Zerina Spahic: Trying to Walk the Middle Path

Zerina Spahic spent her formative years throughout Europe and the United States. A war victim, her first-hand knowledge of the struggles refugees face post-conflict have been instrumental in guiding her activism on gender equality and the right to development. She completed her Graduate degree in International Law at the University of Leicester in England.

In a world of extremes, I try to walk the middle path. Some may call me weak for doing so, but it isn’t weakness that allows me to walk this path. It is strength, the strength that I receive from my respect of humanity, which allows me to walk this path.

I was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina shortly before the outbreak of war that tore about the land of my birth. At the tender age of two I became a refugee; a label I will carry for the rest of my life.  At the hands of my parent’s old neighbors, my family was persecuted for something that didn’t separate us the day before. We were prosecuted for being Muslim. All my life, the idea that people would kill for trivial reasons, which didn’t seem so important before, has plagued me.

It has plagued me, and it has made me a child of the diaspora. Growing up in any diaspora does something to an individual that isn’t easily understood or explained. You are forced to find a spot in your new surroundings, while trying to maintain a bit of the culture you left behind. And in this process, you slowly realize that you may be losing a place in both of these.

I struggled for many years with this dichotomy, and often felt that I didn’t belong anywhere. As a child growing up in Germany, I didn’t appreciate the tension. All that mattered was that I fit in with the popular kids. When that stopped happening, I didn’t blame the fact that I was different but simply one thing or another. Yet looking back at it now, I see that it was my hybrid status causing the disconnect.

Once my family moved to the United States, I simply did not fit in the Bosnian community. I had spent my childhood completely isolated from other Bosnians, so I can’t say I blame the community.  It wasn’t until Graduate School that I finally became comfortable with being a hybrid.  What had caused this, I wouldn’t be able to say – call it maturity, call it self-preservation. I have now seen the beauty in being a hybrid.

However, acceptance is one thing.  Being able to live in our society in this manner is a wholly entitled option. If I had a slightly darker skin tone or a more exotic name, being a hybrid would not be as easy; the only option would have been assimilation. As it is, most Bosnians do not look the stereotype of Muslims. We can pass here if we choose to.

I have been told that I turned my back on the Bosnian culture. I have been told that I am not a “good Muslim” – whatever that means. I have been told that I will never fit in. These statements bothered me because I wanted to belong, to belong somewhere – just as every human being does. Belonging is a necessity none of us can escape. Those who say they don’t want to belong are either lying or in self-denial. Being a hybrid only intensifies this feeling.

In my search for finding a place to belong, I have picked up memories from every place I have been and every person I met. These memories are the glue that holds together the hybrid culture I cocooned myself in.  I don’t solely identify myself as an American.  I don’t identify myself as only Bosnian or Muslim or of European descent or a refugee. Instead, I identify with my places and people that have shaped my memories.

Our cultural identity is important. It gives us our base when we are finding the place in this world.  But it isn’t everything that we are. We are souls made up by the culture we are born into, the religion our parents teach us, by the places we visit, the people we meet, the decisions we make.  And for each of us these puzzle pieces are different, but at the end of it all we all have a heart and we all have a mother.

This is my story. This is my message.

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