, the importance of acknowledging refugees, and the extraordinary journey that brought her to this place.

Hannah McKissock-Davis: Sabina, this year you are celebrating your 25th anniversary of arriving in Australia. What has it been like to reflect on that milestone?

Sabina Krusevljanin: It’s a celebration of love, of life, a celebration of strength, resilience, trust, hope, faith and belief in myself. It’s just amazing when I think about myself 25 years ago. When I came here, I didn’t know anyone in Sydney or in Australia. I escaped through the tunnel under the airports in Sarajevo with a fake document that said I was a journalist. I had my little rainbow rucksack with a few t-shirts in it and I borrowed $100 from my friend in Croatia just to have something in my pocket.

I was on my own and I was traumatised by the Bosnian War and the long siege of Sarajevo. So, I didn’t come as a migrant, happily, joyfully having chosen to come to live here. I came as a refugee. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what am I going to do now I’m here?’ At the same time, I trusted the process – and look at me now. I built a life. Picking up bits and pieces of myself and putting that together into a whole Sabina again.

Refugees and asylum seekers often struggle to share their stories due to the risks associated with being identified. You have been involved with several projects that publicise your story, including participating in Belongings with SBS and the Biennale of Sydney. What are you hoping will be achieved through your openness?

Hopefully it will have a positive impact and educate people, especially those who are not welcoming or are judgemental of refugees and asylum seekers. Quite often it’s hard to talk to people who are seeing you from the perspective of never having a similar experience.

One question which I was asked many times is, ‘Does it really look as scary as it looks on TV?’ That question would totally demolish me. People not understanding the difference between a movie about the war and the reality of the war. Or what it is like to be exposed every day to bombing, to snipers, to violence of any kind, to hunger, to be trying to escape, because there is no regular way to get out.

What is your advice to people who feel unsure about how to have those conversations?

To let refugees and asylum seekers tell you what they feel comfortable and confident to tell you, because what might be appropriate for you to ask, may not be appropriate for them to share.

Make them feel welcome, safe and comfortable when they sit with you. That’s number one. It doesn’t matter if it is the work environment or talking to a random stranger at the bus stop. I always make people feel comfortable and safe talking to me.

Sabina Krusevljanin at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park on Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara Country in 2005.

What led to you to working at the Gallery?

I came to Australia in 1995 and my diploma in sociology wasn’t recognised here, so I had to study. I did get a certificate in social welfare, but I couldn’t continue because every day I would cry in the classes – it was all about refugees, abuse, trauma, domestic violence and other sad experiences people go through. All those issues were very painful for me.

I decided to swap to another course, and I studied tourism, and towards the end of that course I started to do volunteer work at the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums). In 1997 I got a job at the Trust and worked there for 13 years. I had worked at many of Sydney’s cultural institutions, including the Powerhouse Museum and The Rocks Discovery Museum. But I had to add one more to the list, my beloved Art Gallery of NSW. So, in 2011 I started to work here at the Gallery as an education assistant and visitor services officer.

What do you enjoy about your current role as a Gallery host? For so many staff and visitors, yours is the face that greets us from the Gallery’s front steps.

I love and enjoy being an ambassador and representative of the Gallery to visitors. I am a people person, I really love people. I really love welcoming people, chatting to people, giving them an idea of what’s going on in the Gallery. Making them feel welcome and safe here.

I love people, I love art, I love culture. So this job is a nice combination of all the things I love.

And your interest in the arts, where did that begin?

I suppose there are people who are simply born artists and free spirits and bohemians, and I’m one of those. You don’t necessarily have to be educated and get a degree in art. Art is just part of you. I’m one of those people.

At the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo I was working as an art model while I was studying sociology. I enjoyed being a muse and being a part of Sarajevo’s art scene. A few years ago, I started to work as an art model again here in Sydney. I model at the National Art School, UNSW Art & Design, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre and Manly Art Gallery.

Is there an artwork from the collection that means something special to you? 

It’s The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon 1890 by Sir Edward John Poynter. Ever since learning to read, I have loved this poem, the ‘Song of songs’ or ‘Solomon’s song’. It is a beautiful poem that King Solomon dedicated to the Queen of Sheba. I have always been fascinated by the relationship between Sheba and Solomon.

In 1995 when I migrated to Australia as a refugee, I came to Sydney and visited the Gallery. I was walking around – and bang! I’m in front of this beautiful painting. I said, ‘Oh my Lord, look at the two of them’. I was delighted.

In some countries the Queen of Sheba is also known as the Queen of Saba, as she was the ruler of the Sabines. My name is Sabina. And the origin of my name starts there with the Queen of Saba.

Sabina with Sir Edward John Poynter’s The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon 1890. Photo: Christopher Snee, AGNSW

It’s Refugee Week as we speak. What is most significant for you at this moment?

It’s really important to acknowledge refugees and asylum seekers in our society, not only in Australia but all around the world, and support them as much as possible. I think it’s great that we do things here in the Gallery to acknowledge them and to celebrate Refugee Week.

I’m volunteering at two places connected to refugees and asylum seekers. One is the Community Refugee Welcome Centre in Lilyfield, and the second is the Refugee Art Centre in Ashfield. I am doing my best give back to the community and to empower these people who are a part of my gang – refugees and asylum seekers – which once upon a time I was.