Social Identity and Our Collective Sense of Home

Social identity can be, simultaneously, powerful and destructive. I’ve given this idea a lot of thought this summer. Much of the reason for this is due to a loss and confusion I’ve felt within myself.  Living on a border between two different worlds has produced a complex and disoriented sense of identity within me. In my Bosnian community, I am not ‘Bosnian enough’ while any introduction to my American community is a reminder that my roots begin elsewhere.

But, social identity relies on a definition that is all too often set by the said community. My sense of identity relied heavily on my Bosnian community and being a refugee in the States had a lot to do with it. When you’re not familiar with the language, surroundings or traditions of your host country, you tend to fall back on what you know. While I found myself drifting further and further from my own cultural norms, I felt a sense of need to conform. While I felt no spiritual connection to Islam, I found myself in Mosques.

Definition matters and I chose to redefine my identity. I cannot forget where I come from and no longer have this fear that I will if I stray just slightly from my Bosnian community. America has become a home for me and I am fortunate to have all the possibilities it offers. It is undeniable that both communities influence me. Even more, that every place has changed me in some way or another. However, I cannot be conformed to a box – what I am supposed to be and what I’m not. I acknowledge my privilege is saying that.

All in all, having a sense of community or belonging, not so much identity, is essential to our wellness. In the same respect, where we come from (whether a different country or a local community) influences our character however; it is not limited to just that. We are more than the groups that we come from. We are a collage of backgrounds and experiences and that for me is one of the most beautiful aspects of our lives.

2013-06-11 05.56.47My first home, in Gomjenica (near Prijedor), that has been renovated after the war.

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Bosanska Kafa

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Since I was a teen, I would wake up early in the morning in hope that I didn’t oversleep for my daily coffee routine with mama. Alongside my stepdad, I would join for her second round of the day. Due to her long workdays, it was one of few times that we got to spend together. Still, it continues to be one of the things I really miss while being away in Denver.

As many of you know, coffee in the Bosnian culture is very much social and interactive. I consider it a sacred time and space for many members of my community. Those early mornings with my mother are some of the more beautiful moments in my childhood. It taught me patience, care, family time and the importance of taking life one-step at a time. While the taste certainly matters (I’m pretty particular about this haha) it is more than a cup of coffee. It’s a sacred ritual that has always been an integral part of my culture.

Until Next Time – Final Reflections

This is to my wonderful coordinator who, so patiently, waited for me to write the blogs that never came. This is for you and my program. I hope y’all made it home safely. I’ll be joining you soon! 

Where do I begin when I am honestly filled with a whirlwind of emotions?  I know my words will not do justice to the experience I’ve had but I’ll try my best to summarize it in the most coherent way possible.

I can already feel a knot forming in my throat as I think about the fact that this is it – this is the end until next time. I’ve grown immensely from this journey. I reflect on how blessed I am to have been given the chance to return. As a refugee, that is a blessing that cannot be calculated. Many cannot return to their homelands and I want to express my gratefulness for all that I’ve been able to do. For all that I’ve been able to see. For the family that I was able to reconnect with and their warm welcome. Most importantly, for the better days that are in store for my homeland that allows me to feel its soil beneath my feet. Its presence I feel inside my soul and it is my source of strength and determination.

It’s been 7 years since the last time I stepped foot in Bosnia. I still remember the way I felt the day my sister Dijana and I landed. We were meeting my brother Dejan for what would be only the second time I would see him in my life.  I was filled with emotion. My dream to return had finally come to life and I couldn’t believe it.

The summer of ’06 left me with a new sense of being. My heart was filled and I felt so rejuvenated. At 14 years old, I found my passion, drive and motivation. I came back to the States with a mission to do my best because I was going to do something with my life. My past would not hold me back but rather be a source of strength. I was determined.

7 years later, a year shy of my college diploma and many beautiful experiences behind me – I felt an urgency to return. I needed answers but most importantly, I needed to find peace. This journey took me on a whirlwind and I can’t tell you that I’ve received the answers I wanted. Many of them remain unanswered but I’m finding peace in that.  

