Being an ex-Yugoslavian refugee growing up in America.

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.

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74 thoughts on “Being an ex-Yugoslavian refugee growing up in America.

  1. I never would have known that you didn’t feel like you fit in growing up. You’ve always seemed so happy, but it was cool to see a deeper side of you. And eating Nutella before it was cool makes me like you even more, haha! Despite what you’ve been through, I hope you never feel like you don’t belong ever again.

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  2. I liked this Karlo! Thanks for sharing. I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this article. The United States is so diverse. It is an article write?! I mean right?! 😉

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  3. This is incredibly accurate and bitter-sweet to read. Thank you for doing such a great job explaining how difficult this was for some.

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  4. Oh … The tears! Happy tears, sad tears, truth tears? Thank you for empowering and encouraging us! Somewhere along the way we (or at lest I) accepted the constant blaming, tearing down, finger pointing as a personal insufficiency and so it snowballed into this huge cloud of negativity. But it’s not! We are uniquely strong, adaptable, and a loving bunch. Let’s celebrate that and start holding our heads high. Annual meeting, anyone?

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  5. Very well said and so true. Most people just don’t understand what’s is like and when you tell them, they say “wow we really have it easy”. Every word in that article was true and briught me back to when I first came. I am marrying an amerikanc next year and he LOVES our food, buys his own

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  6. This is a great piece on Ex-Yugo millennia’s coming to America not by choice but for better life and opportunity. It is well written and detailed. Our parents were brave enough to move to America and mostly looked upon their children and their children’s future. Many of them worked hard and worked very long hours (Is this the American Dream?). I just think it was really hard for all of us to “fit in” this gigantic western world. Thumbs up!

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    1. It is, South Serbia!!! You can see it on the map (pokrajina)…learn, read…don’t become ignorant like most of the Western World. Keep in yourselves true spirit Balkan people have. Greetings from Belgrade.

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  7. Can I add to this?

    After being deprived during the war, or in refugee camps – my brother and I gorged ourselves on Coca Cola and bananas in Canada. When we started school – kids thought our haircuts and clothes were weird. We would get super excited to go shopping in a giant super market.

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  8. For some reason you left Kosova inside serbian map…. I wonder why …. If you were kind enough to write this and put a map in there, shouldn’t you do it right??

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    1. Kosovo is the result of the breaking up of Yugoslavia. Kosovo was an unmarked region as were many others like Srem, Banat, Backa, Sumadija, no offence meant, But Kosova label is an offence to many Yougoslavs because, if for no other reason, it glorifies the hated partition.

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  9. Loved this, thank you. I was lucky enough to visit Croatia and BiH with my wife this year to meet her family. Proud to say that i now happily drink yogurt with my burek. I now know that the cevapi at Eko Selo is simply amazing. I was also lucky enough to be the first Amerikanc to attend the annual party in Srđani Tomislavgrad. And because of my beautiful Balkan wife i now appreciate the ability to eat a banana every day!

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  10. Great read! No one else will understand this. We refugees are special! I’m sure refugees from other nations can relate if we swapped the food for something they eat. Lol! My name is now spelled Tanya, because they kept misspelling it on important documents like green card and social security card. Was told to change it at the court house and with my citizenship I’m officially Tanya… I’m happy because Amerikanci pronounced Tanja… Teeeenža in roll call… Southern style dragged out!

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  11. Oh my good , this is amazing , I have tears in my eyes.We are special and kind people. And our food is amazing you forgot to mention musaka , cevapi and gibanica they are on top.

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  12. Well said …I know it was hard for our children here and I’m so proud of my kids becoming a great human being .As a parent of 3 beutiful children I worked 2 jobs and didn’t have much time to spend with them they grow up faster than I could ever imagine…To all of you : Yes , you are special .❤😄

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  13. My other half, a Finn, and I live in Berkley CA and he loves cevapi, ajvar, burek, sarma, sogandolma… and drinks Kiseljak every day. I have tought him a few words, so now, whenever we are in Sarajevo he greets people with ” Dje si ba – sta ima”, and people start talking to him immediately and ignore me completely. 😂😂

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  14. I always hoped there were other people our there that had the same identity crisis I felt most of my adolescence. I’m glad someone put put thoughts into words.

    If anyone in Texas wants to meet up, please let me know. I don’t know many ex yugo youth, drago bi mi bilo da upoznam vise nase raje. Slobodno me nadite na FB. U slici sam ja i dva druga.

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  15. Saw this shared on Facebook and it really resonates with me.

