Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Label Breaker

by Jelena Pjević

“Hi everyone, my name is Jelena Pjević,” I introduce myself to the group.

“What kind of name is that? That’s not American, is it?” someone asks.

“No, it’s not,” I reply. “It’s the Slavic form of Helen, but it’s pronounced with a soft j sound. I’m actually from Bosnia.”

“Oh. Are you Muslim then, Jelena?” someone else asks cautiously, evidently confused since we are at a Catholic retreat.

“No, I’m not. My dad is Serbian, but his family never really practiced the Orthodox faith. My mom, on the other hand, is Croatian and Roman Catholic. Islam, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism are the three main faiths in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” I reply, almost automatically.

“Cool,” I see my classmates nodding in the crowd, still a bit perplexed. 

I honestly cannot count how many times I’ve had a conversation almost identical to the one above. Even though I have lived in the United States with my parents since 1998, people are always thrown off by my name - obviously not of English origin - and most are usually curious enough to ask. Over time, I’ve found this little exchange to be pretty amusing. It’s become like an internal script for me. In fact, I patiently wait now to explain to someone my cultural and religious background. Before, however, I used to find it very irritating that my peers didn’t know how to pronounce my name or even where Bosnia was. What disturbed me the most, when it occurred, was the relief showing on the faces of my peers when I confirmed that I was not Muslim.

My interest in Project Interfaith, therefore, was based on a couple of reasons. Since my cultural and religious background always seemed to be so tightly bound together, I reasoned that it would be appreciated here, as it isn’t always. I was also looking for a place where I could do something that genuinely interested me. I’m one of those people that is looking up questions and concepts on the Internet constantly, especially about traveling to the corners of the world and seeing the cultures and religions of those corners. I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw a poster from Project Interfaith hanging up on the wall of my Cortina Community floor at Creighton University. They were asking for interns!

As important as all my other reasons were for joining, the most important one was Project Interfaith’s mission and goal: to create mutual understanding and respect among all people of any religious and spiritual backgrounds, and lack thereof. As a young girl growing up in Chicago, I was always aware of why my parents and I left Bosnia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had literally splintered and scattered among ethnic and religious lines, thereby labeling my parents, along with a great number of other interfaith couples, as outcasts and traitors to their own ethnicities and nationalities. It was difficult, my dad said to me once, trying to live in a country where only a couple of friends supported you, but the rest of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslims populations tried to tear you down because you refused to pick a side. They concluded that it was too dangerous to stay for us all and that I wouldn’t have a shot at a fulfilling future, because they would face prejudice wherever they went.

Their prediction was too true. In fact, I experience that prejudice today when I go back to the Balkans. You see, I identify myself as Bosnian, which is very rare. Almost all Christians in Bosnia will identify themselves as either Croatian or Serbian. It’s assumed that only Muslims call themselves Bosnians, which is a sadly mistaken fact. I’m a young Bosnian woman, who happens to be descended from a Christian family. Somehow, religious identity has been hijacked in the Balkans, to the point where individuals no longer have a say regarding their own identities; they are simply labeled, stamped, and approved - no questions asked.

Today in the United States, the same situation plays out, especially regarding the Muslim population. Because of my past, present, and future, I decided to join Project Interfaith, so that I can have a hand in personally eradicating that which caused my family to flee: ignorance, intolerance, and hatred. After all, each and every religious tradition and spiritually has “grains of truth”, as the Roman Catholic Church promotes. It’s simply up to us all to recognize that and treat each other as brothers and sisters.

Jelena is the Resource Development Intern for Project Interfaith. She was born during the Yugoslavian War in Biha
ć, Bosnia and Herzegovina and immigrated as a refugee with her parents to the United States of America in 1998. Although she has lived in Chicago, Illinois since then, Jelena is currently pursuing a double major in Justice & Society and English, with a specialization in Creative Writing at Creighton University. She is passionate about human rights and justice issues, conflict resolution, and interfaith work. Jelena hopes to pursue a Master’s degree in either Social Entrepreneurship or International Development. In her free time, she enjoys watching documentaries, writing poetry, reading, and traveling anywhere and everywhere in the world.

1 comment:

Gareth Young said...

My name - Gareth - also gets strange looks, but since I am obviously of Western European descent and dress in "traditional" American clothes it doesn't last. My English accent also helps! But my many Jewish and Muslim friends have a much harder time in the South. Imagine rolling out a prayer mat for Salat in the Atlanta airport! I am heavily involved in Interfaith work in Atlanta and write about it extensively in my own blog. It's wonderful to see others elsewhere engaged in the same work - especially young folk such as yourself. Keep up the good work!