I will be completely honest and say that I had no idea of what to expect from my internship placement at the Centers for Healthy Aging. I do remember asking my professor if I could be placed at a site that had the most in-person and direct contact with the community. Before this summer, I didn’t know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina, aside from there being a war, but I knew that if opportunities arose, I would learn more about the impacts of the war from interacting with actual human beings rather than reading a history textbook.
What I also didn’t anticipate was having the opportunity to make such good friends in the short time I would be in Sarajevo. I always felt safe and comfortable with the staff members of the Centers. Even if there was a language barrier and some of the staff members felt that their English wasn’t great, (in actuality, their English was great. I can’t even speak Bosnian so who am I to judge?) they always asked if I wanted coffee or if I was hungry. Even if I didn’t want coffee initially, I would always end up having a cup of coffee anyways because someone would genuinely be confused and ask why not? Too much caffeine can give me headaches, but what I’ve grown to realize is that a coffee break is less about consuming coffee and more about spending quality time together without distractions. Often, the Centers can be so overwhelming with the hustle and bustle of various activities and members coming and going that we might not all have a chance to sit down together. And that was the second instance where I felt such unbelievable hospitality. I was always included in activities; whether it was asking if I wanted to take a quick walk outside or translating conversations with members, so I would feel included. What I loved most was that I was immediately introduced to the sarcastic and dark sense of humor that I have grown to learn that most Bosnians have. I interpreted it as having the privilege of being a part of their inner circle because I was treated as one of them, rather than just a random intern from the United States.
In addition to allowing me to make such amazing friends, the Centers have also given me multiple pseudo-grandparents. I grew up without any living grandparents, so my only awareness around what the dynamics of a grandparent/grandchild relationship was from movies and TV shows. But interning at the Centers have given me a taste of all the grandparent clichés. I consistently have plates of food pushed towards me, while simultaneously having the occasional comment to be cautious of my weight. I have my cheeks pinched quite frequently and there are fervent requests to be in photos. Personally, I don’t mind any of this. I know that it might be different if this was happening on a more regular basis with my actual grandparents, but with these members, I often find myself wondering if they lost a child and the reason why they are so excited to talk to me is that I remind them of their children. If not their children, I wonder if I remind them of an innocence that has not encountered life during a siege. My interactions with the members have been the most humbling and memorable experiences as language barriers have led me to numerous occasions of impromptu charades and vigorous hand gestures, but it taught me that I can still build meaningful relationships without needing to rely on spoken language. Up until today, I have always wondered what the members thought of me – the strange American who looks like the people who teach their tai chi classes and who smiles too much as a way to over-compensate for not being able to hold a conversation. Today during the Bosnian-American party, I received my answer in the funniest and most unusual way possible. I had won a round of musical chairs and it felt like the whole crowd of members were cheering for me as I was met with several hugs and handshakes. It doesn’t sound like much but try having several Bosnian men and women trying to congratulate you all at once. It’s overwhelming, but oh so amazing to be a part of such a welcoming circle.