    The “Where do we belong?” paragraph really nails it. I always feel like a surface-level citizen when I visit the region, like a veneer on a tooth when I’m there. Yes, I was born there, and I speak the language but it’s like you said, you’re an “Amerikanac” to everyone. In the States, the hint of foreignness is always there, you can’t escape it. The whole thing is even more amplified for people who came from mixed families.

    I like your take on being unapologetic and embracing it. I’ve never thought about it like that.

    And we did eat Nutella way before it was cool!

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  16. Thank you for writing this…..it definitely describes what I felt while living in the USA. I am proud to say that I converted lots of Americans to Bosnian food especially chevapi from my hometown of Sarajevo 🙂

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  17. Same as any other immigrant group before and after us. Probably in ten years a Syrian will write the same post word for word. Although they will be dipping it into baba ganoush. I found it easy to embrace whatever label mark I would get. Foreign kid? Great. I am. Roll with it. Go back home and get labeled American…okey nothing really changes. Been in America for I think 15-20 years (stopped counting after the fifth year) but realized back in the third year ‘bi-culture’ is a good thing. There are some good customs in any culture, might as well combine ExYU and the USA.

    That’s what I like about the USA, you get to experience at least three to five different cultures within five blocks. You find out pretty fast you are not the only one who serves sarma and kiseli kups (Sauerkraut).

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  18. I couldn’t of said it any better. This article is to the point and sooo true. Thank you for sharing our story.

    Uvjek smo “refugee djeca i ostati cemo”.

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  19. I can completely relate to this article since I’m a former Yogoslav refugee myself. I’ve been in the US since I was 5, but I’ve never felt that I fit in here nor back home. It took my family a long time to accept the fact we were never going home. It was especially hard growing up without extended family and not being able to visit. I have great respect for my parents as I’ve watched them struggle to make it in America with nothing. It is quite a unique situation to be in and I feel not many people can relate unless they’ve experienced it themselves. That is why I have so much empathy for these Syrian refugees as I can understand what it feels like to leave everything behind and start over new. Do any have of you guys wonder what life would have been like if the war never happened? To this day, I still find myself thinking about that sometimes, but I know since we can’t change anything, it’s good to appreciate the blessing we have been given to know two cultures and make the most of it. Thank you for writing! Pozdrav

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    1. To be honest, its always in the back of my mind, what could have been? I don’t know if it’s the best thing to think about, but the thought is always there. I just dislike the fact that there are so few of us to carry on our culture. I don’t think I can live in Bosnia again because it lacks the lifestyle of created for myself, but at the same time I want to preserve a chunk of our culture for the next generation. Drago mi je da ima drugog naroda u svjetu ko mislio kao ja, pozdrav!

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      1. Danijel – Thanks for replying. I know what you mean. It would be so hard living in Bosnia after growing accustomed to the lifestyle in the US. Lots of things are changing there too, and the standard of living seems to be getting higher for a lot of people. So maybe in a decade or two it will resemble the US more. I agree it is important to preserve the culture for the next generation. I feel it will be extremely hard to teach children the language unless with someone else who speaks the language or part of a community that speaks the language. Any thoughts or ideas on how to preserve the culture and language?

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      2. Strong family ties to their grandparents is a start. But in all honesty I think for a lot of us the most secure route would be to find someone from back home. The obstacle there is that there is not a large consentration that could understand us. Ima puno ljudi u ex jugoslaviji ali, dosta nji nemogu da razumiju nas koi su izbjegli. Mi smo pola amerikansi pola nasi u nasoj kulturi. Ja sam uvjek za interesovan da upoznam raje moji godina ali nemanas toliko puno. Sta ti mislis, kao bi bio najbolji nacin da od derzamo nasu kulturu u americi?

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  20. Yes, absolutely hang onto your culture, hang on and carry on any traditions you had in the home growing up and pass on to your children, whether you marry an American or are fortunate to find someone who has similar situation to you. the culture is rich, so rich and deep with history, difficult as it may be, but generations of storytelling should be carried over. As for language, if grandparents are here, even better. IF they are not, and if you have a constituency of ex yugo people whether it be through church or a social circle, continue to socialize with them and speak more often in your mother tongue.

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  21. This is the most brilliant thing I’ve read on the internet in the last decade, heck I had to check and make sure that I wasn’t the one that posted it. Whoever the author is you are intelligent and funny and you are one of my people, if you read this reach out I’d love to trade thoughts with you.

