And the Quartet Played On

From making music as shells explode in wartime Sarajevo to performing and teaching in Oregon, violist Dijana Ihas forges a new life

EDITOR’S NOTE: And the Quartet Played On, Elizabeth Mehren’s story about the remarkable life and journey of violist Dijana Ihas from the wartime rubble of Sarajevo to European tours with the Sarajevo String Quartet to a performing and teaching career in Oregon, was published originally on Nov. 6, 2020 by The Immigrant Story, the Portland-based organization that, as its title suggests, tells the stories of people who come to the United States from around the world to make new lives. ArtsWatch is republishing it with permission.

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“Outside the monster raged with flaming nostrils. But inside there was tranquility. The melancholy notes of Albinoni’s adagio drifted into every corner of the room, and out through the windows where they were consumed by the thunder of the explosions echoing through the city. The concert was beautiful. The musicians might have been playing in New York, Paris or Rome. Serb shells were ripping apart their city and their lives, but their souls were their own. Dijana’s face was serene, her hands sure and strong on the gleaming body of the viola.”

–From “Sarajevo Roses: War Memoir of a Peacekeeper,” by Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob

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Throughout Sarajevo, once the siege began in early April 1992, residents of what was for centuries a proud and splendid city had no heat, no electricity and no running water. Food was scarce. When the bombs went off, sometimes for 22 hours a day, occupants of entire apartment buildings rushed to their basements. Above ground, in their own dwellings, they had no windows, only plastic where once there was glass.

By some estimates, 27 fatal shells fell to each square acre during the three and a half years of persistent attack, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II.

But even for the bomb blasts, even for the bloodshed, still they had music.

Again and again they played — 206 concerts in the years their city was effectively imprisoned: two violinists, a viola player and a cellist who made up the venerable Sarajevo String Quartet. They performed on the front lines, in bombed-out schools and hospitals, in civic buildings, theaters, concert halls and the ruins  of houses of worship. Several times each week, they walked for miles to rehearse by candlelight.

“Everywhere people needed a sense that they were still human beings, we played,” said viola player Dijana Ihas, the group’s youngest member and its only female musician. “We never said no.”

Buildings could be destroyed, they realized, but spirits could not be broken.

In simple terms, said Ihas, “it became a mission.”

Dijana Ihas. Photo: Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

War Concerts, the Beginning

The concerts began not long after Serbian forces began shelling Sarajevo. The first violinist asked his colleagues if they would be willing to perform at his synagogue — or rather, what remained of his synagogue. Ihas secretly wondered who in the city would show up. The medieval city of Sarajevo had been an ancient citadel of the arts in central Europe, bursting with galleries, museums and packed theater houses. Seats at the opera seldom went unoccupied. At least one of four professional orchestras performed nightly.

Who, Ihas wondered, would dare venture out when the city was under constant assault? Were a few measures of Mozart worth dying for?

Sure enough, as the musicians were walking to the temple, they heard sirens warning of an impending bombing by the Serbs. The foursome paused to discuss whether they should continue. The second violinist said he had to go to the temple because his wife would be there. There was no further discussion. Of course they would all go.

From the volume of the blasts, they could tell the bombs were near the city. But the four musicians and their spouses set up chairs in the synagogue’s atrium. They began to play. Slowly, people drifted in from the street to fill the 30 or so seats. As they rested their bows after a half hour of playing, their audience questioned them: When will you play again?

“That is when we realized this could really be something that we could offer to our city in this time of crisis,” Ihas said.

“When people came, despite the bombing, and sat through the concert, I felt this was more than music,” she went on. “I felt I had a responsibility to my country to do something, and the tool with which I can do it is music.”

Within months, the first violinist, Momir Vlacic, was killed by a grenade. Just a month later– in October 1992 to be exact–a sniper claimed the second violinist, Kamenko Ostojic. New musicians replaced them. Ihas’ family begged her to leave, fearing that she would be next in what seemed to be a systematic attempt to silence the quartet.

She refused.

“How do you leave the country that gave you everything, which was very generous to you, which gave you music, and therefore, your life?” she explained.

Ed Vulliamy, a correspondent for The Guardian, attended a concert in Sarajevo’s blacked-out National Theater during the quartet’s tenure as a trio.  The musicians were playing Joseph Haydn’s String Trio Op. 8 No. 6.

