by Alfredo Jahn
SIT Spring 2018
Washington University in St. Louis
During my time as a student on the SIT Balkans program (in spring semester 2018), I had the opportunity to conduct research in Sarajevo as part of the month-long independent study project (ISP). At the time, I was interested in how Bosnian returnees understood their sense of place within their physical community and their broader cultural identity. I worked with adult returnees who left with their parents during the 1990s war, but were too young to have developed strong connections to their homeland before leaving. For my interviewees, personal connection to their Bosnian heritage varied significantly and most often had more to do with their continued engagement with their native culture abroad than with other factors such as time spent abroad.
Following the completion of my semester with SIT, I wondered: what of those who did not return? How do young Bosnians who remained abroad understand their place in their cultural saga? For my undergraduate senior thesis (2019), I followed many of the same lines of inquiry I did in Sarajevo, but with the Bosnian youth of St. Louis. At an estimated 70,000 strong, St. Louis is home to the largest community of Bosnians outside of Bosnia (Hilalovich 2012). The population grew rapidly in the 1990s when the US government determined the south side of the city, largely abandoned and without a large immigrant population, would be a perfect place to resettle the influx of refugees from war-torn Bosnia. Today, the neighborhood of Bevo Mill (known as Little Bosnia) is still a cultural center for the community, featuring Bosnian restaurants, grocery stores, butchers, bars, and cafes.
As part of my data collection, I spoke with young Bosnian-Americans in local high schools and colleges. I attended community gatherings such as the annual Bosnian Festival, culture club events put on by Bosnian-American students, and sat in on Friday prayer at the Bosnian-language mosque. Broadly, I wanted to understand the ways in which cultural identity – feelings of ‘Bosnian-ness’ – are transferred to younger generations. I looked specifically into four main areas: how young Bosnian-Americans interacted with both the idealized memories of Bosnia and the physical place; which cultural practices were reproduced within the family and community; the ongoing role of the Bosnian War in defining the context of their ethnicity; and the role of religion in shaping personal senses and community displays of Bosnian identity.
One of the most notable findings of my study had to do with the way young Bosnian-Americans interact with the two cultures of their homeland and present home. Unlike many past immigrant groups in America, this second generation did not eschew the culture of their parents, but consciously strove to maintain a connection to their Bosnian heritage. This may be due to several factors, including a change in attitudes to diversity over time in America. Notably, however, racial discrimination seems to play an important role. Because Bosnians generally pass as ‘white’ in America, they tend not to be subject to much of the same discrimination non-white immigrants face. As such, young Bosnian-Americans may feel less of a pressure to assimilate into hegemonic American culture than non-white immigrant groups because they are not ‘othered’ in the same way.
Another notable finding has to do with the connection between religion and ethnic identity. Religion was a feature of nearly all of my respondents’ upbringings, but none at the time of the interviews was particularly religiously devout. My respondents clearly understood the historical significance of religious identity in the Western Balkans, but tended to find other markers of culture more relevant in their understandings of personal identity. For Bosnian Muslims, religion and ethnicity in the Balkans are popularly understood to be synonymous. During my time on the SIT Balkans program, I learned, among other things, about ways in which religion factors considerably into national governance and political discourse in several post-Yugoslav successor states. My research comports with other research critiquing this notion of the centrality of religion to ethnicity in the everyday lives of ordinary individuals (Colic-Peisker 2005, Hoare 2007).
Thirdly, I found the way my respondents used national self-identification to be nuanced. Those that identified as only “American” sometimes engaged with Bosnian culture more than those who claimed only the “Bosnian” label. Reasons for choosing to identify as “American,” “Bosnian,” or “Bosnian-American” tended to have more to do with individual circumstances than a generalized assessment of cultural adherence. Among returnees in Sarajevo, their chosen identity labels were heavily influenced by their experience of returning; those who had not maintained a strong connection to Bosnian culture abroad tended to feel out of place and their foreignness highlighted, and almost always used multi-national labels. These experiences of both Bosnian returnees and those continuing to live abroad calls into question the usefulness of using such identity categories in statistical analysis of conceptions of belonging without adequately understanding what these categories mean to the individuals in question.
My research, of course, deals with a specific community and cultural context, and does not presume to make wide generalizations about all young Bosnians or Bosnian immigrants. Nevertheless, it may serve as a firm basis for thinking that many of the conventions associated with how second-generation migrants are understood in the United States are worth further consideration. Based on my interviews and observations in St. Louis, I argue that there is reason to think that racialization of migrants, beyond generic xenophobia or religious intolerance, seems to be a significant factor in determining patterns of socialization and assimilation in the United States and other predominantly ‘white’ receiving countries (Colic-Peisker 2005). Personal labels of identity demand a careful nuanced understanding. The opportunity see both experiences of Bosnians who returned to their homeland and those living in continued diaspora allowed for comparative analysis that was crucial in building more holistic interpretations of the international Bosnian community. This work together helps to characterize reproduction of identity and trajectories of assimilation, especially in contemporary America, and offers many new topics of inquiry for further analysis of how culture is transformed, perpetuated, and reinvented in and outside of its native context.
Colic-Peisker, Val 2005 ‘At Least You’re the Right Colour’: Identity and Social Inclusion of Bosnian Refugees in Australia. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31(4): 615–638
Hoare, Marko Attila 2007 The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day. London: Saqi Books
Halilovich, Hariz 2012 Trans-Local Communities in the Age of Transnationalism: Bosnians in Diaspora. International Migration 50(1): 162–178
The ISP project was supported and advised by Dr. Dženeta Karabegović.