This on-going dissertation research examines the experiences of Bosnian refugees who resettled in the U.S. with a focus on perceptions of history and intergroups relations. I take a closer look at the transformation of social relations and national/ethnic identities as a result of social / political destruction of the home country and migration to a new country. The 1992-1995 Bosnian war was fought between the three major ethnic groups living in Bosnia --Serbs, Croats, Muslims—and resulted in around 200,000 people dead and 1,200,000 people internationally displaced (Cousens & Cater, 2001). Bosnians began to arrive in the U.S. in the early 1990s and most have resettled there. A decade after the start of the war, many Bosnians are still in the U.S. Although the war ended, political and economic instability still prevails in Bosnia, which now consists of two entities, the Serbian Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. Meanwhile, some of the main actors of the Bosnian war are being tried at the U. N. war crimes tribunal while others are still at large but being searched for. Arguably, for Bosnian refugees, it is a time associated with considerable ambivalence about their homeland.

Theoretical Background

Collective memory as ideology

Maurice Halbwachs (1950/1992) defined collective memory as a sense of common history shared by members of a group that gives the group its identity and allows for group cohesion. Others following Halbwachs demonstrated that different groups in a society will reconstruct the past in different ways depending on the needs of the present (Olick & Robbins, 1998; Pennebaker, Paez & Rime, 1997). Recent conceptualizations of collective memory in psychology adopt discursive approaches (Billig, 1997; Middleton & Edwards, 1990; Wertsch, 2002) and suggest that individuals use narrative practices to make the past and the present comprehensible, to resist or erase alternative stories about the past, and to reconstruct their personal experiences in ways that fit larger collective histories (White, 2001; Brockmeier, 2002). In this project I define collective memory as a cultural narrative or discourse that reveals a group’s interpretation of its history and that serves ideological purposes.

Wertsch (2002) suggested that collective memory is often constructed by power groups in a society but individuals have agency in adopting or rejecting the official narrative. In this project I will investigate the narrative strategies refugees use to reproduce, resist, and/or transform dominant discourses about the history of Bosnia. For example, a common way for Bosnians to start telling their stories is by indicating that “we all lived together” (Weine, 1999; Mertus et al., 1997). This way, refugees reproduce the “Yugoslavian brotherhood and unity” discourse promoted by Tito and the communist regime. Some talk about a grandfather or another relative who was killed at the hands of another group during WWII, a memory that was suppressed under the Communist regime but was put into circulation by the nationalist propaganda (Bowman, 1994). Often times, the two themes co-exist and refugees shift from one to the other to make sense of conflicting experiences, as will be evidenced in the excerpts below.

Almost half of the participants were approached through a Yugoslavian expatriate organization in New York City. The rest were recruited through my personal contacts with the community and through snowballing. They were informed about the purposes of the study and asked to tell their life stories. Although I tried to minimize intervention in the telling of the stories, I asked questions for clarification purposes, or to inquire about important issues in terms of the purposes of research when they were not mentioned, such as pre-war conflict with people of different ethnicities. All interviews were done in English.

Preliminary Findings

Only those themes that are most relevant to the purposes of this conference are reported in this paper. These themes consist of (1) major discourses about history of ethnic relations in Bosnia that are created by the power groups and used by individuals to make sense of their experiences; (2) meanings of refugee status; (3) images of the home and host countries as they relate to decisions of repatriation.

I. Major discourses about history:

"We all lived together" is a theme I called following Weine (1999), and is a reflection of the idea of the "Yugoslavian brotherhood and unity". This discourse minimizes ethnic differences in pre-war Bosnia and emphasizes the blindness of Bosnians to the ethnic backgrounds of their friends and neighbors.

    "I never saw my friends as Serbs. They were just my best friends. I don't think they saw me as a Muslim girl" (Fatima, Muslim from Sarajevo).

Most of my informants (who are young, educated, and urban Bosnians) adopted this discourse and it shaped the way they talked about their personal experiences and their explanations for the war.

This discourse was often countered (or in many cases accompanied) by another one which draws attention back to the memory of the previous wars and conflicts, to the betrayal of friends in the recent war, and to the resulting lack of trust between groups. The main theme of this discourse can be put as "antagonism and distrust". A good example of this lack of trust in the "other" and expectations of antagonism as a result of previous conflicts can be seen in the words of one of my informants who did not leave Bosnia until the last minute despite his wife's and children's pleas to join them in Macedonia because he never thought that the war would happen.

These two themes correspond to the discourses identified by Bowman (1994), the first one about "brotherhood and unity" promoted by Tito and the federal government, and the latter about "blood and land" that is revived and reconstructed by the nationalist leaders, mainly by Milosevic. However, a word of caution is needed against interpreting endorsers of the second discourse as one supporters of ethnic hostility. Many Bosnians who expressed this theme used to believe in the "Yugoslavian brotherhood and unity" but they were disillusioned by the recent war. In this context, memories of previous conflicts that were transmitted within the family are reinterpreted and put into use to make sense of ethnic violence.

Fatima attributes the causes of her conflict experience to the stupidity of her friend, to his machismo, that is things other than his Serbness, and eventually distances herself from him by saying that they were never good friends, although she began by telling that she knew him since childhood.