At one point, during the andante, a mortar crashed close to the theater. The walls shook so hard that Ihas’ music stand and score fell over. The audience waited in silence until the music stand was righted and the first violinist lifted his bow.

“The trio played on,” Vulliamy wrote

Throughout the war, the quartet’s cellist, Miron Strutinski,  kept a small notebook, recording the date and location of each performance — 206 in all. With each concert, the quartet was offering hope to the embattled citizens of Sarajevo, Ihas said.

“Of course it was risky,” she conceded. “But the passion for music was greater than that risk.”

Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob, a United Nations peacekeeper in Sarajevo at that time, described a Sarajevo String Quartet concert in her book “Sarajevo Roses: War Memoir of a Peacekeeper.” The title refers to the craters left throughout the city by the impact of mortar or artillery shells. “With their unique sense of the ironic,” she writes, residents of the Bosnian capital named these hollows “Sarajevo Roses” because the depressions resembled giant flowers with scattered petals.

Because the city was under curfew, concerts took place by day. Tickets were free, du Preez Bezdrob writes, and seats never went empty. At a July concert at the old ChamberTheater in central Sarajevo, du Preez Bezdrob remembers feeling uncomfortable because the windows had not been secured with adhesive tape. Accompanied by the background thunder of exploding shells, “nobody batted an eye, neither the audience nor the musicians, who didn’t miss a note and serenely continued playing their well-rehearsed Mozart, Gounod and Bach.”

Even as some in the audience began to leave, perhaps “eager for the false security of their own homes,” du Preez Bezdrob writes, “the quartet kept playing, as though nothing was amiss, their faces calm and composed, their practiced hands unwavering.”

This stoic determination, said the peacekeeper, “was the essence of survival in Sarajevo. To complete what you’d set out to do was a victory; to give up and run for cover meant moral defeat.”

Young and old, they brought roses as a gesture of appreciation when they attended performances by the Sarajevo String Quartet, this one in 1993. Photo courtesy of Mirza Ajanovic

War Itself, the Beginning

From 1945 to 1992, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the six federal states that formed the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.  In February 1992, following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence. In May of the same year, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was admitted as a member state of the United Nations.

But the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević, rejected the move. Intent on establishing a greater Serbia, Milošević and others wanted Bosnia’s land.

Ihas bristles when the assault on her country is described as a civil war.

Rather, she declares, “It was an invasion by a foreign country (Serbia) of an internationally recognized independent country (Bosnia). Serbia wanted the land to expand their territory into what they called ‘Greater Serbia.’ The problem was that the land was inhabited by Muslim people. The most convenient way of getting rid of the Muslims was by killing them.”

Keep in mind, she adds, “I am not Muslim. I just speak what I saw and experienced. An objective reality of that war.”

The Serbian attacks that continued for three years were marked by bitter fighting, random shelling of cities and towns and ethnic cleansing. Mass rape also was common.

At least 100,000 people died during the war. Another 2.2 million were displaced. Between 12,000 and 50,000 women were raped.

The invasion by Serbian troops and the subsequent years of battle came as a surprise, said Ihas.

“Nobody could imagine that this war would happen in the middle of Europe,” she said.

If the world, and by extension the United States, is under a siege of sorts by the coronavirus  pandemic, Ihas chafes at the comparison. If she puts her mask on and ventures outside today, “nobody is going to kill me,” whereas no such assurance was possible during the Bosnian War.

“Trader Joe’s is still open,” she observed.

 Food shortage had never before been a problem in the sophisticated city of Sarajevo. Two years into the war, the deadliest single attack took place when a 120-millimeter mortar shell fell on a crowded Sarajevo marketplace. The first of two Markale massacres killed 68 men and women. Another 144 were wounded.

Ihas and her three colleagues were performing for a group of government dignitaries when the massacre occurred. Ihas was seated so close to the prime minister that she noticed a tear roll down his cheek when his press secretary crept up to whisper the terrible news in his ear.

Unaware herself of what had just happened, Ihas marveled that the head of her country’s government could be so moved by the music of the Sarajevo String Quartet.

