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When you are born to a Serbian mother and a Croatian father and a big family scattered in Southeastern Europe, borders lose their glory and home is a word stretched far and wide, connecting several countries, cultures and languages. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I grew up speaking Serbian, Croatian, Russian, Bosnian and English. Not to forget 6 years of Latin education at school.
My parents were both Chemists and after meeting in college chose to reside in Serbia. Living in a high-rise on the Danube jeweled my childhood with exotic memories until the day it became the beacon of terror. The day we witnessed war planes from our 9th floor balcony flying over our extended home, the neighboring countries. The view that left a scar in our hearts and caused my mom a sudden aneurism. The view we didn’t know we would have to get used to. Life took a sharp turn since that day. The suspense, the anxiety of not knowing who’s safe and who’s not, became a lingering state for many years that followed.
Considering the history of Serbia and how it has always been the strategic path for invaders of all religions, doctrines and civilizations, my parents made education the main focus for me and my brother. This invaluable gift assured our chances for building a career wherever life was about to take us. Change was eminent. It seemed to be filling the air we were breathing day after day. Future seemed unsafe. Therefore, my brother left Serbia right before the war broke. The following years marked some of the most stressed times in the eventful history of Serbia. It was not a matter of whether there were bombs and missiles aiming at us or not. Not a matter of if civilians were being arrested and Slaughtered or not. It was a matter of who was aiming them and who had to seek shelter. From Russian missiles piercing through the air, to civil wars and ethnic cleansing tearing up the streets, from seeking shelter to avoid NATO( North Atlantic Treaty Organization) bombings to marching for freedom, from food shortage to inflation, from running to the bunkers in the middle of the night to endless hours of power outages; I lived it all. Yes, these were the events that shaped my memories for what was supposed to be the best years of my life; my youth.
Life at home had its own challenges too. After the attack of aneurism, my mother worked hard, despite the conditions, to regain her health. She conquered the paralysis that had taken over half of her body to some degree but she was still not fully mobile. So running down the stairs to the shelters was not manageable. My father would pick her up with each siren and make it to the shelter out of breath. He managed, until the task became too dangerous and he decided to send us away to my uncle’s farm in the countryside for safety. Was this an introduction to the separation chapter of my life? Was I supposed to grow more and more resilient to prepare for the rest of the journey? Or was it a discomfort to complain about and victimize myself forever? The choice was mine.
If nothing, living through war, sanctions and shortages, makes you creative. Not just in an artistic way but in a utilitarian application. It sure made a wizard out of my father. I remember how he had to use an old Johnny Walker bottle to make a light for us since we couldn't find light bulbs. Or how he used the old transistor car radio to power up the bathroom light. So when you used the bathroom the radio would play. The first few days it startled me but soon it became a natural part of the process. Something to be missed later on.
Hard times not only make you creative but they also teach you flexibility. Struggle for survival beats life challenges. And if nothing, the images of war shape you for the rest of your life. I still carry, in my heart, the site of the bombed hospital and the nurses carrying babies out of the rubble to a safe place. I don't need to close my eyes to see the destroyed bridges on the Danube. I can still hear the sounds of rebellion in the streets of Serbia. I remember how I suddenly had to use “a passport” to visit relatives in Croatia. The confusion of the guards checking out this young girl with a Serbian first name and a Croatian last name was priceless.
When my mother passed away in 2001 my father shared his determination with me about sending me to United States to live with my brother. This was at the peak of the rebellious demonstrations in Serbia against dictatorship. The move was sudden and unplanned and I can’t really say I was excited or in favor of it. I didn't know what to expect. Uncertainty didn't leave any room for excitement. A student visa and a ticket…farewell my homeland, greetings adventure and hard work.
Since I entered US with a Student visa I had to start school right away. Before 5 days into my move I was registered and was being pulled between SAT, TOEFL and all kinds of tests. I was also obligated to keep my average over 3.8 and had to be a full time student and was not allowed to work. No drivers license in Georgia meant riding my bike next to 18 wheelers in Highway 75 to get to Kennesaw State, the school that embraced differences and cultures more than anywhere I had seen. After 2-3 weeks of not speaking to anyone, and I really mean “ anyone”, I made my first friend in art class. Our secret bond was established by discovering the art teacher’s mistake describing Kronos( Cronus), the God of time. After all we came from the land of Gods. A strike of a Russian comment between us and we were friends for life.
As tough as life was during those years and as scarce as money was, I managed through. Being a full time student, volunteering 20 hours a week, living on $300 a month would make it hard to even afford food. You could find me in any lecture or talk where food was provided. Even if they were just crackers or fortune cookies, they would still beat hunger.
Struggling with basic human rights; food, security and freedom doesn't leave much room for being easily offended or too emotional. Even though I would hear a comment, “ Go back to your country” here and there, I felt welcome in the circle of my immigrant friends. I felt safe. But truly, unless you are a native American, you are not eligible to make that comment, I think.
The whirlwind of hard work and suspense didn't end with getting my undergrad. I needed to enroll for Masters right away in order to keep my visa. A very different chapter of college life started at GSU( Georgia State University). A not so pleasant one. Still, continuing with straight “ A”s was my top priority. And then to be able to stay in US I had to get a job right away and transfer my student visa to H1B. I started working at an international non profit at Georgia Perimeter College and actually enjoying what I was doing. Just as things were settling in place and life was slowing down a bit, the recession hit. The biggest recession in the history of America. And I was, once again, hanging by a thread. One more thing to add to the long list of my tough experiences. Lay offs, furloughs, program shut downs. Losing my job would have translated into losing my visa and the possibility of being deported. I was determined to do everything legally. There was too much sacrificed for me and my future. Too much was left behind. Too much at stake. I had to make it a legal residency without risking anything. It seemed that as much as I wanted to plan and do everything in its own time, life had a different mission for me. It seemed that I was being trained to make last minute decisions and trust they were right ones. Marrying my boyfriend of seven years was of the sort. Another unplanned decision: “ Let’s run to the home office and get married.”
During the few weeks between my current situation and my residency approval I refused to step out of the house. Nothing was worth the risk of having any discrepancies in my status especially that it all coincided with the immigrant crack downs in Georgia. I needed that security blanket. That Greencard.
And there… the next chapter of my life was ready to be written, like a clear canvas. But was it really as clear as I thought or was it shadowed by the memories that shaped me; my country, my culture, my family? The food I would always miss. The warmth, the feeling of being held, that I never experienced since I left. The knowing that visiting my father was now an occasional luxury.
And well, the memory of getting a “ B” on the history of my well trodden homeland during my undergrad. A “B” by a professor who believed in retold history more than first hand experience of a Serbian. The only “ B” during all these years of struggling and surviving. The” B” of historians versus people who live history. People who write it with their own flesh and blood. I give myself an “ A” though, if for nothing, for being a living history book. A survivor.