My rebellious teen years
It’s time for some heavier stuff again. I’m not sure how to name this blogpost. It’s about global politics, war, migration, nationality & democracy, in a heavy sauce of personal history. This post has been waiting to be written for about a month or two now, but every time I started writing it, I wasn’t sure how and if I should write this down. Maybe I was hoping that time would make my thoughts and personal experience irrelevant, but I guess people are still being beheaded, other people are still leaving their loved ones behind to fight some kind of holy war and back home ‘holy’ politicians are threatening with taking away (young) peoples passports and nationalities, as the only measure against this awful terrorism that is threatening peoples lives – mostly – on the other side of the world.
I don’t think my personal story or ideas will change this whole situation for the better, but I think it’s good for people to hear a story about a young person with a double nationality that had – all the good – intentions to go back to her home country in time of war. It was another war, another region and another time. Set aside the big and the small details, the sentiment of going back to your home country or to your people in a time of war was the same. This young person was me and I eventually didn’t go back.
That I didn’t go, is not the most important part of the story. The important part – in my eyes – is everything what happened before that. So let me tell you my story in this context.
A `tiny’ bit of background
I will start with a quick introduction. I was born in Yugoslavia in the early 80’s, as a child of a couple that had roots from all over that country, but lived in the Macedonian part of the country. My parents divorced when I was very young and I stayed with my mother. I grew up in a loving house with my grandparents. When I was eight my mother decided to move countries, marry a dutch man and take me with her. By then it was 1989 and that’s the year that came to be known as the unofficial start of the Yugoslav war. In 1991 the real war started and all together it ended in the early 2000’s. So the country I was born in, was in war from my 10th till my early 20’s. Basically my whole teen-period and during my whole high school period.
My experience of the war will be a very specific one, as every individual is different. Experiences depend on peoples roots. For me the war didn’t have a direct personal impact as I was born in Macedonia (where certainly in the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of fighting) and more importantly: I didn’t live there anymore. I knew we had family that lived more to the north and my grandparents would talk about them, but it was definitely a different experience from people that had deep roots in Bosnia, Serbia Kosovo, or Croatia. During big parts of the war we could even go back home for holidays. It’s important for me to emphasise that the war didn’t have a direct personal impact. I just felt connected to the land and the people.
I also believe – but I haven’t really asked – that the war was kept away from me, as I was a small child when it started. And my family probably wanted me to adjust to the new country we were living in, and not have me standing with one leg in my past. I remember that one of my Macedonian uncles was very afraid, that I was going to loose the knowledge of the Macedonian language during that period, and that my mother didn’t care about that. She always said that I had to focus on a new language, a new country and a new life.
And while I was small my parents could do this quite successfully. They could keep me away from things. But I believe the older I got, the more engaged I got with the war and with my birth country. During these teen years I always said that I was going to go back to live in the country I was born in. I did always say that life was better in the Netherlands – economy wise -, but that I didn’t like the country. As I grew bigger, and went to high school the impact of the war came closer, as more refugees came to the Netherlands. Our high-school concierge was a Bosnian refugee. My mother was working with children from (worldwide) refugees. Even some family tried to flee the country. And then our local (diverse) home country community also started to act differently. The emphasise on which Slavic language we used became more important. And also the dutch national news, that I started watching, was full with stories about the war. But maybe more importantly dutch people were expecting to be able to talk to me about the war. I came from Yugoslavia, didn’t I? So I had to start to form an opinion about this war and talk to people about it. I had to take sides.
Actually people generally talked at me about the war. They all knew what was happening as they were all watching the same news that told them the story of the war. Who were the bad guys, who were the good guys and what had to be done to end the war. As a young teenager I wasn’t really able to handle these kind of conversations properly. Because at the same time I was also present at conversations in my home country (during holidays) or I was also present at conversations between people of YUGO origin in the Netherlands. The tone and contents of these conversations sometimes overlapped, but many times it was different as well. The good and the bad guys weren’t always the same. As I was hearing many sides of the war story, I tried to balance out the information and form my own opinion. Obviously I was still very young, at an age where many of my fellow high school go-ers either only rode their ponies, played tennis or were smoking weed. So my opinion maybe wasn’t of that much value due to my age anyway. It was all formed by hear-say, but it was my opinion and I had the feeling that I was at least more informed than most of the dutch people that only had the news that dictated the truth. So I ended up having strong opinions.