The three-year Siege of Sarajevo was well into its second year when Dijana Ihas carried her viola past the rubble for another concert. Photo courtesy of Mirza Ajanovic

The Young Musician

Her family was tiny, just Dijana, born in 1963, and her mom, Stojanka Sturika, in a one-bedroom apartment.  Her mother and her Hungarian-born father divorced when she was so young that she has no memory of them all  living under one roof.

Her mother worked in a furniture factory and cleaned houses on weekends for extra income. One client, the trombonist for the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, sometimes gave her tickets to the opera as a gratuity. Ihas’ mother was engulfed in the splendor of the productions, but what really astonished her was when the performers took their final bows and were showered with bouquets from the audience.

“She was so excited and amazed to see that there are professions on earth where you could get flowers,” her daughter said.

The type of communism practiced in the former Yugoslavia, according to Ihas, was more like social communism. The country was known, after all, as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslav citizens enjoyed greater liberties than others in the Eastern Bloc and former Soviet Union. Ihas doesn’t remember ever being hungry. On the contrary, “you could go to a supermarket and find 20 kinds of beef,” she said. “Not only meat, but 20 types of vinegar — are you kidding me?”

 Education flourished, with many new universities established in the post-World War II years. Literacy at one time reached 91%. Medical care was free.

The system meant that a single parent, working in a furniture factory, could send her daughter to a stellar music school. 

Under the Yugoslav system at that time, students attended conventional schools as in other Western countries. But instead of heading home when the final bell rang in the afternoon, children in Sarajevo could go to a second sort of school, for training in ballet, music or languages. After six years of this specialized instruction, students became eligible to enter a high school dedicated to their chosen field. After that, in Ihas’ case, came the music conservatory.

Starting when she was just six years old, Ihas had lessons in violin, piano, music theory and solfeggio, the six-tone scale of frequencies used in ancient sacred music such as Gregorian chants.

“Do, re, mi, fa, si,” she sang, in perfect pitch.

During those early years, Ihas’ mother, still in her blue factory uniform, would somehow manage to slip away from work twice a week to sit in on her daughter’s violin lessons. At home, her mother would put Ihas in the bathroom for an hour each day to practice her triplets.

Never mind, said Ihas, that “she had no idea what triplets were.”

Every day, after her regular school and then after her music school, Ihas practiced for two full hours. By the end of sixth grade, she knew music was what she wanted to do with her life.

To attend the specialized high school, Ihas and other aspiring musicians had to stand for a rigorous entrance exam. In front of a roomful of people, a pianist played a melody. Each student was required to sing it back. Then there were hand claps. The student had to clap back. And so forth. When the exam concluded, a teacher would announce in front of everybody whether a student was qualified, and if so, for which instrument.

Ihas was overjoyed when the verdict for her was the violin. The school gave her mother — the furniture factory worker — six months to acquire one.

First Violin, First Viola

When they entered a small music store in Sarajevo, Ihas was mesmerized. Hundreds of violins and cellos covered every inch of the place. But Ihas’ mother went blank when the proprietor asked what size violin they were interested in.

Ihas was still a little girl. The proprietor brought out one instrument that was one-quarter the size of a traditional violin, and another that was one-half sized. Both were priced well out of their range.

“Don’t you have something for a little less?” asked her mother.

Illogically, the three-quarter sized violin he produced was less expensive than either of the two smaller models. And so Ihas went home with the violin she played until she reached  high school.

The tightly controlled government meant that working parents such as Ihas’ mother had few worries about the after-school welfare of their children. At 10 years old, Ihas said it was safe for her to ride a bus from one side of town to the other — for example, if she wanted to attend a concert featuring one of the many acclaimed performers who visited her city. Students paid no entrance fees, and were encouraged to go backstage to meet the musicians.

So there she was, 10 years old, shaking hands with perhaps the most famous violinist in the world at the time, Yehudi Menuhin.

Ihas still thinks that the  violin she grew to love–technically, too large for such a young child– may have paved her way to the viola. When her teacher suggested she switch to the still-larger instrument, Ihas was thrilled. Many of those after-school concert outings had been to hear chamber music groups. Ihas listened carefully. The mellow timbre of the viola, she realized, was the closest to the sound of the human voice.

