By Michaela Noble
Almedina Bajric was six when she first noticed she was different.
She remembers two Mormon men visiting her house in Crete, Nebraska, presumably to share a religious message. And she remembers not being able to speak to them.
At that age, she explained, the concept of language didn’t really make sense.
“You don’t see language,” said Bajric, a Bosnian refugee. Her experience with the Mormon missionaries was the first moment she became aware of the language barrier she and her family would struggle with in America.
“That’s when it hit,” she said.
As a junior English major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Bajric now has a strong command of the English language. But it certainly didn’t come easily.
Before she learned she didn’t speak the language (English) of her Mormon visitors, she said, Bajric hadn’t fully understood what was “weird” about America, though she intuitively comprehended its strangeness.
Fourteen years later, language still presents challenges for Bajric—though different ones. It represents the cultural tug-of-war she has engaged in since coming to America: the struggle to maintain her culture but to succeed in school and life in this country. That has sometimes meant becoming a different person depending on who she’s with, she said. She has felt the weight of juggling different worlds.
But language has also been a solution. Hers is a struggle few Americans can understand, one that’s hard to verbalize.
So she wrote.
I was born in Germany, but my parents are from Bosnia. We are a family of four: my mom, my dad, my brother, and I. listen
I came to the United States when I was six years old. My parents made a decision to move from Bosnia to Germany to avoid the Bosnian War that was then happening.
She’s found that a pen can be a tool to bridge understanding and paper, the best listener.
Resettling in America
Bajric and her family came to America as refugees in 2002, having already fled Bosnia for Germany when the Bosnian war broke out. Her father found work in Germany but then could not return to Bosnia to join the war efforts. Bajric’s maternal grandparents were the first to come to America, resettling in Crete. She and her family followed, moving into an apartment complex that housed three other Bosnian families in the same neighborhood.
Although she doesn’t remember details about the move to America, Bajric remembers happily reuniting with her grandparents.
And she remembers clearly the struggles of assimilation that followed.
Bajric started out far behind her other kindergarten classmates in Crete because she couldn’t speak any English when she first arrived.
Spelling presented a significant challenge. Bajric said she couldn’t spell any words—and she often got in trouble as a result, sent to the back of the class for copying a neighbor and cheating on quizzes.
“I could never spell the word ‘cat,’” she remembers, laughing.
It was an uphill battle, catching up to the other students. In first grade there were still things she didn’t understand, lessons that were harder to grasp. She remained behind.
It wasn’t until the following year that things finally began to level out.
“By second grade I didn’t feel as out of place,” Bajric said.
But Bajric had the advantage of immersing herself in the language and learning English while she was young; her brain still malleable and flexible—an advantage she says her parents lacked.
She wrote about the complexity of her situation.
My parents never adjusted to the United States because Europe was home to them for more than 20 years. So, I learned what they couldn’t. I learned the language, the culture, and the traditions.
Her parents couldn’t speak or understand English at all when they first arrived, Bajric said. Her mom still can barely speak English after 16 years in America.
When working at manual-labor jobs like her parents did, she said, the ability to speak English is not a necessity.
A new role in the family
Language is one of the greatest barriers faced by refugees once they come to America, according to Christina Nuñez, an editor for Global Citizen, an online magazine. Being unable to speak English leads to difficulties for parents who are forced to raise their children in an unfamiliar culture.
“Parents often find that their children are quickly ‘Americanized,’ which may be at odds with their own culture.”
Bajric’s parents’ inability to speak English meant that they were often taken advantage of at work, Bajric said.
This, too, is a common problem facing refugees, Nuñez said.
“Refugees and immigrants are easy victims for discrimination and exploitation in the workplace,” she says.
Bajric remembers when she started working part-time at the nursing home where her mom cleaned. She soon learned that her mother was being given extra work by a co-worker who didn’t want to do the jobs herself.
This marked the beginning of Bajric feeling like she had to wear a chip on her shoulder. In high school, she decided she would be the kind of person who would stand up for her parents, and for herself.
I was able to adapt and find my own place here in the states. I grew independent at a young age.
It also came to define a new role she would have to fill in America: as her parents’ translator.
