Nela Hasic has received two fateful phone calls from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The first likely saved her life. The second enabled her to help save the lives of countless other women.

Hasic is the director of the Women’s Health Empowerment Project in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The organization, a partnership between JDC and Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has had a major impact on breast cancer awareness and treatment in a part of the world where open discussion of the disease has traditionally been taboo. WHEP, which began in the mid-1990s and has grown significantly in the past decade, also operates in Hungary and Russia.

As might be expected, October, breast cancer awareness month, is a busy period for Hasic. Still, she spoke by phone with The Times of Israel about her organization’s work not only this month, but all year round.

We caught up with Hasic as she was making last-minute preparations for WHEP’s annual flagship event, Race for the Cure, which took place in Sarajevo’s Vilsonovo Setaliste Park on October 5. More than 5,500 people joyfully participated in the 5 kilometer walk/run, including 500 breast cancer survivors wearing pink Race for the Cure T-shirts. They traveled to Sarajevo from 42 cities and towns all over Bosnia and Herzegovina for the gathering.

The race is one of the only events organized on a national level that brings all Bosnians together — Muslim, Serbs, Croats and Jews — in a country that has not yet fully recovered from its devastating civil war, which took place between 1992 and 1995.

It was at the outbreak of the war that Hasic, now 49, received her first fateful phone call from JDC. In April 1992, she was contacted by the JDC and told that she, her family, and other Bosnian Jews would be airlifted to safety and taken to Israel.

“They told me I had one hour to get to the airport. I was surprised. I wasn’t ready to leave. I didn’t believe it was really a war,” Hasic recalls. Her family has roots in Sarajevo going back 500 years to the Spanish Inquisition, and she couldn’t imagine leaving, but her father, a Holocaust survivor, convinced her to flee.

Participants in this year's Race for the Cure in Sarajevo. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDC)

Participants in this year’s Race for the Cure in Sarajevo. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDC)

“I took my two children (who were three and five at the time) and my handbag and we left,” she says. “I thought we’d be back soon.”

They evacuated together with her father and her sister and brother and their families. However, Hasic’s husband, who is Muslim, stayed behind to protect their home and small graphic printing business. Her husband eventually made it out with a JDC convoy in October 1992, and the family was reunited in Budapest, continuing on from there to Israel.

The family’s adjustment to life in Israel was challenging.

“We came with literally nothing,” Hasic shares. They lived for a few years in an absorption center in Mevasseret Zion, and Hasic learned Hebrew in ulpan and worked as a house cleaner, while her husband worked at an Egged bus gas station. Eventually, the family moved to Rehovot, where Hasic got a job at a major Israeli chain clothing store, working her way up to store manager.

In 2002, Hasic decided she missed Sarajevo too much to stay in Israel. Her father had died in Israel in 1997 and her brother and sister were by then back in Bosnia.

“We went back to Bosnia, but it was a hard decision,” Hasic admits. “Our kids were already real Israeli teenagers.”

No sooner had Hasic returned to her native country did she doubt her decision. “Very soon I regretted it,” she says. “The Bosnia I had in my head had been the Bosnia from before the war. We came back to a destroyed country.”

Hasic struggled for a couple of years to find her place. “It was like being an olah chadashah [new immigrant] all over again, only this time I knew the language.”

Just when Hasic was considering returning to Israel, she got the second fateful call from JDC, the one asking her to start up WHEP in Bosnia.

“My knowledge of breast cancer was the knowledge of an average woman,” she recalls. But Hasic is sharp, and it didn’t take her long to become expert not only on breast cancer, but also on building a nationwide network of NGO’s to support women with breast cancer diagnoses and to educate the public about the disease.

“I knew the mentality we were up against,” she says. “Breast cancer attacks women as a female, as a wife, as a daughter, as a mother, but it’s been taboo to talk about it.”

Maja Memic (left), and friend, in their pink breast cancer survivor shirts, celebrate at the Race for the Cure. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDC)

Maja Memic (left), and friend, in their pink breast cancer survivor shirts, celebrate at the Race for the Cure. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDC)

Maja Memic, a 55-year-old two-time breast cancer survivor from Mostar knows first hand the detrimental effects of that taboo. “I felt really bad because I was keeping the fact I was sick a secret,” she tells The Times of Israel.

“My children were unaware of my sickness and I had to choose my words carefully in order to spare them from trauma. My appearance didn’t change, because I was on a mild chemotherapy dose so my hair didn’t fall out. I would say I’m going to a regular checkup when I was in fact going to chemotherapy sessions. I felt great guilt.”

Hasic, however, is not one to let cultural convention stand in her way. Since 2005, the number of breast cancer NGOs in WHEP’s national network has grown from one to 23. In the past eight years, 2,200 women have received psychological support through 13 WHEP-created peer support groups, and tens of thousands of people (including many high school and university students) have received breast cancer awareness education.

In a country without adequate breast cancer screening technology, WHEP has enabled thousands of women to receive free mammography screenings and medical checkups, and has distributed more than 4,000 first aid packages to breast cancer patients in hospitals.

WHEP has also been a leading convener of thousands of members of the national and regional medical community, bringing them together at seminars and conferences to get updates on the latest research, share information, and work on a collaborative approach toward breast cancer awareness, prevention and treatment.

Hasic contends that the very public, high-profile nature of Race for the Cure is key to WHEP’s efforts. “It’s important to have a big, public event,” she says.

Nermin Music (right) runs in honor of his mother, a breast cancer survivor. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDC)

Nermin Music (right) runs in honor of his mother, a breast cancer survivor. (photo credit: Courtesy of JDC)

Nermin Music, 20, from the small town of Brcko agrees. His mother, Ramiza, is a breast cancer survivor. “I’ve been taking part in the race for the last six years. [He won in 2010.] I’m doing it for my mother and for all of the women in the world who are taking on this disease, because it sparks a fighting spirit in me — similar to the one my mother had in her when she came face to face with the disease,” he says.

He’s frustrated by the fact that people still think a breast cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence. “I would love for people to be aware of the fact that this disease has a cure, and that early detection is so important.”

Hasic is especially proud that WHEP’s work brings Bosnians of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds together. She admits it’s not always easy. “This is a divided country both ethnically and administratively,” she notes. “You need to be a leader and get people to trust you.”

Hasic says being part of the Jewish minority — and not one of the Balkan country’s three “constituent peoples” (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) — is actually an advantage in the breast cancer advocacy field.

“Everyone feels equal and secure in the environment we have created. We don’t give the floor to religion or other differences,” she says. “Women’s health is our agenda.”