Amela Rugova shares her personal journey as a Muslim-American from Bosnian heritage.
I think an integral part of youth is overcoming your feelings of ‘otherness.’ At that stage in life, all of us are trying to develop a sense of self and find that niche where we feel like we belong. It goes without say that being a Muslim-American woman and a child of immigrants certainly created a unique layer to this path we all go through. My entire childhood was a reminder of the great sacrifices that my parents made to come to this country. I heard stories of refugee camps, not knowing the fate of lost friends and loved ones, in addition to the struggles of darting through sniper ridden streets just to get another meal. It was difficult to process at a young age, but instilled a great pride in myself to come from such a powerful line of survivors. Still, being a first generation American comes with its difficulties. Knowing the sacrifices your parents have made creates an additional level of pressure that few people could ever understand. My mother would always tell me, “when you do something out there, you carry your father’s face.” It was her way of reminding me that, like the collectivist culture she grew up in, my actions would forever impact our reputation in the community, and there are few things in this world more important to a Bosnian family than reputation.
My father, who had a degree in engineering in Bosnia, now works as a doorman. I remember going on a walk with him one day where he stopped and said to me, “I do a job that I do not love, in a country that does not understand me, but I do it all for you. I do not have a lot of money, but my children are my wealth.” You can imagine the fear of disappointing him. The older I got, the stronger these pressures became as I became exposed to other ideas and started growing into the proud outspoken feminist I am today. The culture you grow up in at home is loud and foreign and full of Turkish coffee, Bosnian folklore music and kofte, but when you go to school and interact with your peers you feel like you are a different person. For a long time, I resented the fact that I felt I had to live two different lives. That my parents did not understand my desire to take part in what was considered “normal” American kid activities like sleep-away camp and after-school clubs. Now I understand that as an immigrant child I cannot hold them accountable for the way they grew up nor should I be ashamed of my background. It is a huge part of my identity that I am wildly proud of, and it doesn’t make me any less American. It only drives me further to fight for the recognition of people like me and those who feel they do not fit into the particular mold of what an American citizen should look and act like.
When my parents first came to America swaddling me, a then two month old infant, we were met by relatives at JFK airport with the promise of opportunity. Like many others, they too were felt with a looming uncertainty of what was expected from people here. Simple things like how to talk and how to act had to be relearned in a language unknown to them, with words that tripped the tongue like cotton on the mouth. Personal space, a custom that does not exist to the Bosnian people, and the minor taboo of kissing platonic loved ones on the cheek (I could never tell if it was three times or two) all came as a shock, but they worked hard to abide by these unwritten rules outside of family.
As anyone can tell, to escape religious persecution and teach yourself to suppress basic day to day acts that only come natural to you is no easy task. Immigrants who do not fit the expected molds often make vast attempts to make themselves invisible, when it is their very uniqueness that brings so much color and joy to American society. For this reason, it saddens me to see that in recent times, there has been increased discontent with the arrival of foreigners in this country, foreigners that very much resemble my parents. This xenophobia, though heavily rooted in America’s history, has always puzzled me as it has been my upmost belief that diversity is what makes this country great. Unfortunately, this fear of the unknown is what makes people unnerved by the idea of meeting people different from them. It was only after 9/11 that my family urged me not to reveal my background to strangers, wary that preconceptions would cause them to harm me. When I heard this I was very confused. I was barely seven. Why would anyone be afraid of me? Years of pondering this very question has led to the decision that I would not silence a part of me that has so strongly impacted how I behave and think. An identity that so many others also share. It is surely the combination of fear and rumor that allows these stereotypes to perpetuate, and I hope to one day reverse those ideas-to show the goodness of my people and all those who came before me.