As a young girl I loved everything and anything culture. I loved hearing stories about my family tree, asking questions about where my mother and father came from, what life was like during their childhood and what brought them to that sunburnt land they now called home, Australia.
A school project once had me buried in mountains of old photographs as I pieced together moments of history to create my family tree. It was during this project of innocent self discovery that I would come to uncover some hard truths and learn some very important lessons.
I learnt that I only really ever knew one side of my family growing up, my mothers – as bitter feuds wedged us apart from my fathers family. I learnt that my mum and dad weren’t quite from the same place and this meant that my ethnicity wasn’t so easily defined. I grew up far away from a very complicated region which had began to chop up and dissect its borders, ultimately dividing and changing an entire region of people I was once able to identify as belonging too.
It was simple though looking back in hindsight. I was an Australian born girl from two immigrant parents. My mother immigrated to Australia in 1971 from what is today’s Macedonia or North Macedonia to be politically correct and my Serbian father in 1969 from the Dalmatian coast of today’s Croatia. For the first 6 years of my childhood it was acceptable to identify as being Yugoslav, as was the nationality stated on my parents passports. This wouldn’t be the case for very long though as the Balkan wars began to wreak their havoc near and far.
It was at that moment that I realised that mum and dad were not quite “the same”. As I became a little older I was able to understand some of the more complicated issues that were starting to arise at home and abroad, I found myself frustrated simply thinking ‘why did something happening so far away in a land unknown to me have this much of an impact on my life?’ Why is my father suddenly becoming aggressive as he watches the news documenting the Balkan war and why is mum suddenly engaging in a political war of words? Since when did it become ‘us’ and ‘them’. Why were we suddenly no longer allowed to visit our Bosnian neighbours who would sometimes mind my sister and I when my parents worked late?
I can’t change the past, I can only reflect upon it and look at it through new eyes and a new perspective. What I can change however is how I choose to take my experience and use it for a better future. My own children are of mixed ethnicity and a controversial one at that. A friend once told my husband and I that our marriage was as controversial as an Israeli Jew marrying a Palestinian Muslim. A very awkward laugh was my response.
I know that I will never sit my sons or daughter down and tell them stories of wars that tore down Serbian and Albanian villages in Kosovo. I will never tell them about the long standing history of indifference and hatred that these two nations have towards one another. I will never tell them they are more mine then they are their fathers or they are more their fathers purely because they carry his family name. This rhetoric wont be taught in our household.
Instead I will tell them of the rich and beautiful cultures in which they belong. The stories of their grandparents past and migration into foreign lands. If they ever wish to learn the tongue of their ancestors I wont stand in their way. I will recommend they visit these lands someday and learn and keep an open mind about how beautifully diverse the world around them is. They wont be told to choose between mum or dad, rather taught to love, to love themselves and their uniqueness, to thank God that they were not children born in war and to pray for those who were. They will be taught to love before anything else, to love themselves and to understand that identity as important as it is, is not carved into the stones and history books of their ancestors. They do not carry the burdens of wars unknown to them, they do not carry the sins and blood of the cultures or nations that tyrants ran before them.
Post world-war II Ohrid, Macedonia
My maternal grandmother and grandfather.
Above is a photograph of my maternal grandfather, grandmother, great grandmother and uncles. I estimate this photograph to be taken around 1950 one year before my mother was born. Interestingly enough the women in my non-Islamic family worn head-covering – today this would be recognised as ‘Hijab’.