‘The money for my medical care goes to buy food’

How one Bosnian family got through a tragedy, the pandemic and inflation.

A photo of a very long receipt wrapping around two large floating cogs with a person sitting on one of the cog bumps on the outside.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Rasim Redžić

Age: 43

Occupation: Retired steel factory worker and electrician

Lives with: Wife Emina (36) and son Hamza (14)

Lives in: Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Monthly household income: The family’s combined monthly income for February was 2,000 Bosnian convertible marks (BAM) or $1,078. Following a workplace accident at his last job, Rasim receives a monthly disability pension of 600 BAM ($323), plus 400 BAM ($216) monthly for medical care, which the family uses to buy food. His wife Emina’s monthly income was 1,000 BAM ($539), from her job in the administration department at a steel factory. The average monthly salary in Bosnia and Herzegovina is approximately 1,180 BAM ($636).

Total family expenses for the month: 1,950 BAM ($1,051)

Photos on a wall
A photo memory wall in the hallway of the family's home [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]
A photo memory wall in the hallway of the family's home [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]

Four years ago, Rasim was a busy man. He worked full-time as a shift supervisor in a steel factory in Zenica, a city in the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina; he was a beekeeper selling honey from hives he kept in his home village, Šerići, about 30km (18 miles) away; and in his spare time, he worked as an electrician, doing small repairs to earn extra cash.

His wife Emina, who for a long time worked as a cashier in grocery shops, was unemployed, but Rasim’s different ventures earned them around 1,550 BAM ($835) a month. Even as they paid off the last instalments on a 10-year loan they took out for a studio apartment for them and their son, and used some of his earnings to invest in beekeeping equipment, life was good and fulfilling. They could afford to take day trips every weekend, have barbecues with friends on Saturdays and holiday along the Croatian coastline.

Then one morning in April 2019, everything changed for the family.

A steel factory in Bosnia
The ArcelorMittal steel plant in Zenica [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]

At the ArcelorMittal steel factory where he worked, Rasim was starting his duties for the day. He was checking the heavy machinery, when suddenly, the cylinders trapped his arms, crushing them. It was several minutes before the other workers were able to free him.

Rasim passed out, and when he regained consciousness, he found himself in unbearable pain in a hospital 70km (43 miles) away in the capital, Sarajevo. He had lost his right arm below the elbow, while his left hand was wrapped in bandages, with one finger missing. In the days that followed, his wounds became infected by a bacteria predominantly found in hospitals, and one more finger had to be amputated.

Rasim's friends like to say that he could build a house from scratch all by himself before the accident. Emina says she was never afraid of him losing a job, "because I knew that he could make money using just his hands”.

“But after the accident, that changed.”

With the loss of Rasim’s right arm and two fingers on his left hand, he also lost the ability to work and earn money.

“He was in a very bad state,” Emina recalls of the days just after the accident, while showing a photo of him in his hospital bed.

After they returned home, ArcelorMittal’s management in Zenica decided to organise his transfer to a specialised clinic in Germany, paying for all his treatment. There, German doctors told him that his arm was amputated in a way that is not suitable for modern prosthetics, explaining that the best option was to transplant a muscle from his leg to the part of his amputated arm above the elbow.

After 12 surgeries over the period of a year - most of them done in Germany where Rasim was accompanied by Emina - he finally got a prosthetic for his right arm but still had to learn how to use it. This state-of-the-art technology cost about 100,000 BAM ($53,900), which the company also paid for.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar smaller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Challenges

Soon after his last surgery in Germany, news emerged of a new virus spreading around the world. Even though his stitches had not yet been removed, doctors told Rasim that he would be released earlier than planned due to the COVID pandemic.

The family decided to go back to Bosnia, but upon returning home, new problems emerged. Officials kept them at the airport, demanding that they be quarantined. But Rasim was in excruciating pain because of his wounds from the surgical procedure. So the officials finally decided to let them go home.