Ihas’ father had long since returned to his native Hungary, where he had remarried and established a new family. His sister, Ihas’ aunt, offered to look for a viola for Dijana. Though she seldom saw her father, “he actually traveled all day and all night” to bring the handmade instrument to his daughter in Sarajevo.

Ihas has since studied with some of the world’s most renowned viola teachers. But her first viola instructor in Bosnia, she maintains, outshines them all. There was something magical about the way he immersed his students in techniques, long before the music they were playing actually demanded those refinements.

For instance, from day one, her teacher had her learning vibrato, the rapid, pulsating change of pitch that adds expression to musical notes. Her teacher began by showing her how to move her wrists, without even holding her viola. To this day, Ihas employs similar teaching methods with her own students.

The Artists’ Club

Young artists in love: Dijana with Mirza, her first husband, in Sarajevo. Photo courtesy of Ihas family archives

Ihas’ studies at the Sarajevo Conservatory lasted four years. The work was demanding, but as she noted, even in communist countries, young people like to have fun. Once again, the government imposed a structure that allowed for kids to be kids — within certain strict limitations.

“Everything is organized,” Ihas said. “In communist countries, that is how they control your mind.”

After-school activities now became  government- sponsored alcohol-free youth clubs centered around different areas of interest. Ihas naturally gravitated to the gatherings that focused on the arts. 

It was also around this time that Ihas took up yoga and transcendental meditation. Tall and almost impossibly thin, she continues both practices today.

“I ascribe everything I have accomplished in my life to my spiritual practice,” she said.

At the arts group, she found herself admiring the paintings of a young man named Mirza. Ihas was enthralled by his use of color. Soon enough, they were seeing one another. But Mirza was Muslim, “which was totally not okay with my Catholic family.”

Rather than breaking off their relationship, as Ihas’ family wanted, the two got married. Mirza’s Muslim family adored their new daughter-in-law. But Ihas’ mother slammed the door on both of them.

“She was very disappointed in me,” Ihas said.

Even in the middle of a war — or maybe especially in the middle of a war — there’s nothing like a baby to patch up family fissures. With their mixed-culture marriage, Dijana and Mirza chose a name, Abellar Nizar, to connect both traditions when their son was born in 1994. Abellar was a paean to the 12th-century philosopher, theologian, poet and musician, Peter Abelard. Nizar derives from a Persian word meaning “someone who sees beyond.” The child came to be known by his middle name.

“He needed to be baptized,” Ihas explained. “So OK, let’s baptize him. My entire Muslim family came to Sarajevo Cathedral in the middle of the war to get him baptized.”

Ihas was only 20 when she was hired as a viola player in the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra. As was common for talented musicians in Sarajevo at that time, she also played with several other groups. Not long after the war began in 1992, the viola player for the Sarajevo String Quartet told Ihas he was going to retire. He suggested she apply for the job. 

Birth Amid the Bombings

Within months of their first wartime concert at the synagogue, the quartet became known as the go-to group for musical healing as the city’s heart was shattered by bombs.

“Known to the point that we would walk on the street and ordinary people would recognize us,” Ihas says.

Midway through the war, in hopes of fostering the Bosnian spirit of identity, the quartet was asked to present a concert featuring only Bosnian composers. Ihas was nervous. She was very pregnant at the time, and since many of the works to be performed were contemporary, the music was complicated and required extensive rehearsals.

She also worried that, as the youngest member of the group and as the sole female, her colleagues might fire her if she did not agree to perform. The concert was set for July 16, three days before Ihas’ baby was due. After losing two fellow players to war violence and after playing in other treacherous situations, she figured she could finesse this one.

But babies do not always listen to doctors who declare due dates. Her contractions began the night before the concert.

“All I could think of was, ‘This cannot happen,’” Ihas said.

Her husband scoured the neighborhood for someone with a car and found a neighbor who happened to be a policeman. The neighbor agreed to drive Ihas and her husband to the concert and then wait to drive them to the hospital afterward.

“Sure enough,” said Ihas, “we start playing, and there are my contractions. There are moments when the pain is stronger than my mind.”

But the audience, filled with government dignitaries, was oblivious, aware only of the patriotic power of the music.

When the concert concluded, the musicians were asked to stay for an interview. Ihas, barely able to stand, said no. The first violinist asked why she could not stay.

