When the Puric family touched down in Detroit 17 years ago Saturday, it was not the land of milk, honey and palm trees that the kids had seen on TV. Instead, riding in a van from the airport through the streets of Hamtramck, MI, reality set in: this quiet, blue-collar town was the America they’d be calling home.
A then 12-year-old Vildana Puric spoke no English, nor did her siblings. But they’d spent the past three years on the run, after being uprooted from their home in Donji Purici, Bosnia, from the war and ethnic cleansing that tore apart the old Republic of Yugoslavia. Now, a star of middays at WPGC-FM, she goes by “Sunni” and her popularity across the DMV is well-established.
She’s held down the 10 a.m.-2 p.m. timeslot since 2011, and as a Ciroc Vodka brand representative, has made her mark on the city’s social scene. Her Divine Saturdays at Cafe Asia live broadcasts routinely draw big stars and has put the Asian fusion restaurant club back on the map for D.C.’s party circuit. In just two years, her face has become synonymous with the urban socialite scene. But it wasn’t always that way for girl who grew up in a town that’s not even on Google maps.
And her desire to give back to the area’s underserved communities comes from more than just a desire to spread goodwill. Sunni does it because she used to be in a similar position and knows that pain.
She still calls herself a country girl, looking back on her days as a kid in rural Bosnia. And when religious differences caused internal strife in the small town of less than 200, her family was forced to literally head for the hills. From there, they escaped to the larger town of Velika Kladusa, closer to the Croatian border.
“We had a TV, we didn’t have a phone. You had two channels maybe,” Sunni said. “We were outside. I broke every bone in my body climbing trees and playing around. To me, my childhood was so fun, because we were always outside. … I’d never even seen a computer before I came here.”
Her dad was drawn away from the family to fight on the side of the Bosnian Muslims who were then becoming targets of genocide. After a few months with their cousins, it was time to go again. This time, across the border to Croatia, along with thousands of others fleeing the oncoming fighting. As a nine-year-old, life suddenly became a lot more real.
At the time, the deluge of refugees into Croatia meant that large groups were forced to just set up shop on abandoned roadways, sometimes amid villages that had been part of war years earlier. At the first stop, Puric said they were warned not to leave the roads they were stopped on, because nearby fields among houses were laden with land mines. Not everyone followed the rules.
“So our people started moving, and going into some of the homes, they started branching off,” she said of the area in Turnje by Karlovac, Croatia. “And people were like losing their legs, getting killed, because there were all these land mines everywhere and we didn’t know about it.”
The next 3 years would forever shape how a young Sunni would view the world. Breaks in fighting allowed them return to their cousins’ town of Velika Kladusa, Bosnia. But as others settled back into their lives, the Puric family were outsiders in their own land. They spoke the language, but lived in an attic they were loaned by a cousin’s neighbor. It was the first time that Sunni realized she was different.
“We were so embarrassed, because this was a city, and we were from the village,” she said. “So the kids would tease us and we were the only kids that had to walk and get water.”
The family was sent away to a second camp soon after. First, they slept in a barn on the side of the road. Then aid groups brought them tents. They made do. With no running water, her dad built a stove out of bricks and metal, inside of their tent.
“He cut a whole in the top, put up a little chimney part and we cooked and lived in the space that like not bigger than this right here,” Puric, 29, said Wednesday, referring to the four-by-ten foot space behind the microphone in the studio in which she works, now. “Five of us. I just don’t get how that happened, but it did.”
The next year meant a move to another refugee camp, this time something more akin to a trailer park. The Puric family’s life became dependent on handouts. She once had a molar pulled with no novacane in a tent because there were no other options. It’s something Sunni has not forgotten, and never will. “All the camps, you have to wait for everything. You want breakfast, you go wait for breakfast. You want lunch, you wait in line to get your lunch. They were organized so they kind of gave you a little pass where it says how many family members you have and that’s how much food they’re going to give you,” she said. “At some point, I was like, what’s going to happen to us. Because it was just like, you don’t know.”
When the State Department started organizing programs for refugees to come to the United States, her father enrolled them. But it came at the cost of a trying and potentially humiliating process. They were asked by officials if they’ve ever seen their father kill a man or shoot at anyone. Sunni surmised they were trying to determine if her dad was a terrorist. Nonetheless, they passed.
