As her senior Housemates rose from their chairs and chanted “Peljto, Peljto,” Harvard’s 6’2” Bosnian-born basketball star accepted Mather House’s Von Stade award, presented annually at Mather’s senior dinner.
“For her ready smile and bright personality in the face of challenges. For beating records and amassing honors with humility and grace,” the dedication read.
Many in the audience that day applauded the graceful, blond-haired woman they knew as the affable, professional-basketball bound senior who always had time for a smile and a quick chat.
But because she doesn’t often talk about it, not everyone knew the full extent of the challenges Hana Peljto ’04 had faced and defeated in the 22 years since she was born to Emina and Haso Peljto in the Dobringa neighborhood of Sarajevo.
It’s been a long road for Peljto. In 1992, she hid in a basement shelter narrowly missed by artillery rounds. Days later, she and her family escaped the war in Bosnia in a car that kept running out of gas, making it through military check-points on a pre-dawn spring morning and eventually arriving in Slovenia, where Hana first learned basketball.
Frustrated with the limited opportunities as refugees in Slovenia, the Peljto family left for Canada after two-and-a-half years of financial struggling. When Haso Peljto found work as a software engineer in Minneapolis a year later, the family moved to the U.S. hoping to earn citizenship.
Hana, then 15, enrolled in Osseo High school, where she excelled at academics and served as vice president of the student senate. On the basketball court, Hana led Osseo to a state championship her senior year. Then it was on to Harvard, where many consider her among the best female basketball players ever to wear the Crimson H.
After excelling in her harrowing, globe-trotting adventure, friends say nothing seems to faze Peljto or disrupt her friendly demeanor, even the pressures of life as a student-athlete at Harvard.
“I actually can’t think of a time when she seemed too stressed or upset to smile and ask about you,” says Adam M. Abramson ’04, a friend since freshman year.
Abramson’s roommate Patrick T. Salyer ’04, a men’s junior varsity basketball player, also remembers meeting Peljto as a first-year.
“She stopped, threw a smile my way, and took the time to stop and talk. Four years later, she’s never been to busy to stop and chat for awhile,” Salyer says. “Basically, Hana is one of the most selfless people I know.”
Her selflessness on the basketball court has elevated her team, and under Peljto’s leadership Harvard has dominated the Ivy League, winning two titles during Peljto’s four seasons here. Peljto herself earned Ivy League Player of the Year honors twice and was a four-time first-team All-Ivy selection.
On the court, according to teammate Beverly C. Moore ’04, Peljto will do whatever is necessary to help the team win “whether it means scoring no points or scoring 40 in one game. She does so much and doesn’t need a lot of credit for it.”
Moore points to the struggles Peljto and her family have undergone as explanations for Peljto’s relentless work ethic and intense focus on the court.
These qualities, Peljto hopes, will propel her to success in European professional basketball—she recently signed with Cavigal Nice, a club based in Nice, France—and perhaps ultimately to the WNBA.
Peljto, who currently speaks four languages, hopes that living in France will allow her to perfect her French. While playing in Europe, Peljto won’t enjoy the same level of support from her parents, who flew from Minneapolis to Boston nine or ten times this season for home games.
Without her family nearby, Peljto says she hopes to remember her background by using her language skills to help other Bosnian immigrants and refugees.
Like her mother, Peljto hopes to open an interpreting service to help Bosnians communicate with Europeans and Americans.
After playing professionally in France for a few years, Peljto hopes to return to the U.S. for business school.
Journeying overseas and beginning a new life is nothing new for Peljto. Along with the resiliency she learned as a child in Bosnia, Peljto will bring with her numerous athletic awards, a piece of the Harvard women’s basketball record book and a diverse group of friends inspired by her positive spirit and cheerful demeanor.
—Staff writer William M. Rasmussen can be reached at email@example.com.