I found myself often in discussions that weren’t very satisfactory. I think I slowly distanced myself even more from this dutch narration of the war and thus also from dutch people. I also realised I was getting miserable from having these discussions with people and at night I would apparently try to solve this feeling where I found myself having these heroic – Kees de Jongen like -dreams about going to Yugoslavia and ending the war and getting the Nobel prize. It’s all you can do right as a 15 year old? Pretty hopeless and depressing.
I started taking myself even more seriously, as my mother divorced again during that time and I had to grow up more quickly than most people I think. At the same time, I didn’t only grow up quickly, but the war also evolved. The actors, locations & intensions changed. It also came closer to Macedonia and I didn’t always have the feeling that people really understood what was going on. I even couldn’t understand it. I would still have my unrealistic heroic dreams and I more than ever wanted to go back to Macedonia. I couldn’t handle the injustice of what happened in the country, and I couldn’t handle the story telling injustice.
When I was 16 or 17, I had also changed high schools as I couldn’t get along with some of my teachers – that in my eyes preferred white rich obedient kids in stable two-parent homes (imagine my frustration, as I wasn’t none of that, haha) – and the dean could only come up with the solution to advise me to find another school. Before she could be reprimanded and be called back, my mother found another school for me, and I started going to a very open elite school in Amsterdam (I lived in a smaller town close to Amsterdam). And so, by the time I got an apology from the school for their decision, I was already settled happily in another school. I didn’t want to go back!
At that time I really enjoyed the possibilities of the big city. I think changing schools changed a lot of things for me. Not that I went to school so often, I actually skipped school more than ever. I was going to school far away from home, which opened up opportunities. Freedom! I worked many days of the week. I was also very much on my own, still. But I had the feeling that there was more room for being myself both within the school, and outside as well.
When it came to the war, I still had many discussions with people, and I still wanted to go back to Macedonia. By now, most of the war really had come down to taking care of local refugees. And finding back the balance in the split countries. Mainly in countries like Macedonia, the influx of refugees was high and therefore the situation had become very unbalanced. In this context I found the first thing that turned the negative energy, that I had in context with this war, into something positive.
I found a leaflet somewhere in town, that a dutch charity organisation would host an information evening in Amsterdam. An evening for people that wanted to do volunteer work with refugees in Macedonia. I finally found something that I could do! Not exactly the thing that I dreamt about in my heroic war dreams. But something more realistic and definitely more constructive. I decided to visit that information evening. While fellow class mates were planning their far-away post-graduation trips to Australia and Alaska, I was planning to go back home after graduation and help refugees. Yeah, not exactly perfect, but at least I wasn’t going to war, right?
I don’t remember everything correctly from this period, as I was going through a lot of changes in home situation, school situation and what not. But as far as I can remember this information evening was held in a small circle with a few hands full of people with mostly dutch people. I was the youngest one and the only one that came from Macedonia. The organisation wanted to help out refugees that were placed in the Roma area of Skopje. For me this sounded perfect. I could stay with my grandmother and could help out people during day. There was no real danger anymore, so I could possibly convince my mother and grandmother to let me go. And otherwise I would go when I turned 18 I thought. I was wrong, I wasn’t allowed. I don’t know exactly how or what, but I didn’t get to go. Probably my grandmother got really angry at me for even thinking about this and I didn’t go. This evening and option channeled some of my energy in a good way. Although I didn’t really go back to my home country to help, I felt that I had come closer to finding something constructive that I could have done.
There were more things during that period that helped me clear my mind. At one point, after one of my hopeless discussions in one of the history classes, the teacher offered me the option to give a talk about the Yugoslav war in one of the later classes. I kindly accepted her offer. I didn’t nail the talk unfortunately. But that didn’t matter, I got the opportunity to speak my mind and talk about the war. The same way the teacher did. I got to sit on her chair. This was really great. That I didn’t do great, wasn’t the fault of the teacher, but my own. I could have prepared longer and had better arguments. It really felt liberating, that I got the stage to give my perspective on things. That was definitely something I wanted to do more often.
And therefore during that last year in high school (and the last official year of the war) I also found my way into youth politics and joined the local liberal youth party, where there was room to discuss everything. I got the chance to meet young politically active people from the Balkan region during that time. I also got the chance to show young dutch liberals my home country, during exchange programs. I think that this all helped me deal with the war and my thoughts around that.
