Growing Up American in a Bosnian Refugee Family

A sense of being isolated can be an all too familiar feeling for a refugee living in America, but feeling like an outsider as the only American-born member of a family of refugees is uncharted territory for some.

A sense of being isolated can be an all too familiar feeling for a refugee living in America, but feeling like an outsider as the only American-born member of a family of refugees is uncharted territory for some.

Dzenela Becic is the youngest in a Bosnian refugee family of five with one key distinction from her mother, father and two older brothers — she is the only one born in the United States. Becic, 21, was born in Utica, New York, one month after her family resettled in the United States as refugees as a result of the Bosnian War.

Despite being the only natural-born American in a family of newly relocated refugees, Becic still went through the same experiences as her parents and siblings. She had to learn the English language, adapt to the diverse Utica City School District and find a place among her peers — but it was still different.

Dubbed “Amerikanka,” meaning American girl in Bosnian, by her immediate and extended family, she was still viewed differently despite fully embracing the Bosnian culture. Now a senior at Colgate University set to graduate in May, Becic has embraced Islam, immersing herself in a part of her culture most of her family has given up by now.

Becic wears an abaya, an Islamic dress from Dubai, during the Muslim Student Association’s 2017 Eid banquet at Colgate University. (Contributed by Dzenela Becic)

What Happened in Bosnia?

Following World War II, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia unified to form the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, according to United to End Genocide, a non-profit group with the goal of fighting genocide and other atrocities around the world. While a unified country, Yugoslavia contained multiple ethnic groups: Orthodox Christian Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, Muslim ethnic Albanians and Catholic Croats.

Conflict in the region was commonplace, but President Josip Broz Tito was able to maintain control once he came to power in 1943. Governed under communism, Yugoslavia began to splinter after Tito’s death in 1980 and leading up to the end of the Cold War.

This is an interactive timeline giving a brief look into the Bosnian War and the events leading up to it. Navigate using the arrows on either side to view content.

Professor of European history at Utica College, Peter DeSimone, explained that animosity between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks is centuries old and dates back to the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of the Balkan region.

“These three groups have competed with one another for recognition, legitimacy and dominance well into the present day as all attempt to reclaim some control over what they perceive as their historical destinies,” DeSimone said.

At the forefront of discontent within the region leading up to the Bosnian War was Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who stoked tension between Serbians in Bosnia and Croatia toward Bosniaks, Croatians and Albanians. After growing political tension, Bosniak president Alija Izetbegovic declared Bosnia independent in 1992, following a referendum vote, which was blocked in Serb-populated areas by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

The newly formed Bosnian state was not ideal for Bosnian Serbs that sought to be part of a predominantly Serbian state. In April 1992, Bosnian Serb forces, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, attacked and besieged Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, according to The Guardian.

This launched a nearly three-year civil war as Bosnian Serbs attempted to gain territory while ethnically cleansing Bosnia of its Muslim population, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The war reached its bloodiest point in July 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina when Serb forces took over the town and killed more than 8,000 Bosniaks.

By the war’s end in November 1995, 100,000 people, 80 percent of them Bosniaks, were estimated to be killed. According to the United Nations, in 2012, an estimated 2.7 million people were “uprooted” because of the conflict.

Becic’s family was among those millions affected by the Bosnian conflict.

Her father fought against the Serb army from 1992 to 1994 before being discharged due to sleeping issues, most likely due to stress from the war. This allowed him to return to his wife and children as they moved through multiple refugee camps throughout the Balkans.

After the war, the family had the opportunity to resettle in the United States as refugees through sponsorship by Becic’s godmother.

Their destination was Utica.

Becic, 1, and her mother. (Contributed by Dzenela Becic)

Family Empathy

Born one month after her family arrived in Utica, Becic did not experience the same growing pains as her two brothers, who were 10 and three when the family arrived. Unlike her older siblings, she did not have to deal with the perception of not being “American enough” when she started school.

“I didn’t have those issues,” Becic said. “But I couldn’t go through life being ignorant of the privilege that I had, which is being born here and looking ‘more American’ than they do and not having as strong of an accent.”

Becic was conscious of the struggles her brothers went through in America, taking time to learn from them and understand their experiences.

“I didn’t let the easier parts of life I had blind me to the realities of what they went through and the struggles we are still facing,” she said. “More so now, being in college and more attuned to social justice issues and the way people are oppressed and how they internalize that, I’m continuously understanding more and more the struggles they had while I was growing up.”