“I am right now going to the hospital to have this baby,” Ihas replied. 

The first violinist dropped to a chair, open-mouthed, as if he were the one about to deliver a baby.

The concert ended at 5 p.m. Forty minutes later, Ihas’ son came into the world.

Motherhood and music: Ihas had a newborn. Still she continued to traipse through the city to rehearse. Still she continued to play with the quartet.

“At the beginning of any crisis, human beings tend to be in a state of survival,” she said. “Then you have two options. Either you give up and die, or you have an option to say, ‘I am going to survive, let’s see what happens.’”

At some point, she continued, “you decide, am I going to sit inside, or am I going to carry on? You are aware of the risks, but you do it anyway. After a while — for me it was around 1993 — you actually start thriving.”

Dijana with her infant son, Abellar Nizar, named for the 12th-century poet and philosopher, Peter Abellard, and for a Persian word meaning “someone who sees beyond.” Photo courtesy of Mirza Ajanovic

The Tattered Coat

The Bosnian War raged on. After the treaty that ended the conflict in 1995, international artists such as the Irish rock group U2 began traveling to Bosnia for concerts. Diana, Princess of Wales, attended a benefit for child victims of the Bosnian war staged by opera megastar Luciano Pavarotti in Modena, Italy, in 1995. Shortly before her death, Princess Diana also visited Bosnia as part of a mission to rid the country of land mines.

 During the war, however, Ihas said the sole international artist to perform in Bosnia was the famed Indian conductor Zubin Mehta. Mehta led the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra as they played Mozart’s “Requiem” at Sarajevo’s  rubble-strewn National Library. Ihas, three weeks away from delivering her son, played as the fourth-chair viola 

Word of the string quartet made its way to Great Britain. A charity called Hazelwood House that touted its link to Princess Diana invited the group to come to the United Kingdom for a series of concerts to raise awareness about the crisis  in Bosnia. The sponsoring group promised that all expenses would be covered, and the musicians would be paid for their time.

Ihas said she would not make the trip without her baby son. A stalemate ensued, because the United Nations aircraft that was to fly them out of Bosnia required all passengers to wear heavy, bullet-proof outerwear that was not available in infant sizes. Eventually, a compromise was reached. Ihas would hold Nizar in her lap, and place the heavy jacket over both of them.

In the third week of March, 1995, on the day the group was to depart, family and neighbors of the players bade tearful farewells to the musicians, wondering if they would ever see these artists again. An armored vehicle came to pick each player up. It was cold and miserable, with heavy snow falling. Every kilometer or so, the vehicle would stop so soldiers could check to make sure the passengers were who they said they were

Finally, they reached the rubble of what had been the airport terminal. There was no roof left, and for six hours the snow that had turned to heavy, frigid rain fell on the players as they sat on the floor, waiting to take off. At last, officials sent them back home. Two days later, they went through the same thwarted routine again. 

On the third try, the quartet once again spent five or six hours huddled in the debris of Sarajevo International Airport. This time, they were led aboard a U.N. aircraft that also had no seats. Once again, they sat close to one another to stay warm.

The flight to Zagreb in Croatia lasted just 20 minutes. But what greeted them there might have been a scene from another planet. All four musicians underwent something called “shock from silence,” because during three-and-a-half years of constant explosions in Sarajevo, they had not experienced silence.

When Ihas took her 7-month-old son into their hotel room, he began to wail in terror.

“This child had never seen electricity,” she said.

To quiet him, she took him out for a walk. Close to the hotel she spied a grocery store whose front window was a bounteous display of fresh fruit. Ihas had almost forgotten such delicacies could exist.

“I thought, ‘How on earth is this possible? Twenty minutes by plane.’ In Sarajevo, there is nothing, and here there are blueberries,” Ihas said.

Back at the hotel, she went to wash her hands. Once again, her son began to scream. Never before had he heard the sound of running water.

The following day, the musicians sat for their visa interviews. When the standard question came up — “Do you plan to return to your own country?” — the other three were dumbfounded when the group’s cellist said no. Ihas never saw him again, although in time he was able to join relatives in Canada.

