Ana Croegaert on her book, Bosnian Refugees in Chicago

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Interview by Dejan Duric

Dejan Duric: Your book sheds light on the many ways in which Bosnian women make and remake their lives in Chicago, based on more than a decade of fieldwork, both on- and offline.  What do you see as the main focus and argument in your book?

Ana Croegaert: Thanks so much for this question — my book centers the economic, political, and affective lives of women refugees who were displaced by the 1990s political violence in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and then relocated to Chicago. I argue that women’s varied experiences with displacement shed light on the aftermath of intensive neoliberal reform and rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe and the United States. Initially I was interested in learning about women’s experiences with the material and social aspects of refugee resettlement in the United States in the midst of major reconfigurations in the social organization of work and of racial inequality. At the time I was in Chicago, then home to the largest number of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) contracting agencies (after New York City and Los Angeles), and living in a part of the city with the highest concentration of refugees from former Yugoslavia. 

The vast majority of this refugee diaspora are Bosnian Muslim or from mixed Muslim-Christian families. There are two reasons for this. First, the political violence became ethno-racialized,  and Bosnian Muslim civilians and those in mixed families comprised the majority of people subjected to the atrocities. Second, unlike the other two majority ethnic groups–Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs–Bosnian Muslims did not have another state within former Yugoslavia that would recognize their citizenship, and so they had to seek international refugee status. Something that really stood out to me from the start of my research was the extent to which depictions of the wartime violence and victimization figured prominently in Bosnians’ encounters with Americans in ways that often crowded out women’s varied work experiences and their reflections on the ruptures not only of political violence, but also of radical neoliberal reforms in both the SFRY and the United States. A focus on performance, broadly conceived, helped me to capture and unpack these tensions for the book’s readers.

Dejan Duric: What stood out to me in your book is the detailed portrayal of how Bosnian women’s experiences of displacement were affected by a myriad of factors: their experience of growing up in a socialist country, anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States, shifting gender, race, and class dynamics in a new context, and so on. How did Bosnian women in Chicago make sense of the tensions and paradoxes that such experiences produced?

Ana Croegaert: Perhaps the best way to answer this question is through the lens of generational differences. One of the unique features of this refugee cohort was that it was multi-generational; children arrived in the U.S. not only with their parents’ generation – they were also sometimes accompanied by their grandparents’ generation. These two adult generations had experienced the benefits of Yugoslavia’s development programs of the 1950s-60s which greatly expanded education and jobs with strong workers’ rights and status throughout the country. They arrived in the United States with the expectation of a more robust working life than what they found. A Bosnian senior women’s group I volunteered with made me aware of this dissonance during their weekly meetings. The women used these occasions to drink Bosnian coffee and talk together, and a main topic of conversation were their adult children’s decline in circumstances in comparison to what they had experienced in Yugoslavia – that in the United States adults had to work two, sometimes three jobs just to afford the basic cost of housing and food; that they often had no time off or vacations; that some of them had no health insurance. The senior women’s critiques of these differences linked senses of time and space – that “there” in Bosnia / Yugo one “had time” for a quality of life; “here” in the U.S. there was no time for this.

Sometimes these differences created tensions for families. Adult children, for example, often felt pressure to help support their parents and their extended family who remained in Bosnia, where efforts to rebuild after the war were met with a multitude of obstacles. In order to cope with their diminished livelihoods, loss of social benefits, and to meet family obligations, a number of refugees relied – as did many Americans at that time – on newly deregulated credit and finance and were then severely hit by the ensuing financial crisis of 2007-8. As anthropologists know well, people’s feelings and sentiments around various debts are complex and often involve more than the contracted parties—these debts took a toll on social relations, and even on people’s health.

Dejan Duric: I found your focus on stories helpful to think with in terms of how refugees become legible (by sharing their stories) as certain types of persons. You identify two different language ideologies—one summarized by “everyone has their own story” and a more familiar one of “giving voice”—related to sharing stories. Can you explain how these two ways of looking at stories differ?

You also note that since “everyone has their own story” you were asked about your own story by your interlocutors. This is an interesting observation that you don’t expand on much; could you say a bit more about this?