Everywhere we went I was the one to translate. I read the mail, setup the T.V. system, found locations, answered the phone, and much more. Even though I hated doing all those things, I turned them into opportunities to learn. Listen
“I had to figure out everything on my own,” she said. “I asked tons of questions.”
Bajric speaks Bosnian with her parents and relatives at home, and perfect English while in school and in her classes, one of which is a fiction-writing class. When she first moved to America, she was most proficient in German, though that language has faded for her over time.
Juggling two worlds
There’s a marked difference between the spaces she inhabits.
“You go home, and everything’s Bosnian,” she said.
The food, the music and TV shows her mom enjoys, the language flowing naturally over meals and activities. Her family still makes pita bread, a Bosnian favorite, which is both made and eaten on the floor, on a large, decorated tapestry. For guests, there is imported Bosnian alcohol poured into shot glasses, meant to be sipped, and a tray of meats, cheeses and tomatoes, just like they’d serve in Bosnia.
Bajric said she doesn’t think her parents would allow their lives to be totally Americanized or their culture forgotten—nor would she.
“I don’t want it to die,” she said. But she didn’t always feel this way growing up.
When I was about twelve, my parents decided they wanted to return to Germany. It was extremely difficult for them to adjust here in the U.S. Europe was home for them for more than 20 years. Of course, I cried when they told me because I had already established a life in Crete.
We lived in Europe for about a year. You would think going back to one’s homeland would be easy, but it was not the case. We did not have a home; we lived from relative to relative. My parents could not find work, and I could not find a friend.
Bajric said there’s always an overwhelming desire to find peers who understand the conflicts she’s faced. To regain a community she lost.
(In Europe) I loved spending time with my family… I loved spending time with my paternal grandmother. She would call me her doll and tell me everyday how proud she was of me.
We essentially lost everything after moving back to Nebraska. My parents couldn’t find work here either. We lived with my maternal grandma until we found an apartment. My parents eventually found a steady job in housekeeping while I found a kitchen job at a nursing home to support us.
Finding a community
Bajric has only met four Bosnians since being in college, but Bajric said she gets so excited when it happens.
She said she’s learned to be very forward in reaching out to people who might share her struggles—going up and introducing herself to people with darker skin.
“We’re all people,” she reiterated. But an obvious indicator of whether someone will understand her and have the same struggles, Bajric explains, is if they’re a person of color.
Culture pulls Bajric in opposite directions at times, and she said it’s a constant struggle.
“I don’t feel totally Bosnian, I definitely don’t feel American, and I don’t feel German,” Bajric said.
Although Bajric doesn’t practice her Muslim religion at a mosque, she said she keeps the Muslim values while attending various Christian churches in Lincoln. Her Muslim faith is still a large part of her every day life. When she’s panicking over something, for example, she knows to call her father.
Always a soothing voice on the other end of the phone, he’ll have her eat a cube of sugar and drink water while he quietly says a prayer for her. And the process will help her to calm down; a small ritual that feels Bosnian in a place that does not.
A life in Bosnia would’ve looked much different for Bajric, she said. It would not have included college. She said she would’ve married young; likely started a family by now, lived close to her relatives, learned how to cook, spent time planting and helping out with the cows on the family land.
She imagines it sometimes.
The fear of having to say goodbye to someone important in my life still hovers over my head. I miss all my family overseas, and it is difficult never being able to go see them because it is so expensive and such a long journey. I miss my paternal grandma the most. She is a grandparent, and as a grandparent I know that it breaks her heart not being able to see my brother and I grow.
But ultimately, Bajric said her life experiences—as a Refugee in America—have made her want to other help people, to understand them and their different points of view. She’s considering a career in occupational therapy or another “helping” field.
It wasn’t easy: learning English as a second language in elementary school, dealing with the confusion and anger that came with finding an identity in high school, the responsibility of being her parents’ translator and picking a major in college when she had nothing—no family or advice—to follow.
But she has found ways to push through, to succeed.
“How do you go from someone who was always in trouble in kindergarten to someone earning honors, and in the top 10 percent of the class,” she said. “It’s such an accomplishment.”
“You lose things along the way, but it’s an accomplishment.”