Friday, October 14, 2011

'Balkan Americans'

It can be said that for three years, people originating from the Balkans scattered across the United States -- almost exclusively Muslims from that region -- have been engaged in finding each other, drawing out those in silent isolation, in order to establish a common platform to make themselves heard and to make a difference. Ever since the foundation of the Federation of Balkan American Associations (FEBA) in 2008, its activities were centered on locating all the people who share, beyond language or religion, a desire to revive their culture and to work for a region which -- they hope – will build a future without any reference to the past. It was in such a spirit some 2,000 of them gathered in New York for a meeting organized by FEBA last Thursday, the third and largest of its kind. In the words of Nickolay Mladenov, the foreign minister of Bulgaria, the main task of the convention was “to make war impossible” in the already hatred-riddled region. As a young speaker made it strikingly clear, “We must work to unbalkanize the Balkans, to pave the way for peace, tolerance and a serene coexistence.” The statement by FEBA, underlining the importance of the meeting, said the following: “We should remind each other of regional wartime aggression and the atrocities that occurred in the past only to take necessary lessons from these events, and not to transform these traumas into motivating tools for revenge. We are not able to fix today the mistakes which happened in history. But together we can illuminate our future by avoiding these behaviors and ideas that would lead to the ruin of mutual relationships.” According to Dr. Aras Konjhodžić, president of FEBA and a Bosniac, there are approximately 2 million people of Balkan origin in the US. The biggest group, he told me, are the Albanians, who number some 700.000. They are followed by Bosniacs, Macedonians, Bulgarians and others. He was particularly happy to come into contact with some 100 families in Philadelphia, who up until then felt very lonely in an environment with a different dominant culture. “But let me make it clear, we want integration, not assimilation,” Konjhodžić added. Balkan people in the US are one of the lesser-known communities. As many of us can guess, their journey to the US dates back to early 19th century. As the Balkans became a center of revolt and violence, some of them chose to flee to the Midwest. The first visible sign of their presence is symbolized by the Islamic Charity Association, which was founded in Chicago in 1906. But the dissolution of the old order from 1989 on and the following civil war led to a much larger exodus, in particular from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Some of them found themselves in the eastern part of the US, hoping for a better future for their children. It was a moving picture for me to see hundreds of students -- all with their roots from that politically rugged terrain -- from various American universities gathering there, too, sharing their hopes for a common future. FEBA, which has succeeded in expanding thanks to grants and internal support, enjoys strong backing from the governments of the region, with the exception -- at the time -- of Serbia and Greece. But it aims to move on, with a particular focus on reviving Balkan cultures and expanding business ties, having a bigger say as a group in lobbying Congress. This is a tough task as FEBA must represent the common interests of all the Balkan countries. So far, it seems, so good. The Balkan Leaders Summit, a part of the annual meeting, which FEBA initiated two years ago, attracts regional political leaders. Next year’s program will most likely also expand into the arts, Konjhodžić said. It will be an important move. One of the most enthusiastic endorsers of the meeting is Turkey, which sponsored the meeting to a great extent. Whether one approaches Turkish sponsorship skeptically or not, the soft power approach of Turkey seems to have won the hearts of the people of the Balkans, who openly expressed the sentiment that without leadership, they would never have come this far. “We need a strong Turkey,” Konjhodžić said, adding, “For the Turks a strong Turkey means an end to unemployment, but for a great many of us it means an end to the fear of renewed atrocities and genocides.” 2011-09-25

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