Balkan Insight | To Stay or to Go? – the Personal Dilemma Haunting Young Bosnians

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This article was published in Balkan Insight on July 22, 2019.

by Kinsley Cuen
SIT Spring 2019
Elon University

Behind the grim statistics about the high emigration rate from Bosnia lie countless individual factors and choices.

The only way I can help my country is to become someone. But I cannot become someone here,” reflects 21-year-old Sarajevan Erma Kurtovic, chatting with her two friends, Selma Buljko and Nejra Pasic, at the Theater Cafe in the Bosnian capital.

As Political Science majors at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, SSST, each is deciding whether to join Bosnia’s “brain drain”, wondering, ironically, if leaving the troubled country might help them meet their school’s motto – “Inventing a Better Future”.

As chants of “Build the wall!” echo from across the Atlantic in America, and as EU politicians discuss tougher border laws, the term “migration” evokes negative sentiments in the hearts of many. But, for students in Bosnia, often their only viable shot at a future lies beyond their country’s borders.

The term “brain drain” was coined in the mid-20th century to describe “the emigration of highly trained or qualified people”. It became a reality in Bosnia during and after the wars of the 1990s, as destruction, corruption and economic failure led many to seek a better life elsewhere.

Bosnia’s overall population has shrunk significantly in the last 20 years, from 4.3 million in the last pre-war census in 1991 to 3.5 million today. Many of the leavers have been young.

“According to unofficial information, from 1996 to the present, Bosnia has lost more than 150,000 young people,” explains Adnan Husic, Assistant Minister of Education at the Ministry of Civil Affairs. “In 2018, 4,474 persons renounced Bosnian nationality, 1,385 of whom were between 18 and 25,” he adds.

In 2016, the European Union’s Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency reported an unemployment rate of 48.5 per cent among Bosnians aged 20 to 34 with a post-secondary education who had graduated within the past three years.

By contrast, the EU statistics office, Eurostat, said the 2017 rate of employment rate among 20 to 34-year-olds in the EU who graduated with the same credentials was 82.8 per cent. Bosnia’s youth unemployment rate is among the highest in the world.

Youth feel stuck on a ‘CD loop’:

Selma Buljko. Photo: BIRN/Kinsley Cuen

Buljko, a 22-year-old from the southern city of Mostar, describes her frustrations, growing up in a deeply divided country and city. “I feel like I’m listening to a CD stuck on loop here. It’s all nationalism and ethnic hatred, and will there be another war. It’s outdated and we’re fed up. I want to make a change, but I know I can’t influence anything until I am someone,” she says.

Buljko, Kurtovic, and Pasic have deep ties to Bosnia; all of their parents survived the wars of the 1990s. But despite their families’ experiences, they do not feel morally obliged to stay, and cite them as being supportive of any future they choose.

Kurtovic, a US and Bosnian citizen, spent the first seven years of her life in the US before moving back to various areas within Bosnia. Her parents met in Brcko in northern Bosnia when the war broke out in 1992. Her father went on to fight for a local militia. She feels certain that she will follow in the footsteps of her parents, who left but later came back.

“When the war was coming to a close, my parents decided to leave. They wanted to move to America and make enough money to come back and open a business, and they did. I want to follow in their footsteps and go become someone too,” Kurtovic said.

Pasic is keener to make a go of life in Bosnia. A 21-year-old native of Sarajevo, she says that unless an “amazing” opportunity is offered to her abroad, she will remain in Sarajevo and try to make at least a small-scale change to her country.

“My father was in the army. His sister and my grandmother went to Germany and when the war ended he was able to get asylum papers to go to the US. But my mother never ended up getting papers, so he tore his up and returned to Bosnia. My father always says that even if they had been able to leave [for the US], they always would’ve come back,” said Pasic.

Buljko’s parents met during the war in ethnically divided Mostar. She remains undecided on whether to stay or leave, but seems to be leaning towards the latter, to pursue a Master’s degree.

“I remember when I was young asking my mom if she’d ever seen a dead person and she responded: ‘You can’t imagine how many’. My mom and dad are scarred for life and I don’t want to see the things they saw, ever. My parents want me to have a prosperous life, so they don’t have anything against me leaving,” she says.

Family history, personal experiences, outside connections, and individual dreams all play a part in any decision to leave or stay. Kurtovic, Buljko, and Pasic all see the “brain drain” as a deeply personal choice, subject to emotions of hope, fear, and the ability to make change.

Not just about jobless rates:

Erma Kurtovic. Photo: BIRN/Kinsley Cuen

Sanela Basic, Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, who helped conduct a study on youth in the region in 2014, says individual perspectives are a driving force in the “brain drain”.

“It isn’t only about employment or social environment, but a perspective on life. There’s a tendency for [young] people to seize the opportunities they get. It would be unfair of us to expect them to have the patience to wait for something to get better here,” she says.

Anida Dudic, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, believes opportunities abroad offer a chance of independence that cannot be found within Bosnia.

“Young people are developing a sense of autonomous generational identity, but since a growing number of youth cannot find jobs they’re forced to build their lives in their parents’ homes, where their independence and freedom remain unrealized,” she says.

Pasic offers an additional angle to the “brain drain”, suggesting that generational divides add to misconceptions surrounding the term. She says the youth of today are not only a post-war generation but also the internet generation, which has been taught that other countries and opportunities aren’t as far away as they seem.

“Our parents grew up in Yugoslavia, so not only do they have a connection to this country [Bosnia] but to the whole region. My generation has grown up with this globalized view, where many of us have friends and family living outside of the country and that’s how we’ve always known life. It changes your perceptions of how you can shape your future,” Pasic says.

Kurtovic points out that she already has family and friends outside the country. “My grandparents and cousins live in the US. If I leave, I have a home with them. I can also always return and I want and plan to return. I still have a home here,” she says.

While Kurtovic, Buljko, and Pasic say their families will support them in whatever decision they take, they say members of older generations sometimes raise the threat of another war to dissuade them from going.

“Sometimes, you’ll get comments from the older, war generation, that if we leave, Bosnia will slip into war again,” Kurtovic says. “But, even if every young person packed their bags and left, we aren’t leaving the country in the same conditions as the past.”

Buljko points out the most glaringly obvious part of the “brain drain” – their status as students with their whole lives ahead of them. “We’re young and fluid. My parents worked in one place their entire lives, and they had many troubles there. I keep telling them to change jobs, but they don’t want to have to leave and adapt,” she says.

“They adapted through a whole war – they’re tired of having to change,” Buljko adds with a sigh.

“Not changing is something that isn’t plausible for our generation, so I think we’ve never had a problem with moving around and switching jobs,” Pasic confirms.

Nejra Pasic. Photo: BIRN

Professor Basic compares young people’s ability to “start from scratch” with her own experience, returning home after completing a Masters degree in Berlin.

“I decided to come back to Bosnia. It was a time of promising change in political, economic and social terms – but everything changed,” Basic recalls. “I suddenly faced the ugly truth, that I’d spent the best years of my life building something that’s so fragile that there’s no promise of a good life for me or my children here.

“It’s a very painful experience; it pushes you to find the exit strategy. In my early 40s, I’m not young enough to start from the scratch elsewhere – but this is not the life I’d like my children to live,” she concedes.

“I know people who’ve changed their opinion in a day,” says Buljko. “There are people who have packed their bags and left and never returned. And there are those who, after 30 years abroad, decide it’s time to come home. It’s a very human decision. But, we’re a generation that wants change, we want better lives. And we want something concrete to come back to.”

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