From refugee Camp to Hollywood: NEW VOICES Winners Damir and Dario Konjicija Who Write for 'The Great Indoors' on Their Journey and the Immigration Ban
Damir and Dario Konjicija came to the United States from a refugee center in the Czech Republic. Now they're living the Hollywood dream.
The brothers were swept out of war-torn Bosnia with their mother when they were children, eventually landing in Louisville, Ky.
After years of effort and immersion in American pop culture, they found their way to the writers room of the CBS sitcom "The Great Indoors," where this week they watched the filming of their second episode as co-writers.
Damir and Dario — now 29 and 33, respectively — remain grateful for their good fortune, which has been on their mind in light of the recent executive order banning refugees from certain countries from entry into the U.S.
"We've been very reflective this week," says Damir.
Although Bosnia is not on the current list, if it had been, Damir says, "We think, man, in that moment in time, had that ban been in place, what would our life be like now? I doubt we would have been television writers. I doubt we would've gotten as far as we have. We can't help but see those photos of those mothers and children and they look like my mom, they look like Dario and me. It's been disheartening."
Below, in a conversation edited for length, the brothers discuss their journey and the parallels they see with the current refugee crisis.
How old were you guys when you left Bosnia?
Damir: I was 5.
Dario: I was 9 when the war started.
There were a certain amount of buses that were leaving for various hosting countries across Europe, and we were lucky enough to get on one of those six months into the war.
Were you with your parents?
Dario: It was us and our mom, our dad had to stay behind. If you were a male over the age of 18 and you didn't have any disabilities you had to stay and contribute to the war effort.
Damir: Just to give you some context, I think everyone was in disbelief that this was happening. Sarajevo is quite the modern city; I remember one woman boarded the bus in alligator boots. I think everybody was in denial. We all thought, "This will be for a few months." No one could have predicted it was going to last for the next three years and so many atrocities would happen.
Dario: I just remember women and children being packed onto the bus and for the last couple hours of the journey they played "Dirty Dancing" on the television screen. We pulled up in front of the refugee center and none of the women wanted to get out until they saw the final dance.
Damir: We pulled into this worn-down motel that they had converted into a refugee center. It was about 40 women and then like 60 or 70 kids and they put each family in a room and some families had to double up, so all of a sudden you had roommates. We were lucky, there were two of us so we got our own room.
They tried their best to keep us entertained. I think really what helped us keep our sanity was this old television set they brought in. We became the original TV bingers. We started watching poorly dubbed episodes of everything from "Growing Pains" to "Seinfeld" to "Wonder Years." Kevin Arnold became the third Konjicija brother.
Dario: "Who Shot J.R.?" was really big in the Czech Republic.
Damir: We bounced around a few refugee centers for a couple years, and then when the war ended in '95 we were given two more years in the Czech Republic of the government essentially supporting us. Then our parents had an option: go back to Bosnia or find a way to seek refuge in another country, and obviously America was the beacon.
We went through an extremely intense vetting process that lasted about a year and half. Twice a month we had to go to Prague to various different embassies and then, luckily, in 1997 we received a letter in the mail. It was sort of like that "You're going to Hollywood!" "American Idol"-style ["golden ticket"]. I remember us jumping up and down in our little apartment. There was such excitement then opening up that envelope and seeing you're heading to Louisville, Ky.. We'd never heard of it, Dario remembered there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Prague. That was the only context we had.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue TV writing?
Dario: I was obsessed with the show "Seinfeld." We didn't have stand-up in Eastern Europe, and when I would see Jerry doing his set before the show started I never understood what that was. So when I was 18 I started doing it. I had a pretty thick accent, but by my 20s I started getting some paid gigs and that was my foray into show business. Soon I discovered I liked writing jokes more than performing in front of strangers and getting heckled.
Damir: Meanwhile, I was getting my BFA in theater [from the University of Illinois]. I thought I was going to be an actor-slash-writer. We made a pact after I finished college in 2009 that we would move to L.A. About a year later we packed up our cars and drove out together.
We didn't have any contacts. We quickly realized we're really going to have to write our way in. We were just in this sad one-bedroom apartment we were both sharing and we didn't know anybody. All we could do was write.
And just this past week you had an episode filmed in your first season as staff writers?
Damir: It's been trying in the sense that in the same week where we're working on our second episode here's this ban that now … is going to make it impossible for other refugees to come.
Dario: Nobody chooses to become a refugee, it's an unfortunate thing that happens to you. And the only silver lining, if you will, is that there are other countries that are going to help out and take you in. I can only imagine being a Syrian child in need of escape and a new home and all these countries are shutting their doors.
When we lived in Czech Republic for five years, we never felt like we were fully Czech citizens. We always knew our place: we were refugees, we were foreigners. I will say in America, at the time, what was beautiful about it is once we moved here, everyone just accepted you as American. That was very refreshing, they weren't protective of their nationality.
That seems like such a striking difference from the climate right now.
Damir: Everyone's circumstance is different. We understand the fact, you know, we're from Bosnia. We're white men. I think our experience as white refugees might have been different had we been from Rwanda or from a different country. We can only speak from our perspective.
But I can honestly say that in Kentucky where you'd think, "It's a Southern state, people might be a little hesitant," we felt nothing but acceptance.