I was born in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. My family fled to Chicago, Illinois, right after my seventh birthday. I could say that most of what I remember from my childhood occurred in Chicago; my memories from Bosnia became more distant as I embraced my life in America. The first time I returned to Bosnia was 13 years after leaving my hometown of Srebrenica, in the summer of 2013. However, I only spent a week and a half there, not nearly enough time to reconnect with my past and to explore my mother country. I was privileged enough to return this past summer (summer 2014) to study the Bosnian language through a FLAS fellowship from the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. This opportunity exposed me to the beauty of the Balkan region, Bosnia’s mentality and the dissipating energy from the war.
Bosnia was very different from what I had imagined it to be. I was looking forward to living with a host family, which I hoped would allow me to expand my circle of friends. Indeed, I did establish new friendships and became exposed to the daily life of many Bosnians from different socioeconomic backgrounds. In my first week there, I came to a realization that a “middle class” who lives moderately was very rare. There was a strong divide between the haves and have-nots. I either came across individuals and families that were well-off and chose to brag about their prosperity, or those that earned just enough to get by and complained about their circumstances. The stark division between the two highlighted the country’s economic issues. The corruption and disorderly political structure affected every facet of life. Those that earned a “good” salary by Bosnian standards were unsatisfied because they felt that they should be earning more by global comparisons. Bosnians that could barely get by liked to complain about the system and its flaws because of the difficulty of bringing in a stable income for their families.
My second realization was the unwelcoming attitude that Bosnian residents have towards the Bosnian diaspora. This, by far, came as the biggest shock to me since I imagined a warm welcome and acceptance since I was, after all, Bosnian. However, residents weren’t really favorable toward the diaspora due to their bragging of living in a different and “better” country. Bosnia has a larger diaspora population than the population of the country itself. Summers tend to be packed with the diaspora throwing their money away on food, presents and family members. As a result, the diaspora’s snobbish tendencies agitate the Bosnian residents, who see those tendencies as a way to show off income status. Establishing good friendships with Bosnians revealed their true feelings towards the diaspora. It was extremely entertaining to hear the remarks they made about the Bosnian diaspora.
My third and final realization revolved around the multi-ethnicity of Bosnia. Bosnia consists of three major population groups: Bosnian Muslims (also called Bosniaks), Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. The first thing that struck me was that people stuck close to their origin. There still existed hatreds among the groups. When I visited Mostar, I was astonished to learn that there is a high school which is subdivided into two high schools: one for Bosnian Croats and the other for Bosniaks. During the first game that Bosnia played in the World Cup, half of Mostar (a city in Bosnia) was cheering for Bosnia, and the other half of Mostar was booing it and throwing around insulting remarks. The literal division of the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croats is the Old Bridge in Mostar. To drive through Bosnia and experience the division of the different ethnic groups was interesting. Each town or village is usually composed of one of the ethnicities. Larger cities, such as Sarajevo, consist of all three, but the division between the groups is still apparent.
My summer in Bosnia was a growing experience that not only developed my language skills, but also widened my perception of the Balkan states and America.