But then they learned that their luggage was lost, and with it all the medical supplies the hospital gave them to tend to his wounds. When their suitcase was finally retrieved, the supplies were missing. Meanwhile in Zenica, the local pharmacies did not have what they needed. So they desperately called friends and relatives to help them find supplies. In the end, a cousin who was a nurse gave them bandages and gloves and through friends they found some items in pharmacies across Bosnia.

But that was not the end of Rasim’s struggle.

He faced another obstacle - bureaucracy. In Bosnia, employers have a responsibility to report workplace injuries within 48 hours, but due to a bureaucratic error, his workplace missed this deadline. As a result, his accident was not registered as a workplace injury which had a knock-on effect on how much pension he received. In Bosnia, when someone suffers a workplace injury that causes full disability, the pension they receive is much higher than that of someone who is injured outside the workplace. Rasim was granted only a minimal pension of around 380 BAM ($205) - something the family could not survive on.

ArcelorMittal engaged its team of corporate lawyers to help him fight for a full disability pension. After three months, they won, and Rasim became eligible for a 600 BAM ($323) pension plus a monthly amount of 400 BAM ($216) for medical care.

The company also helped the family with a new apartment and a car adjusted for Rasim to be able to drive. They also offered Emina a job in the administration department.

“In the beginning I wasn’t so sure about taking it, I needed to help Rasim. But it is very hard to find a good job here, it is a pipe dream for many people in Zenica,” explains Emina. So she accepted.

Official statistics show that about 17.5 percent of people in Zenica were unemployed in September of last year.

‘I feel useful’

Emina now works at the factory where her husband used to work. Every morning before leaving home, she prepares food for the day, and helps Rasim go to the bathroom, get dressed and put on his prosthetic arm.

After the accident, Rasim could not hold a cup, spoon, knife or fork so his family would help him to eat and drink. It took him more than two years to be able to do it by himself.

Emina says that at home, they have adjusted things for him, but when he first started to go out again, it was challenging. Now, he often visits the same local coffee shops and restaurants with friends, where the staff know him and help add sugar to his coffee, or swap regular cups and glasses with options that work better for him.

“Also, friends help me to unbutton and button my jacket,” says Rasim, while showing how his prosthetic arm works with a battery and recharger.

As a gesture of gratitude for his friends, Rasim helps them too, by running small errands, like getting their documents endorsed at official institutions. “Since I had to deal with administration a lot, I became very efficient with them. Also, by doing this I feel useful,” he says.

A man holds a trophy with his wife next to him
Rasim proudly shows off an award he received for sport shooting [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]

In his spare time he also practises shooting sports, free of charge, at a local centre. He is just one step away from fulfilling the requirements to participate in the Paralympic games in Paris next year, something he is especially proud of.

Rasim says that everything he has been through has made him stronger and more grateful.

“German doctors and physicians taught me to have a positive mindset. For them, my every step was a big success and they would celebrate it and encourage me to keep going,” he says. “Here, in Bosnia, when I go to visit doctors, they usually chastise me with ‘what did you do to yourself?’. In Germany I was a hero, and here I’m a poor guy to be pitied.”

At home, the family keeps a memory wall in the hallway. There are dozens of photos hanging there to remind them of every successful step Rasim took during his recovery. Among them is an image of him holding a lightbulb with his prosthetic arm for the first time, next to an inspirational quote written on a little board: “You're going to be happy, said life. But first I’ll make you strong.”

It’s a message that got them through his accident and the pandemic, and is now seeing them through the rising cost of living.

Over the course of February 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Rasim tracked his family's monthly expenses with reporter Vedrana Maglajlija. 

Here are the expenses that tested his family's finances the most.

The family's expenses over one month

A couple in Bosnia
Rasim and Emina at home [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]
Rasim and Emina at home [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]

Groceries

Food is the most expensive cost for Rasim’s family. Weekly, they spend around 150 BAM ($81) to buy milk, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, bread, cookies, vegetables and fruit. Since a kilogramme of bananas reached almost 4 BAM ($2.15) they have stopped buying them.

“The price of dairy products has gone up the most. In 2021, one litre of milk cost around 60 cents, now it is $1,35, more than double. Also, 10 eggs now cost $2, double the price before inflation,” says Emina.