Hamtramck, MI, is a small working class city with few bells and whistles. It is also one of Michigan’s most diverse cities, according to Census figures: 41 percent the city’s population is foreign born. But young Sunni didn’t want to fit in with the many other Bosnians she knew that had been sent there prior to her family, which included her father’s brother. She wanted to feel American.
Her family had another family living above them in their allotted house and they were on welfare when they first arrived. The ready availability of food meant she and her siblings pigged out on candy that used to be rationed strictly before. They were determined to learn English. And they did so they way so many Americans do, too: by watching television.
“I wanted to be American so bad. I wanted to just fit in. I hated my accent, I had a really thick foreign accent,” Sunni said. By the next summer, 8th grade she was fluent in English. “They had the foreign kids in the basement part [of her school], and then the regular kids were at the 1st floor. In my little head, I was like ‘I have to get to the 1st floor, this is where the regular kids are.’”
After high school, in which she’d taken one radio class that she didn’t like, her older sister got her a job at the medical office she worked at. But Sunni, squeamish about blood, spent most of her time hiding in the X-Ray room, listening to the radio, specifically WJLB-FM. She landed an internship and from there, her career took off. Going then by SunShyne, she did a stint in Lansing, MI, then back to Detroit at two different stations.
Then, just like so many other times in her life. She packed up and moved. First Miami, then New York. She had followed a friend, who now runs the popular celebrity blog Necole Bitchie. That’s when CBS Radio came calling. In December 2010, Reggie Rouse, VP of Urban Programming contacted Sunni.
“I knew that he was based in Atlanta, and in my head I’m like, “please don’t say Atlanta. I don’t want to move to Atlanta. I’m never going to get married in Atlanta. It has the most gay men,” she joked of the city that has recently held that reputation. “I’m never going to find a man, I’m always going to be single. That’s the first thing I thought. I need to go somewhere where I can find a husband. But, they invited me here.”
Looking out over a Martin Luther King Junior Highway in Lanham, the Ciroc promotional girl reflected over how it all came to this. Wearing a “Don’t Be A Bama” long sleeve tshirt and jeans, she explains that her past has led her to slow down the partying and increase the charity work. Last year, along with Tiffanie Wagner, Puric brought the HashTagLunchBag movement to D.C., and along with working with numerous other charity organizations, occasionally throws impromptu givewaway events during the holidays or when it gets particularly cold.
“I’ve actually been through it. So, when we had the polar vortex here, and I just tweeted, hey let’s meet here on this corner and bring blankets. I know exactly what it’s like to be homeless and to be cold, and not to have a blanket and not to have food. I know exactly how that feels,” Puric, less than a month from 30, explained. “ I appreciate that alot of people trust me, especially on social media. People will give. If I say hey, we should do this guys, it’s going to be 2 degrees, people will actually support and show up. I think that’s where it started. When I first moved here I didn’t know anybody other than Big Tigger. And I was just like, I think the best thing I can do is just start doing charity. And I’ll get to know people. It’s a great thing to do, but then once I started it and saw the impact that we can actually have, it’s just second nature.”
Her latest push, dubbed 30 for 30 for the days of the month counting down to her birthday, holds a special place in her heart. In conjunction with UNICEF USA, she’s hoping to raise money. “I remember UNICEF being that organization that helped us so much. They were the ones dropping off the clothes and bringing us the food and vaccines and stuff. I just always remember as a kid seeing them with their trucks and their staff was really helpful,” Sunni recalled. “This is really meaningful for my 30th.”
As for all the moving that has defined her life, she hopes that’s close to over. She feels at home here in D.C. “It’s been a long road to get here. And I love D.C. so much. I don’t ever want to leave. I am here. Like, put me on a bus give me a little microphone and I’ll take people on tours. I love D.C.,” she said of the area. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
But, there is one last relocation in the cards. This summer, she’ll be moving from Prince George’s County in to the District. She’s excited about it, but has one last hurdle she’ll have to tackle before she can truly call herself a local.
“I’ve never ridden Metro,” she said matter of factly before her air shift ended. “Not once.”