Ana Croegaert: Yes, I was really struck by the ways that refugees were expected to share certain kinds of memory-stories depending on the setting. The “giving voice” sort of stories centered on victimhood and was most apparent when sharing experiences of political violence with westerners. One type of victimhood story was elicited in relation to NGOs aligned with western feminisms – the subtext in these stories most often was the widespread gendered sexual violence that women—and some men—were subjected to. Another arena in which the victimhood narrative was elicited were in the context of public memorial events organized by the diaspora—usually men—to uphold the autonomy and unity of the Bosnian state in the face of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) “inter-entity” boundary. These memorials overlapped with concurrent testimony given at the ICTY trials, and significant genocide rulings there and at the ICJ (especially in 2004-06). Further, this was in the early years of the “war on terror” and concomitant heightened anti-Muslim sentiment and rising white nationalist movements. This created a complex environment for Bosnians: how to communicate this seeming paradox of victimization of Muslim men to a public in which Muslim men were increasingly dehumanized? 

Here, young women again were the primary narrators of victimhood, and in relation to particular genocidal acts that targeted men such as those that took place in Prijedor and in Srebrenica. The systematic rape campaigns suffered by women were rarely mentioned in these stories. Both of these “giving voice” stories tended to portray women as symbols of the nation of women, or the nation of Bosniaks, and obscured refugee women’s efforts to be seen as workers, as creative beings, as more than victims, as more than valorized survivors.

I was actually quite surprised when I encountered these wartime victimhood stories because when I first began introducing myself to people through my neighborhood contacts and through a local non-profit staffed by Bosnian women, people agreed to talk with me, but specified “not about the war”. I took their lead and did not ask about the war. And then, after I got to know folks they would start telling me about their experiences during the war, usually in the context of conversations and activities that were not centered on the war. I interpret this initial refusal to talk about the war in part as a result of repeatedly being asked to share experiences of victimization. 

One phrase I heard over and again was “Everyone has their own story” – this language ideology emphasizes that the individual may speak for themselves and not for anyone else. In contrast to a supposedly authentic voice that has to be activated or given, there is an emphasis on self-awareness and self-construction within a communicative encounter. This was also a way of recognizing that although people – and Bosnian Muslims / Bosniaks in particular – were targeted according to group belonging: ethnicity / religion, gender, age, they had varied wartime and refugee experiences: it was different to have been in Sarajevo during the more than four years siege than to have been in a small town outside of Mostar, or displaced in the east, trying to seek refuge in the UN-designated “safe-area” of Srebrenica. It was different to be a woman or a man, of a certain age, of a certain class background. It was different to have arrived in the United States directly from former Yugoslavia in 1994, or to have arrived in 1999 after spending several years as a refugee in Germany.

People also wanted to know, what was my story? Where were my parents from? Why did I want to know about their story? What was my motive? What was my life like? I am not a refugee, nor were my parents immigrants. I also have had a lot of struggle in my life, and I shared these experiences with some of the women I came to know. I understood this expectation that I also share my story to be a way for people to recalibrate the researcher / subject, U.S. citizen / refugee dynamic. 

Dejan Duric: I particularly enjoyed the transnational and multisited approach in your book. In chapter three, “Ajla in Stolac,” you reflect on your time with Ajla in Stolac, a small town close to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Ajla has helped you understand the complex dynamics of inter-ethnic relations in the region, people’s aspirations for going abroad, and just what it is like to be a young adult in BiH. How and when did you decide to visit BiH and make that a part of your research project? Did you learn anything new about the diaspora after visiting BiH?

Ana Croegaert: Yes, I realized early on that, given how embedded women’s affective and material lives were in Bosnia’s postwar society and its diaspora, this project demanded a transnational and multi-sited methodology.  As I alluded to earlier, people felt profound attachments and responsibilities to family and friends who remained in BiH: sending gifts, remitting wages, maintaining property, and arranging return visits occupied a great deal of folks’ thoughts and plans. Previous scholarship of transnational ties to the region had focused primarily on men’s diaspora nationalist political organizing, but this work didn’t clarify much about the new diaspora’s engagements and the context of reconstruction in a post-war society. A number of people in Chicago had originally lived in the Mostar region.  When I shared that I wanted to better understand what life was like in Bosnia, and the relationships between people there and in Chicago, one family offered to let me stay in their apartment in Stolac, a small town up in the mountains above Mostar. They also put me in touch with family members there.

In fact, I was originally to travel to BiH in 2006, but unanticipated complications made it necessary to delay the trip. I was finally able to make the trip in 2009. Those three years made a difference because the political and economic situation in Mostar region had actually deteriorated during that time. I arrived during a political stalemate. The city council had been unable to pass a budget or elect a mayor and had stopped paying municipal workers and staff at publicly owned companies several months before I arrived. Further, the global economic crisis was in full swing and it had become more challenging for people in the diaspora to help buffer the effects of stalled reconstruction and high rates of unemployment in BiH by sending money and gifts. 

As you mentioned, I share the story of my visit to the region through the life of Ajla, in her early twenties at the time, and the niece / cousin of my Chicago family friends. I learned so much from Ajla. She was near to completing her studies in civil engineering and aspired to become an urban planner and help direct municipal reconstruction projects in Mostar. She was an only child and while she had been admitted to the engineering program in Sarajevo, from which both of her parents had graduated, she had declined and instead enrolled in university in Mostar because after the war her mom had contracted a significantly debilitating nerve disease. Ajla needed to remain nearby to help with her mother’s care. She had extensive knowledge of the United States as well as an extensive social network in the area. I learned so much from Ajla and her network.

One thing I learned was that everyone I met had family abroad, and some young people I met had even lived and worked in the United States and were back in Bosnia for a short or extended stay. I recall in particular one of Ajla’s acquaintances who told us that her mother and father had divorced. The nineteen year old woman lived with her grandmother and was in charge of her younger brother because her mother often spent much of the week in Sarajevo where she worked in a shop and was only able to return to Mostar on the weekends. This young woman’s father was now living in Michigan where he had a “new family”; it had been several years since she had seen her father in person. At times these transnational family forms produced tensions and resentments, and revealed significant gendered inequality in the distribution of affective and material responsibilities. Situations in BiH profoundly affected the everyday lives of people in the United States, and vice-versa.

Dejan Duric: Bosnian Refugees in Chicago came out in 2020; how has your research for the book and the reception of the book shaped your current projects? What are you working on right now?

Ana Croegaert: Well, the book was published in fall 2020, in the midst of pre-vaccine pandemic times. It’s a weird time to have a book release! That said, it’s been really fun to have people engage with the work. The world of academic publishing has such a drawn-out and unpredictable timeline; we’re often well into another project by the time a book finally materializes and it’s been really great to get to discuss the research for this book which was such a long time in the making.

In relation to the subject of Bosnian diaspora I have a forthcoming book chapter centered on coffee as a critical symbolic place-maker in diasporic and culturally dynamic contexts that features some of the work I describe next. My passion-project, dream-project that I’d like to grow, is an inter-generational collaborative interview project that is an outgrowth of the research for the book. This piece, “Gathering Grounds” uses interviews about Bosnian coffee practices to connect people within the post-SFRY diaspora, often across generations. We have a small collection of interviews, along with the interview guides, available on a website but we’d love to have the time and material support to grow it!

A key concept that arose out of my research for Bosnian Refugees in Chicago is that of “injured life,” that refers to folks’ insistence on the inseparability of the material and social injuries they had endured. I’ve been thinking a lot about this conceptualization of harm as I consider my more recent work. Since 2014 I’ve been exploring social tensions and social relationships through urban site-specific research, primarily in New Orleans and in Chicago. This research has looked at street food vending regulations, struggles to remove segregation-era monuments to white supremacy, gentrification and house music, and plant-based approaches to the abolition of Closed Cell Restriction (CCR, solitary confinement) in prisons…I think there’s a book in there somewhere! I’ve also been working since 2020 with a fantastic team out of the Field Museum in Chicago to establish a collection that documents material and expressive cultural responses to the covid-19 pandemic and coincident economic and political struggles – this project is ongoing.

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