This journey was immensely difficult for me and at times, I really needed an escape. I found myself shutting down. I didn’t realize how much of the past I had repressed. I couldn’t understand how to simultaneously accept the past and be optimistic about the future. I was, also, overwhelmed with my own past – my family’s hurt and loss. I was seeing relatives for the first time in my life and for me that will always be a reminder of the past.

Over a phone conversation with my mother, she says to me ‘I raised you not to hate’. While short, her statement resonated with me throughout the trip. At times, I thought maybe that was my fall back. Perhaps it would help if I did. I thought if I could just hate then my hurt would subside and I would feel less weak.

But, my mother raised me not to hate and I am better because of it. I forgive those who have done wrong to my family and community. Justice will be served and I will use this experience to ensure that no peoples ever have to go through such realities. I am fortunate to have been given the beautiful experiences I’ve had thus far and this trip has only further engrained in me a sense of determination and strength.

So, as I sit here in a small café in Tel Aviv drinking a cup of coffee, I am ever more optimistic about the future. While I know that the tragedy of my homeland will not be the last in the world, I stand committed to all communities who have and continue to experience such strife. Their stories matter.  As for Bosnia – may she see better days and may my community find peace where it is hardest. 

čuko

Image

This little one right here kept my spirits up when I was feeling so down after all the lectures in Srebrenica. I met her when we first arrived at Emmaus where she would hang around during the day, especially outside the cafeteria. Of course, the first time I would get in trouble by our host would involve her (haha, I was bringing out food for her). So, there’s not much more I can say about her besides that she’s adorable and I thank her for keeping me sane! In times when all I wanted was to be alone to reflect, she would playfully annoy me until I gave in. I considered her presence a wonderful gift during one of the hardest times during this program.

 

Srebrenica, mama and her strength

I’m back in Sarajevo and can’t even begin to explain what a relief it is! Initially, I hesitated speaking about Srebrenica in that light. I didn’t want others to get the impression that I was regretting going, although with deeper reflection that’s where I was going. It didn’t take long before I started repeatedly asking myself, ‘Why did you come?’ and ‘what were you thinking!’ Srebrenica was overwhelming in many ways. That was expected however; as I began to reflect on the experience I realized some things about myself. I have limits and from the moment I arrived to the program, I knew they would be tested. I was shaken and frequently a sense of anxiety came over me. I felt a lack of energy and after 3 days I was ready to leave.

 

It’s been a few days since I’ve been back and I feel that I’m slowly gaining my energy. After trying to avoid having any conversation about the trip with my family, my mother insisted. You see, my mother is a strong woman and always has been in my life. Since I was a young girl, her philosophy for me was to never give up no matter how many times you’ve hit the ground. Despite her strength, I try to shield her from any of my worries – especially here. The last thing on my mind was to talk to her about Srebrenica but as much as I try not to, my mother is the first person I go to for everything. She is my main source of support, strength and love and after talking to her for only about half an hour, I felt incredibly better. Everyday I am grateful to have her in my life and in a time like this, when I need her most she is there. So, I guess what I would like everyone to get out of this post is the power of love and compassion. Srebrenica showed me what happens when that disappears and when hate takes over. It also showed me the incredible resilience of the people around me. Life didn’t stop during the war and it’s not stopping now. Sometimes even in the most difficult times, you have to keep your head up and while Srebrenica was a hard reality to accept, it was necessary.

‘war time child’ sharing stories

There’s no right way to express my thoughts on this experience. Quite frankly, I can hardly find the words. I’ve thought about this for a while now, as I was trying to figure out why it was taking me so long to write my second blog entry. I mean I just started and I was already falling behind. I even imagined some crafty or creative title, something to grab your attention. I even thought perhaps some fluffy descriptive words? But, I don’t really have any of those. I have this experience and after much thought I realized that it’s O.K. if I don’t have it figured out now. This is a process. Maybe I won’t have the words to express myself but I will try and relay them the way that I know.