Rasim says meat is now a luxury for them. Earlier, the family would eat meat twice a week, and on Saturdays they would go barbecuing with friends. Now, they only buy meat once or twice a month.

Monthly they also buy some rice, pasta, coffee, oil, flour, sugar, salt and some spices. Emina adds that occasionally they get some healthy food, like almonds and raisins, for their son Hamza.

They both agree that, before, they didn’t pay much attention to how much food they bought and how much it cost. “Before, when we went to buy groceries, if I buy one bottle of oil, Rasim would put two more, to stock up just in case. Now he takes things out from the basket.”

For the same amount they spend on groceries weekly, they used to be able to buy several bags to last them two or three weeks, they say.

Now, they have to use the 400 BAM ($216) amount Rasim gets for medical care - intended for hiring a professional to help him with his daily life - in order to pay for part of their food bill. Rasim does not need any special medications since his wounds from the amputation are now healed, and he doesn’t have any other medical conditions, so the family feels using the money for food is more essential. To save on the cost of a hired professional, Rasim’s family assists him with dressing, bathing and eating.

December 2021: 400 BAM ($216)* 
February 2023: 650 BAM ($350) 

Hygiene and cleaning products
Hygiene and cleaning products are an essential expense for Rasim's family [Courtesy of Rasim Redžić]

Hygiene and cleaning products

Rasim’s family spends about 250 BAM ($135) monthly for regular household cleaning and personal hygiene products. Official data from the national statistics agency shows that these products are 12.2 percent more expensive now than in 2021.

“It is not luxury, we have to buy shampoos, soap, shower gel, shaving cream, razor blades, creams, detergent and products to clean the house. This is something that every family needs,” says Emina.

Rasim now also needs more cream products to rub gently on his arm skin that was transplanted from his leg. He explains that it is a very thin layer of skin that needs constant care. For cream he usually pays 10 BAM ($5.40).

Rasim has also stopped going to barber salons. Instead, the family made an investment and bought an electric hair clipper, so Emina can now shave his head and beard. They say this helps them save about 30 BAM ($16) a month.

December 2021: 200 BAM ($108)*
February 2023: 250 BAM ($135) 

A man with a prosthetic arm starts a car
Rasim drives an automatic car, which uses a button to start it [Vedrana Maglajlija/Al Jazeera]

Fuel

Before rising inflation, Rasim would use the money he earned working as an electrician to buy fuel. He says he would fill up a tank for 50 BAM ($27) and drive for a long time. Now, for the same amount of money, he gets only a quarter tank.

Because of the extra expense, he now limits trips back to Šerići, the village where he was born and where his parents live, 30km (18 miles) away from Zenica. Rasim explains that before he would need about 15 BAM ($8) for one trip there and back. Now, it costs 20 BAM ($11). To save on fuel, the family also doesn't go on day trips to the capital every weekend any more.

Rasim also has to travel to service his prosthetic arm. Since it was not possible to do this in Sarajevo, recently they had to travel twice to Croatia, 330km (205 miles) away - first to leave the prosthetic at the authorised service provider and get the replacement arm, and a second time to collect his prosthetic.

For Rasim, driving a car is very important and he does not want to give that up. During his recovery from the accident, he couldn’t drive so he would ask his friends to drive him around. Then, when he managed to learn to use his prosthetic arm more efficiently, his son would start the car for him because Rasim couldn’t hold the keys. Eventually, ArcelorMittal covered the cost of a 10-year-old automatic car, with a button to start it.

“I think that the moment when he finally turned the car by himself and started to drive was the happiest moment in his life after the accident. I’ve never seen him that happy,” Emina recalls.

Rasim says he thought that he would never be able to drive again. So when he succeeded, the feeling was unbelievable. He adds that he loves driving because it is the only time he feels like everyone else: “Nobody knows I'm a person with disabilities when I’m in the car.”

