â€œWhen I was 18 this is where I saw my first dead body. Most of it was here, but his hand was over there,â€ Denis said as we walked passed a small crater in the sidewalk. This was the introduction I got to Denisâ€™ parentsâ€™ apartment complex. Denis, 33, had not been back to his hometown of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina in eight years. A month earlier when I first met him I noticed his accent and asked, â€œWhere are you from?â€ To which he replied, â€œIâ€™m American.â€ This answer did not satisfy me so I pressed him further until eventually learned that the complete answer to my question was extremely complicated.
Denis was born in Mostar, a city know and named for a 16th century Ottoman bridge. It has a population of about 125,000 and is currently in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but for the first 18 years of Denisâ€™ life, he lived in Yugoslavia. When the Bosnia war erupted in 1992, he lived his daily life in a war zone, until he managed to be evacuated to Germany where he lived as a refugee for five years. Then he was forced to move back to Bosnia after Germany expelled all the refugees it had sheltered during the war. After returning to a country ravaged by war and with an atmosphere of tense ethnic divisions, Denis and his family gained refugee status in the United States, which also included obtaining citizenship, and moved to Arizona.
America provided an entirely new life for Denis and his family. His father, Ramadan, earned more money working as a dishwasher in a hotel than he ever did as a colonel in the Yugoslav army. Denis also worked in resorts in Arizona until he saved enough to go to college at Arizona State University (ASU). When I talk to Denis he often mentions the difference in age between him and me or him and his colleagues, especially the awkwardness of being a freshman at ASU at 26.
But now, most of his previous life is completely behind him. He defines himself as absolutely American; he even records his own voice and listens to it in order to eliminate his accent. He does not miss home or participate in cultural events that would connect him with the Balkans in any way. He has taken advantage of all the opportunities the United States offers; especially the freedom to reinvented himself as an American.