The Yugoslavian Civil War was many things for many people. For those of us who are from the region, it was the beginning of the end, a life-altering event that would turn our world upside-down and take us to unimaginable places. It feels as though we took it all in stride, but the people of Yugoslavia had to endure what would seem like hell to most people: death, destruction, stories that would make your skin itch, blood boil, and eyes water. The effects are felt to this day.
About 4 million people were displaced, and of that enormous number, less than 200,000 refugees came to the United States. An even smaller number of us were children, and this is where my main point begins. We are the first and the last, and there aren’t many of us. We had a childhood unlike anyone else’s (for sake of argument, we’ll consider refugees who were school-age upon arrival as ‘children’). We are special.
I mean, think about it. Who else could understand the feeling of inviting an American friend over when your mom is making sarma and having to explain what that smell is? How many people have had to describe what pašteta is to someone who has never seen it before? That’s not easy. We had to go to school with Brians, Johns, Sarahs and Jessicas. They couldn’t understand the anxiety you felt during roll call when you were next and your name is Nemanja Spasojević. The poor teacher never stood a chance of pronouncing it properly. Chances are she butchered it and you told her she got it right anyway, just to get the attention off of yourself. You were nice enough to teach the teacher about the Yugoslavian conflict during the two minutes per school year we spent talking about it, and nice enough to not get offended when classmates asked stupid questions, “so, like, do you guys have cars in Bosnia?”
These are the things that make us who we are, the refugee children, whose moms packed suvo meso in our lunch boxes and whose dads cussed out the referees during our soccer games — let’s face it, you probably played soccer. We are unlike our parents and we are unlike our peers. Sometimes, this can be difficult for us.
Where do we belong? You never really feel like you fit in here, you’re the foreign kid, no matter how well you’ve assimilated. When you go back to the motherland to visit, you’re welcomed with open arms, you feel like that’s where home is, until you’re called “Amerikanac” regularly and realize you’re just a guest. It can be an identity crisis for some, and you can be in denial and try to reject the influences the US has had on you; you just want to be like the rest of your family. You’re not, though. As I mentioned before, we are the refugee children and there is no one like us. That’s a good thing.
We should be unapologetic when it comes to what one side or the other may view as flaws. Family in Europe joking on your incorrect conjugations? So what? Friends in America joking on you for dipping stuff in Ajvar? Who cares, Ajvar is delicious. We are special. There aren’t many people who can recite Drake lyrics then turn around and sing Halid Bešlić, that skill is unique to us. Instead of feeling bad for what we may lack, we should feel great that we are the best of both worlds.
We are the refugee children and there is no one like us. We ate Nutella before it was cool and we dominated in geography class. We had Taco Bell for lunch and grah for dinner (don’t tell mom about the Taco Bell though). We’re us, and as far as I can tell, there’s nothing better we could be.