Despite trying to understand her family members’ struggles, she received criticism from immediate and extended family because her Bosnian “was never as good as theirs because they learned it in school.”

“I was always kind of called out for that, like ‘Oh, it’s because you’re so American,’” Becic said. “It was like treating the culture as a trait that increases or decreases based on how well you know the language, how long you lived in America or the privilege to be a natural-born U.S. citizen. They got to determine how Bosnian I was or how American I was rather than just treating me like a Bosnian-American.”

Years later, Becic still feels self-conscious to openly embrace Bosnian culture and language.

“It really made it hard to say I was Bosnian, even with other first-generation kids,” she said. “Even to this day, I don’t want to write a Facebook post in Bosnian because if someone finds a mistake, all of a sudden, you’re not Bosnian anymore, you’re too Americanized. There’s just a layer of judgement people can impose on you.”

Being the only member of her family that did not live through the hardships of the Bosnian conflict, Becic still learned to empathize with the struggles her family faced prior to her birth.

The interactive graph below shows the number of accepted Bosnian refugees in the U.S. compared to all other countries from 1993, the year refugees of this nationality began arriving in the U.S., to 2008. Place your cursor over each point to display the year’s exact value.

Throughout his work, DeSimone has noticed a disconnect “between those who ‘experienced’ the conflict and those who were raised away from it.” He cited examples from Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” on the disconnect between Holocaust survivors and their descendants.

“While there is empathy from younger generations, there is also some level of survivor’s guilt that they will not truly understand what earlier generations experienced,” DeSimone said. “Similar to what Spiegelman looks at, it is likely that while the ‘direct memory’ of these events may eventually fade as generations move forward, events such as this can still define an entire people well beyond those who experienced it.”

While her parents left the war and its aftermath behind, the youngest child said, “mental health issues,” including post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia, arrived with them in the U.S. Becic felt this influenced decisions her parents made when raising herself and her brothers, including not integrating the family into Utica’s Muslim population.

“I always felt like I was missing an essential part to my identity,” Becic explained. “But it wasn’t until later on I was able to embrace that, call myself a Muslim and learn about the religion.”

Embracing Islam

Now halfway through her senior year at Colgate, Becic is currently the co-president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), an organization created to support Muslim students on campus. Becic completed the reversion process, committing to Islam in November 2016.

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The Muslim Student Association at its 2017 Eid banquet at Colgate University. (Contributed by Dzenela Becic)

Her parents never pushed her toward the faith, but after learning about Islam and becoming friends with Muslim students at Colgate, she decided to commit. While she is now in a leadership role, the position with MSA was something that was not part of the plan a year ago.

This changed after the 2016 presidential election.

“Becoming president of MSA really made me want to use my voice for the first time and be more public about it, to join those conversations that we have on campus,” Becic explained. “I guess it was just the first stepping stone to embrace the consequences, positive or negative, that came my way.”

Becic’s family are Muslim Bosniaks. Now, after living in the U.S. for more than two decades, the only practicing Muslims in the family are Becic and her mother.

Both her mother and father were apprehensive about Becic being president of MSA over fear of their daughter putting a target on her back and facing discrimination, similar to issues they faced in Bosnia.

While Becic embraces her leadership role with MSA, she remains careful in getting involved in certain issues on campus.

“I really feel a lot of pressure to finish Colgate and do well without making a lot of noise so I can help my family, so I can get to law school without huge issues,” she said. “I’m putting my family’s security before me wanting to make a statement.”

Emily Eastwood, a senior at Colgate, is close friends with Becic and said she is a “very approachable person coupled with being a naturally spiritual person.” When Eastwood decided to embrace Islam this year, Becic played a big part in supporting her.

“She’s definitely one of the strongest people I know,” Eastwood said. “That’s what makes her so amazing. Her family being refugees, she’s had to start with so little, but she’s never been one to shy away from a challenge. I think that’s one of the most amazing things about her. She’s been through so much, but you don’t see that in her personality. She’s such a strong person, but she has such a bubbly and light-hearted personality as well.”

Becic in May while studying abroad in Russia. (Contributed by Dzenela Becic)

Set to graduate with a dual degree in Russian and international relations on a pre-law track, Becic is hoping to attend Fordham Law School in Fall 2018 with the career goal of becoming an immigration lawyer.

“I grew up with so many immigrants,” she said. “It’s another way to serve that community.”

Samuel Northrup is a junior at Utica College. He can be reached at

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