    Djordje Balasevic u jednoj od mnogih pjesama rece – Samo rijetki nadju rijetke…

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  22. Thank you for sharing your experience. I can relate, as can others. I just have a comment/observation/thought and I’d welcome all feedback.
    To think of ourselves as “special” or unique is very dangerous because it is kind of grandiose in nature. To think that we’ve had it like no one else puts us at risk losing empathy for anyone who “isn’t like us.” While our experiences are many things, including painful, humorous, empowering, and so on, they are unfortunately far from being unique. Namely, we share these experiences with all other refugees and immigrants around the world. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many children and families today, right now. Thinking of our experience as unique prevents us from seeing and helping others who don’t know where they belong, those kids that have to explain to their friends what weird foods and scents are, those kids that have to take on the adult role in the family way too early because they know how to speak English, those kids that excel at geography in school, but most of all, those kids who are struggling to assimilate. Instead of using our experience to “separate us from the rest,” I think it would be best to use it to unite us. Especially us Balkance, who still struggle with so many internal conflicts about who belongs where, what belongs to whom, and who came first where. I read this article as an invitation to ALL PROSPECTIVE IMMIGRANTS to read and no longer feel alone. I hope I’m making sense. I’d love to hear other thoughts. Thanks

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  23. Cool story. However there was no Yugoslavian civil war. There was only Serbians killing Bosnians. Yugoslavia had ceased to exist 10 or so years prior to that.

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  24. Well written and a great read! I can definitely relate to this and I’m sure most of us from the region can. Every time I visit the region I get more upset about the conflict and its effects. I drove from Sarajevo, where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held to Neum and the Croatian coastline in a few hours and thought where in the world can you find this? The scenic landscapes, beautiful people, culture, humour, and food is unlike anywhere else and it is a damn shame that we are all displaced. Ex-Yugo parents often romanticize Yugoslavia and the “good ol days” and unfortunately, it will never be like that again but we should always be hopeful for the future.

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  25. I don’t feel sorry for any of you refugees. You didn’t want Yugoslavia? Then dip nachos or kangaroo meat into ajvar. We all deserve what happened to us.

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    1. Most people everywhere just want to live in peace and happiness, not be a part of political grand schemes. Refugees probably more than others. You can blame yourself or consider yourself a victim. I don’t. Besides, what happened to us is far better than what happened to many others who perished or ended up spending their lives in shithole any post war society inevitably becomes.

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  26. This was a pleasure to read, and I have noticed time and time again that our immigrants from former Yugoslavia have been role models for immigrants from everywhere else to show how it’s done. I believe you have the spirit of the great generations who came here from places like Poland and Italy in the late 19th-early 20th century. Please continue to tell your stories I think it is very beneficial for our American culture. Welcome.

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  27. Even though I’m an amerikanac, I was fortunate enough to be linguist in the US Army. I was stationed in Kladanj and Tuzla, but the majority of our missions put us in the RS. One thing I found interesting is pizza ketchup. It is pretty tasty, especially the ljuti. I met a lot of fantastic people there in Bosnia. I witnessed several things over there that I wish I could share with some people here in the US. Sometimes, it was difficult trying to help my fellow soldiers the language as in 1997, I had to remember where I was whether to say razumijem/razumjem/razumem and whether to use Cyrillic or Latinic. However, I would love to go back any day. It was the most didactic time of my life.

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  28. 👍Svaka cast care!
    Veoma lijep artical. Evo komentar od jedne mame! Thank you for posting this so my kids understand this life here better!!! And not to feel alone!
    Good old days….they were good,because we were not Good and we were not Old!!!!!!
    ❤️❤️❤️

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  29. Gradjanski rat ????? Napad jedne drzave na drugu drzavu se zove agresija !!! Niko nije zaslužio rat niti da bude izbjeglica, nažalost moja država to je najviše osjetila. Više od dvadeset godina nakon rata još uvijek se traže kosti žrtava genocida.

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  30. I had same experience….i used to live in USA and i couldn’t fit in there….Bosnia is my country (agreeing it was aggression but that is not point of this article), however in Bosnia I feel like a stranger…i decided to go to different country….I am in Dubai now, and here I am benefiting being American and Bosnian at the same time….once you go to different location, you will appreciate your original Balkan roots and at same time you will admire American spirit….i still eat Ajvar, Suho Meso i cevape here in Dubai, but I celebrate July 4th, drink Starbucks coffee every day and once in a wile visit McDonald’s drive-thru….great article….

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