In London, a cellist named Nigel Blomiley agreed to sub for their missing player. The quartet was put up in a townhouse in South London, adjacent to the headquarters of the sponsoring charity. There was no interpreter and no one in the group spoke much English.

“They told us we would play 17 different concerts in many cities, and at the end of the tour they would pay us,” Ihas said.

The coat Ihas was wearing dated from before the onset of the war. The fabric was nearly threadbare, and the lining was in shreds. Ihas had mended it too many times to count. Now she was done with that old thing. With the prospect of some money and some time to shop in London’s famous stores, she promised herself a new coat at the end of the tour.

Ceremoniously, she handed the coat to a housekeeper and asked her to throw it out.

On Tour, the United Kingdom

Along with no interpreter, the host group had not thought to provide childcare for Nizar. At their first concert, a woman in the audience volunteered to walk him outside. As she played, Ihas tried to concentrate on the music, not her son’s loud shrieks.

Every morning, the musicians had breakfast waiting for them at their lodgings. Cigarettes were passed around, and in due course a translator arrived. Juggling the conflicting schedules of rehearsals and her son’s naptime, Ihas always skipped lunch. She had just enough time to pack Nizar and her viola into the van each afternoon at 3 o’clock to travel to that day’s concert venue.

On Good Friday, three days before the group was scheduled to leave London, their hosts said they would be paid the following Monday. At last the musicians had some time to explore London — and for Ihas, to do some shopping at the Easter sales. Only she was broke, and could not buy anything.

At their final breakfast, their hosts presented them with an invoice charging them for transportation, their interpreter, every meal, their visas — even the cigarettes that they thought had been graciously offered to them. In a feat of mathematical gymnastics, the musicians’ expenses exactly equaled the amount they were to have been paid. In other words, they were about to go home just as broke as when they had arrived.

As they prepared to leave, Ihas asked the housekeeper if by any chance she still had her scruffy coat. Luckily, the housekeeper said yes.

Her voice heavy with irony, Ihas noted that the tour had been called “Don’t Forget Bosnia.”

Three-plus years into the war, it seemed, “the world got tired of Bosnia.”

On Tour, Norway

The group returned to Zagreb and played several more concerts before heading to Norway, where they were to be the first-ever international group to perform at Norway Independence Day. Their appearance was intended to be a way to honor Bosnia and the prospect of Bosnian independence.

From the very first moment, the two tours could not have been more different. At the Oslo Airport, Ihas discovered that her luggage had been lost. But the translator — the translator! — who met them at their hotel assured her all would be well. The concert organizers told them they would stay for seven days and play one concert, for 15 minutes, for which they would each be paid 1000 Deutsche Marks (about $1200). 

Walking Ihas to the airline office to file a claim, the translator again told her not to worry about her lost luggage — the sponsors would provide everything she and her son needed in the meantime. The airline expressed profound regrets and handed her a check for $1500. The translator later brought her a bag stuffed with supplies, right down to a concert dress and fancy shoes to match. When Ihas’ suitcase finally showed up, she offered to return the check to the airlines. Oh no, she was told. You must keep this as compensation for your inconvenience.

She laughed as she admitted: She might have done a little shopping at H & M in Oslo.

A Sort of Peace

With the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December  1995, the Bosian War came to an official end. But splitting the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina into two states was only one way in which the accord accentuated ethnic enmities rather than easing them. Tensions between factions in the region boiled to the surface almost immediately, Ihas said.

“In Bosnia, for 500 years it didn’t matter what your last name was,” said Ihas, whose surname was unusual in her country because it came from her Hungarian father.

The fact that her son shared his Muslim father’s surname became a problem right away. Humanitarian groups that poured into Sarajevo to distribute diapers, milk and formula were organized mostly around religious lines. Ihas, a Catholic, went to the Catholic-sponsored group for supplies and was rebuffed because of the boy’s Muslim name. At the Muslim-based aid organization, the child’s Catholic baptismal certificate was grounds for refusal as well.

The Dayton Agreement, however, had made specific provisions to allow Bosnian children born in mixed marriages to relocate to Croatia with their parents.

“I said to my husband, ‘I cannot stay here. You do what you want,’” Ihas said.