Or, in answer to my question about which identity, Serb or Muslim, was stronger

    "I told you before, it wasn't like that. We never lived religously" (Alma, from Sarajevo).

Thus, young and educated Bosnians were not blind to ethnic animosities but they were dismissing ethnicity as a possible explanation for problems. As the generation who did not personally experience any of the previous ethnic conflicts, these people were "the perfect product of Tito's ideology, of Yugoslavian brotherhood and unity" (Vesna, from Tuzla). In the post-war era, hardly any of them identified as Yugoslavs, nor believed in its ideology, but they were still fond of multi-ethnic living of urban Bosnia. However, ambivalence about the harmonious co-existence of ethnicities showed itself in occasional switches from one discourse to another. In reflecting on the previously mentioned incident with her Serb friend Fatima exemplifies this ambivalence.

    "I took it as a joke, but then on the end, I’m like, 'was he really joking?'"

None of the interviewees who adopted a "we all lived together" discourse expressed negative attitudes about the other groups. Only one such interviewee was more open about her feelings, an openness attributable to her closer connections with me. After relating how an aunt was saved as a kid from the mass killings of Muslims by Serbs during WWII by hiding in a carpet while the rest of the household was killed, my informant said

    "I would never marry a Serb. Never. And it has nothing to do with religion. My mom would never want me to marry a Serb because she would say 'how will I know if his grandparents or other relatives did not kill one of my relatives?'". (Lamija, from Sarajevo).

II. Meaning of "refugee"

Almost all informants tried to leave Bosnia during the war. Only one could succeed, a journalist from Sarajevo who had connections with a foreign media institution. Three applied for refugee status and got it and left right after Dayton Accord which ended the war, while others were refused refugee status for various reasons. They finally made it to the U.S. as immigrants several years after the war ended. Several different meanings attributed to the "refugee status" emerged during the interviews. While the first excerpt below exemplifies the typical, "unhomed" meaning of "refugee", the second is surprising in its refusal to romanticize "home".

    “And refugee… it’s hard. Like… you never ever really have a real home. I don’t think refugee has ever have a home. Like a real home.” (Fatima)

    “That was just a bureaucratic label. Cause I never felt like one. Really. I felt… Actually at the time I left, I felt I have to leave because my life was in danger, and… you know. But umm…. here, while staying here… I was very welcomed.” (Nizima)

III. Going back: Images of the homeland and of the host country

Further, the talk about the decision to go back revolves around comparisons of the home and host country. A major comparison point is the nature of social life and interpersonal relationships. All of my informants emphasized the closeness of relationships with family and friends in big contrast to their relationships with people they met in the U.S.

    “…family has a better meaning over there. You know what I mean? Here it’s very, um, like me and my husband have different days off. You know, when we see each other, it’s either he calls out sick or I call out sick. It’s like, you kind of arrange your life to fit your work. Over there, I think it’s some more vacation, you have more like, family outings.”

Even more than U.S.-Bosnia comparisons, decisions to go back involve comparisons of Bosnia's past and present. While pre-war Bosnia is missed, ambivalence, if not open dislike with current Bosnia prevails in the answers. The negativity about current Bosnia is partly explained by bitterness of having to go through the war at the very young age that most of my informants did.

    "If it was like before [in Bosnia], I would never want my daughter to grow up here" (Fatima)

    “I didn’t want to be a part of it [reconstruction of Bosnia] because I already felt that my most precious part of life was, you know, gone. ….

    So, although I might have felt that I should have stayed and you know, be a patriot in my country and rebuild the country… I felt, you know, forget it. Cause the people who started the war, you know got richer. And people who didn’t want the war to happen become poor. So, why would I now stay there, and build that country, you know, waste my life. I only have one life, and it’s very short, I might as well live it". (Armin).

More to consider: Social context and collective memory

These initial interviews provided some major themes that need to be investigated in more details. In the rest of this project, with a larger and more heterogeneous sample, I will focus on the demographic (e.g. urban vs. rural background in Bosnia, educational level, ethnicity, etc.) and experiential (e.g. transmission of family memories of conflict, interethnic contact, etc.) factors that contribute to the endorsement of different discourses among Bosnians. An important post-migration factor, however, is the social networks that the immigrants and refugees form in the U.S.

A similar issue was raised in interviews that I did with community leaders in New York City. Many refugees were either sponsored by organizations founded by previous immigrants (e.g. Serbian or Croatian churches) and/or they were supported by them after their arrival. These interpersonal/organizational contexts may promote certain discourses while discouraging others. For example, a community organization aiming at reconciliation (such as the one that provided half of the current sample) would stress memories of harmonious coexistence while an ethnic organization might stress the “antagonism/distrust” discourse. Participation in these networks affects the content of an ethnic identity through the different discourses they promote. Thus, I will investigate the immediate social contexts of refugees, that is, people they interact with in the U.S., and organizations they receive help from or where they engage in community activities in order to explore whether certain contexts privilege particular discourses which would lead to differential outcomes in terms of intergroup relations.