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'It's not just a backpack': Local woman credits gift she received as a youngster for her later success

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Irma Ciber was a recipient of the first community school supply drive 19 years ago. Now an executive assistant with Border States Electric, she donates to and volunteers with the United Way of Cass Clay whenever possible. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 3
Irma Ciber, right, is pictured with her sister Dijana sometime after being burned in a gas explosion in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Special to The Forum3 / 3

FARGO—Irma Ciber experienced déjà vu while volunteering with co-workers at the United Way's 19th annual school supply drive here last August.

She did the math in her head and realized she and her sister, a middle-schooler and kindergartner, respectively, and new to the country at the time, were recipients at the first backpack event put on by the non-profit in 1998.

"I remember going with our social worker. I remember helping out and receiving a backpack at the same time," Ciber said.

The small act of kindness went a long way for a child who experienced the hell of war in her native Bosnia, was seriously burned in a gas explosion and lost her mother not long after.

It helped fuel the teenager who went on to graduate from Fargo South High School and later North Dakota State University.

And it continues to motivate the woman, now 34, who lives with her fiancée and two children in Moorhead and works as an executive assistant at Border States Electric.

Ciber wants to help others dealing with adversity to find a glimmer of hope, like the United Way program did for her.

"A backpack that looks good and you got all your stuff in there, the things you need for your first day, it meant everything," Ciber said.

Since then, through generous donations, the United Way has distributed more than 66,000 backpacks to local K-12 students, according to marketing director Kristina Hein.

"You think about the things [Ciber's] been through in her life and she wants to turn that into a positive," Hein said.

'It was mass chaos'

Born in Sarajevo, Ciber was 8 and sister Dijana was just 2 when civil war broke out in Bosnia.

She remembers the shelling that often kept children out of school, and prompted her family to move from house to house in the middle of the night, searching for a sturdier building.

She recalls her father serving as a soldier, and the times she overheard her mother saying she wished she would die-- that she just couldn't cope with the fear and uncertainty.

"Those are painful words to hear from your own mother," Ciber said, her voice choking.

With no electricity and winter approaching, family and friends installed gas lines as a way to generate heat in their home.

A gas leak from an ill-fitted pipe made itself known not long after, when a young Irma woke one night to use the bathroom and her mother struck a match to light a candle.

"I just remember a flash, a loud sound. It was like so sudden. It was mass chaos," Ciber said.

The gas explosion seriously injured the girls and critically injured their mother.

Their burns were first treated at a hospital in Bosnia, but infections set in, prompting all three to be evacuated to a hospital in Italy.

The night they arrived, the girls' mother died from her injuries. She was just 38 years old.

Scars 'show my strength'

Ciber and her sister spent about six months in the hospital and endured multiple surgeries.

Her most visible scars are on her hands, which she used to hide from people. But no more.

"They're a part of my past, but they show my strength too," Ciber said.

With their father still serving as a soldier, Ciber and her sister were adopted by a couple in Italy, with whom she's still in contact.

The girls' father eventually left Bosnia to find them, an act that stripped him of any accolades he earned in the war.

"He felt we belonged in his care," Ciber said.

However, her father only struggled as the years went on, saddled with grief over the loss of his wife and struggling to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The girls ended up in foster care in Fargo and Ciber is now her father's primary caregiver.

Her father bears many psychological scars from the family's time in Bosnia during the war.

"We don't talk about it," she said.

'A lot of goodness'

Ciber and her sister came to the U.S. with the help of Lutheran Social Services and settled in Fargo, where several aunts and uncles had already immigrated.

A few years after the arrival, she had the fateful experience with the United Way's school supplies program.

She gives credit to the community for any successes she's achieved.

"There is a lot of goodness, a lot of good hearts out here. I wouldn't be where I'm at today if it wasn't for those folks," she said.

The United Way plans a special celebration in August to mark the 20th year of the backpack program, and Hein hopes donors will be moved to continue helping children in need.

"We hope they see the potential, that it's not 'just' a backpack," Hein said.