The only person Ihas knew in Croatia was one of her former violin teachers. She contacted him, explaining that she needed a place to stay, but had only what little money she had made in Norway. In turn, her former teacher contacted his own father, an elderly man with a cane in a little town called Duga Resa.

With an agreement that she would buy the food and cook, Dijana and her son settled into a small room in the old man’s house, only to discover that at night, the basement became a nightclub for Croatian soldiers. Ihas had seen enough during the war to be terrified. The room she shared with her son had no locks, so every night she barricaded it with a chair.

Three months later, her husband was able to join them. Ihas went to Zagreb to apply for asylum in the United States. A full year later, they found themselves on a charter plane, flying first to Milan, Italy, and then over the Atlantic Ocean. Ihas saw that among their fellow passengers, most came from what she called “disadvantaged” backgrounds. Her heart went out to them.

“To this day, I ask myself, ‘What happened to those people? If I, with a college degree, had so many difficulties, how have they managed?’”

At John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Ihas felt she had stepped into an absurdist drama. She felt insignificant, unable to speak English and lacking any ballast.

“In your home country, you have a homeland, you have a story,” she said. Here, suddenly, she had nothing.

Their small group of refugees marched through the airport, following a woman who led them with a blue plastic rose attached to an umbrella. Ihas had a cousin in Orange County, California, and together with two other Bosnian families they were led to a plane to take them to the West Coast.

Ihas began talking to another young couple with a child. They said they were going to a place called Portland, Oregon.

“We had never heard of this place — Portland or Oregon,” Ihas said.

Being an Immigrant in America

That is what Ihas would like to title the Orange County chapter of her odyssey: “Being an Immigrant in America.”

From the outset, life was difficult.

Ihas and Mirza spoke no English. They could not afford a car, and in any case, neither had a driver’s license. Their life as a family had traumatic beginnings. All Ihas wanted to do was to make a better life for all three of them.

They took adult-education classes in English. Mirza found occasional work painting houses. Through a Croatian doctor to whom they were referred, Ihas befriended an organist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For their first Thanksgiving in America in 1997, the organist brought them to his home in Los Angeles to celebrate with his family.

Through him, she began getting small freelance jobs as a viola player. But the sprawling quality  of the Southern California basin and its spider’s web freeway system sometimes confused Ihas to the point of tears.  She got lost constantly and once arrived sobbing at a rehearsal in San Diego.

She began to see that if she wanted to advance as a musician — and especially if she wanted to be able to support her family — she needed more academic ammunition. A fellow musician in one of the orchestras where she was freelancing advised her to look into the master’s degree program at the University of Southern California.

“So here I am, no clue what the University of Southern California even is,” she said.

She looked through the university’s website and found two viola professors. One of them, Pamela Goldsmith, agreed to talk to Ihas if she would come for an interview at her home in Studio City.

“Where?” Ihas wondered. And then luckily a friend from her adult English classes agreed to drive her to the San Fernando Valley community where Goldsmith lived.

The interview went well. Goldsmith said Ihas could play in the university orchestra in exchange for weekly lessons with Goldsmith.

But then a friend from another of the orchestras Ihas was playing with told her that a public school in Mission Viejo needed a string music teacher. The pay was $150 per month — not much, but the first semblance of a stable income Ihas had been offered since arriving in the U.S.

In the meantime, Ihas and her husband had gone their separate ways. This is a fissure she prefers not to discuss.

As a professor at Pacific University, Ihas gives lessons and performs throughout the region, in this case, in Beaverton. Photo: Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

Soon it became clear to Ihas that teaching would offer her a steadier income than her frenetic life as a freelance orchestra minstrel. Another public school approached her about setting up a chamber music program. Goldsmith suggested she consider the music program at the University of California, Irvine..

Thomas Cockrell, the UCI orchestra director, swiftly became a mentor to Ihas. His wife was Romanian, so he understood something about the politics of Central and Eastern Europe. Ihas was admitted to the master’s program at Irvine with a full scholarship. Cockrell even managed to bend the requirement that Ihas pass the mandatory English-language proficiency test.

Cockrell’s wife, Yvonne Creanga, taught viola and chamber music at UCI. She was also an immigrant, having defected from Romania on a visit to the U.S. when she was 18. Her daughter was the same age as Nizar, and she and Ihas struck up a friendship that continues today.