So, I’ll be real. Yes, I’ve yet to make sense of some things and more than likely, I never will. On that note, these last 2 weeks (since my last entry) have been both physically and mentally exciting and exhausting. While I hate to be the one to focus on the downside of anything, I will in this case because I think it’s really important as I move forward in all of this.

They call me a ‘child of war’, consider it a nickname, I suppose. It’s one coined by an older generation of Bosnians for the young generation born in the midst of the war. This generation has no real recollections but is affected through the stories of their parents. These stories tie them closely to a part of history that they were too young to understand then but determined to never forget now. It’s an unsettling word, really. It’s a term that I’ve heard periodically throughout my life but never so much as in these last few weeks. But why I’m so intent on speaking about this is because it brings me back to an incident that I had while I was in Brazil this past fall.

It must have been within the first month when my Portuguese professor sent us off on a scavenger hunt around the city of Fortaleza. One of the things on the list was to get some gold fish and bring it back to his office. Well, on our way we fell upon this pet shop and immediately, the owner welcomed us in and began asking us a little bit about ourselves. When my turn came around, I introduced myself – area of study, birthplace and my journey to the States. As I finished, I smiled at him and looked to one of my group members to introduce himself. But unexpectedly, he stopped and his big smile immediately turned into grief. He repeated, “Bosnia?” I just smiled and shook my head, taken aback because I didn’t expect him to know. After a short conversation about the war and my life since then, we were on our way. But just as I was saying goodbye he pulled me to the side and asked me one thing: to get him a one dollar bill and write on it “Nermina – eu sou um sobrevivente (I am a survivor). His request really shook me up. Until that moment I had never thought of myself in that way and this lends to what I’ve been reflecting on these last few weeks in Bosnia.

While I anticipate many questions about my life, I didn’t prepare myself for them. I’m not sure how I would have gone about doing that anyway. But I’m realizing that it’s definitely taking a mental and emotional toll on me. Every introductory conversation involves talking about what happened to my family during and after the war. In any simple conversation, I lay out what I would consider to be some of the darkest times in my family history and to be honest; it’s a place of deep vulnerability for me. I feel it’s as if I’ve let someone into my home.

These conversations have been rewarding in many regards but exhausting as well. I suppose that’s just the nature of meeting so many people at once. Everyone wants to know who you are and what you’re doing now. However, when these dialogues are framed in a time before and after the war, I find myself overwhelmed. Part of me feels that I’m picking at wounds that have yet to heal. I thought that perhaps this trip would help me heal or find some peace. Maybe it’s too early to tell but it’s hard. Katie tells me that maybe those wounds are infected and need to be cleaned out. She makes an interesting analogy but I think to myself, how do I possibly go about doing that? How do I possibly find reconciliation in a tragedy that left so many people lost, hurt and angry? A tragedy that has laid the foundation of my life and that, upon reflection, consumes me to the point that I feel numb.

Dobrodosli!

Where do I begin? After 7 years, I’m finally home! Considering that I was 14 the last time I came to Bosnia, being older and perhaps a bit wiser has made a considerable difference thus far this time around. These last 2 weeks have been awakening, exciting and exhausting. I’ve seen family, some for the first time and others again after the last time. It’s been a beautiful experience.

Bosnia is a country full of history and beauty. It is a lively country and it is no wonder my soul drives me back here, no matter what. However, it is also a country plagued by war; a people scarred by events that took place almost 20 years ago (the start of the war). The reason I mention this is because my feelings thus far are mixed with both good and bad. I can’t lie that it’s been an easy time because the reality is that this place brings up bad memories, too. I’ve met so many wonderful people but at the same time, I’ve been overwhelmed with their stories. Every new person I meet is a time to relish the past and bring up unfortunate circumstances.

I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression – I’m very happy to be here as this is something I’ve been waiting for a long time. I’m grateful to have this opportunity. My experience has just been a mixture of everything and I’m just trying to find ways to process it all.

All in all, for the first time in a long time I’m drinking bosanska kafa, eating plenty of pita & cevapi, and hearing my native language J. Despite some of the downs, I’d rather have this than anything else!