In my early twenties I started studying again and moved to another city. I decided to study history. In my bachelor I found myself often researching the Balkans. Every free research opportunity I got, I chose some kind of topic from the Balkans. For the first time in my life I learned something about my own history. The history of my people. Some of my thoughts were confirmed and many opposed during this learning period, and that was ok. With Eduard I went to Belgium to interview Macedonians who had fled Greece after WWII, and I went to Greece to find the milk store my grandfather worked at when he was a young teen. Researching my own history gave me more personal confidence and I learned to explain the Balkan history to people in a more balanced way. I was finally able to add some colour to stories of people, that liked to paint history in only blacks and whites. Hooray.
At one point, by the end of my second year, one of my economics professors did advise me in a very correct way – after I chose yet another Balkan topic – that it probably was time to move on and take on other topics as well and so I did. For me this really was the end of a period of struggle. A personal struggle and a struggle with others.
Why am I telling you this?
And now every time I hear in the news that some unfortunate young person wants to flee some kind of western country, to go and fight to free people in Syria or Palestina, I think of myself. How it could have been me. I think about how I also always wanted to help `my people’, how I also couldn’t handle injustice. How I also felt hopeless and how I could have easily fallen pray to more organised groups of people. How I could have been robbed from my nationality based on the intentions I had to go back to my country during the war. How my life would have been different now.
I was lucky enough that there were many things back then, that prevented me from going. Internet barely existed. In my fairly unstable family situation, I still had enough stability to keep me on the right path. I went to school, graduated and by accident ended up in an open environment with open minded people. People who gave me a stage to say what I wanted to say. I could stand up and talk (and I could fall, if I was unprepared). I got the chance to learn and research my own history. And in the end I learned to address people, that sometimes did this history injustice, and therefore I could ground and guard myself better.
I get sad when I see how we, as western societies, treat young people who for whatever reason can’t deal with injustice happening in other parts of the world. I think we can do better as `developed’ societies. And I believe that if we try, we can prevent some young people from going to war zones, which they consider `home’ or the home of `their people’. I don’t believe we can do that by taking away their passports or nationalities. I don’t believe we can do that by saying: if you don’t like this country, than move on! I believe we can help some of them by providing a comparable environment in which I was able to connect better with my fellow country men and women. I am not saying that everybody is the same, but who knows, these are such general things that helped me, that they might be able to help others as well.
And the solution?
I think first of all that it would help to create an open conversation in which these young people have a voice. This conversation should be held with family, with friends and with teachers. This conversation should also be represented and facilitated in the (modern) media. They should be given an environment in which they feel free enough to say what they want to say, to say what they feel. This conversation should be so open that people aren’t forced to take sides. I believe nuance is lost if one is forced to choose sides. Some conversations can be uncomfortable, but maybe necessary first steps to a real conversation.
And therefore at the same time that voice should be enriched or developed I think. I think it’s extremely important that we give migrant children a framework in which they learn and research their personal history. They should be able to do that outside their ethnic/religious houses (aka church or mosque). They should be able to research their personal history in schools and at home. Only then can they express a balanced story and not a shallow one filled with hear-say opinions. A story in which all the voices of their history become one. Their story, their voice.
And my last suggestion would be that we find ways in which we can channel peoples desire, to help people they feel connected to, in a more positive way. Let’s channelise the energy towards helping children or refugees. Let’s give them a lot of options to help people locally without picking up a gun. I think it’s inhuman to say to people that they aren’t allowed to help the ones that they feel connected to. If we don’t want them to help them in a certain way, let’s show them other ways.
I know this story was too long in blog terms and probably you aren’t even reading this last paragraph, but I felt I had to share this personal story. Who knows, you might be in the position to guide a young person in the search in finding his/her voice. So that they find their story, their history. I was lucky enough that I had and found those kind of people along the way. I know this story sounds very `heal the world, make it a better place’-like, but I think that if in 1991 more people listened to this song, the world might have been a better place by now.
NB: The picture above? That’s me in my rebellious years. I changed my crazy hairstyles drastically every 2 months. I’m not crying on the picture. I’m actually smiling with my hand in front of my mouth. I believe I had just pierced my tongue and my (grand)mother wasn’t allowed to find out. The picture also shows that I didn’t fall in a depression for that whole period. I still had fun and enjoyed myself. It was just a permanent storyline in my teen years.