From the outset, Creanga said by telephone from her home in Tucson, Arizona, what struck her about Ihas was “her very, very focused and dedicated work ethic, her passion to become a better musician.”

Ihas, already an accomplished musician, showed nothing but “humbleness,” Creanga said. Ihas always wanted to learn from the best.

“The standards she imposed on herself, you do not see that often,” Creanga remarked.

UCI set Ihas and her son up in graduate student housing, and enrolled Nizar in the university-sponsored day care program. Ihas was floored by how kind people had been.

“I strongly believe that Americans are just the most wonderful people,” she said. “Not having difficult lives molds people into people who are willing to help, not to have envy.”

Learning by Degrees

As she continued to do work with music students in Orange County public schools, Ihas decided she needed yet another degree, this one in music education. The two best master’s degree programs In that field were at Florida State University and the University of Arizona. Ihas was accepted at both.

But her ex-husband balked at allowing them to move all the way to Florida. So did the judge who heard his complaint.

“And that is how I ended up moving to Tucson and finishing my second master’s,” she said.

Two master’s degrees and a bachelor’s from the Sarajevo Conservatory were not enough. Ihas knew that to make a stable life for herself and her son and to continue a career in music education she needed a doctorate. This time, she thought first about where she wanted to live and more important, where she wanted to raise her son.

On the West Coast, it came down to two schools: The University of Washington and the University of Oregon. The day she visited Eugene, it was pouring. She didn’t care. It was green and she could see living there with her son. 

Besides, she added, “I loved the viola teacher.”

Turns out there was more to love on campus than the viola teacher. While studying for her Ph.D., Ihas met her new husband. Michael Denny is a professor of jazz guitar who has performed with Mary Wells, Eartha Kitt, Della Reese and many other well-known artists.

As it happened, one of the country’s best high school orchestra-education programs was in nearby Salem. Ihas took over the program, and for three straight years the Sprague High School Orchestra won top awards in statewide competitions.

She took the orchestra to New York, even playing a concert in Carnegie Hall.

Then along came an email in 2014 announcing “a job opening at some school I never heard of in my life, Pacific University.” Ihas’ interest was piqued because the university in Forest Grove, Oregon, wanted someone to launch a string-music education program for public school students.

Heart Strings

The offer fell into the category of too-good-to-refuse. Among other benefits, the university offered tuition relief for faculty children. After graduating from Pacific, Ihas’ son, a cellist, earned a master’s in screenwriting from Chapman University in Southern California.

Headed by Ihas, the Pacific University String Project provides stringed-instrument music education for children from second to 12th grade. Pacific University music students act as teachers. Many of the students served by the project come from economically challenged backgrounds.

A bride once more: Ihas and her husband, Michael Denny, a professor of jazz at the University of Oregon. Photo courtesy of Ihas family archives

“I am very passionate about providing equal opportunity music education for disadvantaged kids,” Ihas said. “Two-hundred-and-forty students who would never be able to play musical instruments except for this program.”

In a sense, Ihas is returning the favor given to her when she began studying music in first grade in Bosnia. Her friend Yvonne Creanga, in Tucson, said this is part of an unwritten, but deeply understood impulse for many immigrants.

“People have helped me, so you pay forward,” Creanga said.

In 2018, the Pacific University String Project was named the outstanding string project of the year by the American String Teachers Association.

Mimi Zweig, a professor of music at Indiana University and director of that school’s String Academy, playfully calls Ihas “a walking encyclopedia of string pedagogy.” Ihas has “travelled the world to become as knowledgeable as possible about everything that has to do with string playing,” Zweig said by email. Just as important, Zweig wrote, Ihas puts that information “to invaluable use in her current position.”

Ihas and Denny maintain a commuting marriage, with weekends together in Eugene or Forest Grove. In the summers, Ihas often returns to Bosnia to care for her mother’s grave. Ihas has never stopped being grateful to her mother for guiding her into a life of music.

“To this day, she is my hero,” she said.

Despite the deprivations of war, despite the hardships she and her family endured, Ihas also harbors gratitude to the nation where she grew up.

“I was privileged to be raised in a country that valued education and made high-quality education accessible to everyone,” she said. “In my own little way, I want to provide that opportunity for others.”

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