December 2021: 230 BAM ($124)*
February 2023: 300 BAM ($162)

A pile of t-shirts
The family now only buys clothes on sale [Courtesy of Rasim Redžić]

Clothing

This month, Emina bought some clothes during the winter sale season. All were purchased at 40 percent off. For two T-shirts, a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt they paid about 110 BAM ($59). Before, she says they would buy anything they liked, even if it was not strictly necessary. Now, they only buy what they need, and shop at sales or in outlet stores.

“Before I would buy myself boots for the winter. I would give 200 BAM ($108) for high-quality shoes I could wear for many seasons. Now we buy shoes at the outlet. Recently I paid 30 BAM ($16) for boots in the outlet,” she says.

Some of Rasim’s clothes have to be adjusted by a tailor now, as he cannot button his trousers by himself. These alterations mean extra cost.

Additionally, as Hamza is a rapidly growing teenager, they need to buy him clothes more often. He also needs clothes for his athletic training - he goes running and jumping at a stadium three times a week - for which they pay 25 BAM ($13,50) a month to a local club.

“Before I loved to buy books and read them. Now I would rather give that money for my son’s training,” she says.

December 2021: 160 BAM ($86)* 
February 2023: 200 BAM ($108)

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Recreation and going out

Sometimes, when Emina and Hamza are not home, Rasim has to eat out because he is not able to cut up food well on his own. But since going out got so expensive, they try to reduce it to a bare minimum.

Before inflation, they would often go to the cinema to watch a movie as a family, but now that would cost around 50 BAM ($27) for tickets, drinks and popcorn, so they have had to forgo that. They also used to go to Sarajevo every weekend, to walk, eat and shop, which they no longer do.

They don’t gather for picnics with their friends any more, either. Before the cost of living crisis, 10 of them would meet together with their children, to eat, drink and go sightseeing. It would cost them all together around 80 BAM ($43). Now, just for their family of three, that would cost 50 BAM ($27).

Since he is not working, Rasim often goes out to a local cafe to drink coffee, which is a kind of cultural ritual for many Bosnians. Before, a cup of coffee was $1; now it is more than double that.

Hamza, who will soon turn 15, sometimes goes out socially with his friends and needs an allowance for those outings. Emina says that he also gets money for snacks when he goes to school.

December 2021: 300 BAM ($162)* 
February 2023: 200 BAM ($108)

Food in a grocery bag
Going out is expensive, so the family eats at home more often [Courtesy of Rasim Redžić]

Five quick questions for Rasim

1. What is one thing you had to forgo this month? It was my birthday this month. Usually we would go out with our friends, but now we stayed home.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? Everything we spend on our son is a worthwhile expense. We would rather forgo buying something for ourselves, so he could get what he needs.

3. When finances get tough - what advice do you have and what gets you through the difficult times? I just remember my worst days. We only have what we earn on our credit cards, even though the bank wanted to give us a higher limit. We don’t want to be in the negative balance. We never borrow money from others. Our motto is to spend only what we have and to try to save something, and that is rare.

4. What is your biggest money worry? The warranty for my prosthetic arm expires after three years, which will be soon. After that, the option is to buy an additional extended two-year warranty, but we don’t have the money for that. So soon, every break will be at our cost, out of pocket. And we know the costs - for example, the charger is 3,000 BAM ($1,617), and the battery is around 6,000 BAM ($3,234). The rubber on the finger is already damaged; to fix it, it costs 800 BAM ($431). Cracking in the pads of fingers are visible also, so I put duct tape around them. But, there is another issue ahead of us. Usually the amputated parts, like my hand, change after some time, so the mould of the prosthetic arm should also be adjusted to that. I was supposed to see a doctor to check that, but I didn’t. It would cost us around 15,000 BAM ($8,085) to change the mould. Also, our son will go on a holiday excursion this summer, before enrolling in high school. That trip to North Macedonia will cost us 300 BAM ($162) plus money he will need for food and other expenses. That is a huge financial worry for us. The car is also one of my main concerns. If something breaks, it is very hard to cover that with our monthly income.

5. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? Recently, a cable in my car broke, so I watched a tutorial on YouTube and with the help of a friend, fixed it. If I went to the mechanic, this would probably cost around 150 BAM ($81).

*Last year's prices were sourced from Rasim and family.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera