Ana Croegaert on her book, Bosnian Refugees in Chicago

Cover Image

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.

Jacqueline Hazen takes the page 99 test

The 99th page of my dissertation, “Mediating Micronesian Futures: Potentialities and Precarity in Cultural Production Among Mobile Pacific Islanders,” marks a transition in a chapter introducing how contemporary
people from the Federated States of Micronesia engage diverse media to connect on their home
islands and further afield. The chapter’s first sections follow a ritual sound from the island of
Pohnpei, FSM as it is deployed by Pohnpeians to continue its mediating work of gathering
participants in feast houses, but also to communicate respect during Pohnpeian radio broadcasts
and to engage diverse crowds at international events on Pohnpei and abroad. Page 99 moves
from tracing this enduring Pohnpeian mediator to broadly introducing other indigenous and
incorporated technologies in Micronesians’ media worlds. Faye Ginsburg, Brian Larkin, and Lila
Abu Lughod argue that analyzing ‘media worlds’ “situates media as a social practice within…
shifting political and cultural frames,” (2002: 3). The media worlds shaped by contemporary
Micronesians span islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and places in Guam, Hawai‘i,
and the continental United States where an estimated 1 in 3 FSM citizens and their diaspora-born
children travel, work, and live as legal non-immigrants. These transnational Micronesian media
worlds enlarge the scale of the transmission and transformations of cultural knowledge and
protocol, as well as valued materials. As articulated by Epeli Hau‘ofa, the contemporary
circulation of Pacific people, valued Oceanic foods and substances, and Western materials within
the Pacific and beyond move through long-held cultural patterns of families’ reciprocal
interdependence, but now between kin at home, in motion, and in diaspora (1993; see also Peter
2000; Gershon 2007, 2012).
People on Pohnpei and among the FSM diaspora on Guam narrated how they deploy
multiple communicative modalities in their work to maintain expected kinship roles from
a distance. This section presents types of modalities deployed across contemporary
Micronesians’ networks intertwined with my interlocutors’ narratives about
communication devices’ and media platforms’ roles in facilitating valued socioeconomic
exchanges that underlie practices of interdependent care and support among kin (Hau‘ofa
2008.) Further narratives describe negotiations around connectivity and respect in
communication across social media platforms, and diverse media modalities’
incorporation in processes of documenting and transmitting culturally-significant
knowledge, forms, and performances.

Page 99 then describes hand carried letters and packages on planes, and subsequent pages
discuss Micronesians’ narratives about culturally-inflected engagement with high-frequency, CB,
and satellite radios; families’ communal mobile phones; WhatsApp and Facebook; film and
digital photography; as well as camcorders and cell phone films.

I conducted my dissertation fieldwork with islanders on Pohnpei and with FSM diaspora on
Guam, indigenous home of the Chamoru and an unincorporated U.S. territory, during periods
from 2015 to 2018. Re-reading this page in 2021 — and later chapters about Pohnpeians’
digitized participation in mortuary and other rituals from afar — underscores how highly
diasporic populations have been shaping ways to participate in their families’ life events through
mediating technologies long before many governments’ social distancing mandates in 2020
widely necessitated digitally-mediated gatherings for celebrations and mourning in order to quell
the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Jacqueline Hazen. 2020. “Mediating Micronesian Futures: Potentialities and Precarity in Cultural Production Among Mobile Pacific Islanders.” New York University Phd.

Sheena Kalayil discusses her book, Second-Generation South Asian Britons

Interview by Kim Fernandes

Kim Fernandes: In your book, you argue that your participants (who are parents of dual heritage children and are themselves bilingual British South Asians) have a “relationship” with the Heritage Language. You intentionally use relationship as a metaphor to acknowledge the dynamic and often shifting ways in which one’s identity and the use of language are connected. For anyone who may not yet have read your book, would you be able to say a little bit more about what inspired this framing?

Sheena Kalayil: My starting point within this research was to try and find out whether people maintained their Heritage Language(s). As I began to listen to my participants talk about how they view their Heritage Languages, I began to reflect on my own experiences with Malayalam, my Heritage Language, and to realize that it was indeed a relationship. While I was talking to my participants, I also saw my own understanding of narrative inquiry shift. All of the participants – well, except for one – were older than me, by at least a little bit. They were all in what I would describe as ambitious or prestigious jobs. Their jobs all required a particular set of professional skills, and they were not going to let me write the story of their lives. They wanted to tell their life stories in their own way. So, our interviews were very much jointly constructed between us. The participants were driving the narrative of their lives, deciding what they wanted to talk about in the interview setting, and the way they were talking helped me construct this idea of having a relationship with their identity and language.

Multilingualism is very complex, and it should not be investigated through one approach. In my book, I wanted to show that monolingual interviews with participants can provide just as rich, just as useful, if not more useful, insights into the study of multilingualism and multiculturalism. In particular, I wanted to address the discourse around multiculturalism in the UK, which I think differs from US discourse in some ways. A lot of people assume that because the UK is multicultural, it will be a multilingual country. And while the multiculturalism is celebrated, it is also often considered a problem – you’re celebrated on the one hand and problematized on the other. If you’re an ethnic minority, even if you’re married to a white monolingual person, society expects your family to be multilingual, and there’s a sense of disappointment in situations where this isn’t the case.

Kim Fernandes: What inspired your choice of narrative inquiry as a method for the book? How did you work to build a narrative environment that allowed participants, as you point out, to move away from strictly linear understandings of space and time, and to instead generatively reconsider the ways in which language learning intersected with their understandings of time and space?

Sheena Kalayil: You know, in another life, I would have loved to be an anthropologist, and have done an ethnographic study. But with this study, it wasn’t the right time in my life to do that, and I wouldn’t have been the right person to be doing it. For me, a researcher has to really believe they are the only person who can be doing the study that they are doing. Being a writer, too, storytelling is important to me – and so the idea of just letting people tell their stories was very appealing to me. I began by reading about narrative research, but I came up against very canonical approaches. When I thought about them, I also thought, well, if somebody asked me those questions (say, for instance, about the one critical incident that had really got me thinking about my use of Heritage Language), I would not be able to pull out just one incident, because our lives are made up of so many incidents. I was also thinking about the ways in which we don’t really understand what’s happening when we are young, and often, you only get a sense of what happened as you grow older. So, too, there’s a retrospective building of a story. The other thing I took on board was that my participants are busy people and not everybody is comfortable with talking about themselves – so I didn’t want to start a research project which would die a quick death because people either found it too onerous to participate or I just wasn’t setting the right tone.

I quickly realized that a researcher should not just bank on the commonalities they might share with participants and assume that they are able to ask any kind of question or talk about anything. I’m not comfortable talking about a lot of my own life or family dynamics, so I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable answering certain questions. I was also aware that there were many things that I didn’t have in common with my participants. At one point, then, I decided to think of a narrative inquiry on my own terms. That is, asking people to tell their lives using interviews as my research tool and adopting a theoretical framework which respected how they chose to drive their narrative. I believe this approach allowed me to do the participants and their narratives justice. And through the messiness that arises from semi-structured interviews, I never felt like I was imposing my own research strategy or structure on the data. Instead, after transcribing the interviews and using Bakhtin’s theories of chronotopes, I was able to pick the aspects of the interview that the participants themselves were trying to highlight to me.

Kim Fernandes: At the beginning of the book, you describe an episode from the BBC radio program, Mind Your Language, where there is a particular disconnect between the topics that researchers are typically interested in when studying multilingualism and the rich everyday linguistic experiences of a range of Heritage Language speakers whose interests are typically not represented in research. You also talk about how writing this book was a way for you to center the voices of people like you that is, highly educated second-generation South Asian Britons from a range of professional backgrounds whose experiences with multiculturalism and multilingualism are often not the focus of research. Could you tell us a little bit more about what kinds of audiences you’d imagined when preparing this book?

Sheena Kalayil: I am a minority in the UK, and I’ve married outside of my linguistic, ethnic and religious community, and I have what are termed dual heritage children. So, all of these things are very close to me and my participants. But at the same time, I am very much an outsider. I wasn’t born in the UK, and I didn’t go to school here, I didn’t have that kind of formative upbringing that many of my participants did. Research that I was reading focused on particular types of South Asian communities – living in close linguistic and religious communities, working-class – because they are rich sources for research into multilingualism and cultural identity. But by focusing on those rich sources, there were a lot of people in the UK who were flying under the radar of most researchers – as I noticed from my own milieu, from my friends and this comes back to your question about who my audience is. My first audience was really myself. As a researcher of color in this country, I felt like I had a responsibility to add to the corpus through my ethnographic perspective as an insider-outsider. I felt like this allowed me to develop a different perspective on multiculturalism and multilingualism from the well-trodden research routes within existing conversations. So, the second audience for the monograph was also the academic community. However, I also firmly believe that the way I write and present the data is accessible in ways that might be of broader interest to those interested in a wide range of related issues, even if not directly as students of linguistics.

Kim Fernandes: Right now, with COVID-19, a lot of interviews are increasingly being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I noticed, though, that even prior to this moment, you’d chosen to do a combination of in-person and Skype interviews for you book. What influenced the choice of interview location, and in turn, how did that shape the nature of the narratives shared with you?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really interesting question. I was worried that if I insisted on in-person interviews, I would narrow the scope of my participants for a number of reasons. I had to fit interviews into my daily life and couldn’t afford to pay a substantial amount of money for travel. I didn’t want to limit my research to the area I live in, Manchester, but I wanted a breadth of the South Asian experience, linguistically and geographically in the UK. So, while it would feel absolutely normal now to set up the Zoom interview, I realized when doing my research that the two kinds of interviews were different, but it wasn’t that one was better than the other. Meeting people online, in a way, allowed me to be a more considerate interviewer: I could fit in the Skype interviews around their daily routines. I felt like online interviews allowed me to touch on things that were sensitive to people of South Asian heritage, such as love marriages, arguments with parents over raising children, and so on, while also being respectful of my participant’s space.

I do think, as well, that what the online interviews did was focus the interview very closely on the participant and their language experiences, in ways that may not have been possible with in-person interviews, and this might be a consideration for research in the future. I hope this also means that we can move away from thinking about in-person ethnographic work as the only way in which to collect putatively authentic data.

Kim Fernandes: I noticed in the book that caste only come up a couple of times, with one participant. Elsewhere, you mention status and race, and their relationship to language, but there is almost no discussion of caste as a fairly significant oppressive, hierarchical system across South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities. Can you say more about how caste did – or didn’t – come up in your own conversations, analysis and writing, particularly with regard to how it influenced participants’ relationship with language?

Sheena Kalayil: That’s a really good question, and I think it’s interesting that I haven’t been asked that before. Caste hasn’t played a major role in my life, and it wasn’t at the top of my agenda. However, when I was gathering participants for this study, I could tell from their last names about their caste – and one participant, as you mentioned, brought up her own caste. It wasn’t a question that I asked, since I wasn’t planning on asking my participants about their caste or religion. But being South Asian, of course, meant that religion did come up at some point with the participants. Given the contested nature of caste in the homeland, I felt that in the UK, caste may not have been as prominent a feature, even though there were numerous hints relating to caste and religion throughout. In future research, this is definitely something I’d like to look into.