SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Ana Majusevic

The Great Escape

I was only six years old when I migrated from former Yugoslavia and although it was nearly 17 years ago, I remember the feeling as if it were yesterday. On the one hand I felt anxiety mixed with devastation as I was moving nearly 5,000 miles from my beloved family and friends. On the other hand, I was excited to begin a new journey and move to a country that I was only familiar with through television shows and movies. Before I was born, my father had served in the Serbian army and fled with the help of his friend in order to be with my mom and I. Since then, my parents planned on leaving the country as things were going even further down hill. By the time their plans were made, Slobodan Milosevic became president of the country. According to my parents, Milosevic was a bad man who stole from his own people to gain personal wealth. He was responsible for several war crimes and murders during his term and my parents didn’t want to stick around to find out what other heinous crimes he was capable of.

Our family and friends shared our excitement. We were a tightly knit group since the beginning so naturally it was an emotional time when it came to say our goodbyes. Of course almost everyone cried as they hugged each other one last time at the airport. Except for my dad, he’s always been the tough guy. Boarding the plane was no big deal for me, but I remember my mom being nervous. We had never flown in a plane, nor had I ever been outside of the country until we landed in Germany. The German language intrigued me even though I was just walking around the airport. It wasn’t that I had never heard it spoken in front of me before as my dad could somewhat speak it, but I think I was impressed by the fact that I was surrounded by people who were essentially like me but only spoke a slightly different language. We were pretty much neighbors, after all.

We boarded our second plane shortly after and headed to Detroit, Michigan. It was a grueling 13-hour flight to Detroit that ran pretty late so as soon as we landed, we had to quickly run to the next gate to catch our flight to Phoenix. We missed the flight but were given a complimentary hotel room for the night and were booked for the next plane to Phoenix in the morning. This was my first experience on United States soil. Neither my parents nor my brother and I spoke very much English, if any at all, so it was extremely difficult to communicate with just the shuttle driver or hotel staff.

My dad carried around a small pocket Serbian-English dictionary and used it everywhere we went. I was kind of embarrassed because I didn’t want people to think we were different or weird. We still have that dictionary lying around somewhere in my parents’ house. I distinctly remember leaving the hotel room with my brother in search of a vending machine. This was around the time when a can of soda cost no more than 50 cents and I had way more options than I had ever seen in my life. Most of the sodas I had never even heard of before. My brother got a Sierra Mist and I opted for a Dr. Pepper. I can’t even imagine the disgusted look on my face when I took the first sip. I begged my brother to trade with me but he wasn’t having it. Ironically, I love Dr. Pepper now.

My first experience of Arizona was unlike I had imagined it. The first sight outside of the airplane window looked somewhat like a desolate hell. It even just looked excruciatingly hot by the way the sun shone in every direction. I had never traveled anywhere outside of Serbia so the desert was a completely strange environment for me. I remember the second night vividly because it started raining and the smell was unlike anything I had ever smelled before. It smelled dusty, like all the dirt on the ground was kicked up by the wind and rain. Even to this day, I hear people describing Arizona as a “dry heat”, but when it stops raining it’s as though you’ve stepped into a sauna.

The first place we lived was in a fairly large apartment complex. It was August when we moved in and I remember wondering why all the grass looked dead. I thought it was strange that on the second night after we had arrived it started raining, because my uncle who had been living here for four years before us told us that it rarely ever rained. I now know that rain in Arizona is as scarce as hen’s teeth. I was extremely observant of my surroundings and noticed that a lot of houses had rocks in their front yards instead of grass and trees.

My first experience inside of a classroom was nerve-racking. Since most of my classmates were Hispanic, I heard a lot of swift dialogue between the teachers and the students. Because my instructor could not communicate with me in Serbian, I had a harder time getting my point across, but she was extremely patient and took her time with me. I often listened in on the other students and attempted to pick up their language. It was at this point that I met Vanity, a Hispanic girl who had migrated to the United States from Mexico about the same time that I did. We turned out to be two peas in a pod; nothing could separate us. We frequently exchanged stories about our past lives. Vanity told me,

I was ten years old when I moved from Mexico to Arizona with big brother and my mom, who was pregnant at the time with my little sister. I didn’t have a relationship with my dad. The rest of our family and friends were envious of our move and wished us a safe journey to the United States. Our trip was only about 250 miles but I still felt as if I had entered a whole new world. My mom was busy taking care of our family so she didn’t make it a point to teach us English. It was hard adapting to such a different world but the ESL classes made it easy to relate to the students.

By the time we settled in and finally adjusted to our new environment, the September 11th attacks occurred. It was only 11 years ago and although many people were already convinced of terrorists plotting this scheme, I didn’t have an opinion just yet. I didn’t even watch the news before I went to school that morning. By my accounts, it was any normal morning where I woke up, brushed my teeth, got dressed and boarded the school bus. It was around 8:15 when I got to school and as I got off the bus, one of my friends began shouting at me from the playground. I can still replay his words in my memory, “It was the terrorists!” he said. Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about until we got into our classrooms and the teacher began explaining what had happened. My somewhat normal morning turned into a crazy nightmare. We watched the news in school and I remember my teacher sitting at her desk shaking her head in disbelief. I didn’t want to believe these kinds of terrible things happened to innocent people. Like me, I’m sure it’s still extremely difficult for many other people to watch the footage of that day and not cringe.

After September 11th, drastic measures were taken by the U.S. government to make sure these things didn’t happen again. The Patriot Act was passed shortly after the attacks, which significantly transformed the policy of immigration. While it wasn’t necessarily easy for my family and I to obtain our green cards and get citizenship in the United States, I can only imagine how much harder and more strict the regulations are now. The Patriot Act broadened the discretion of law enforcement to detain and/or deport certain people who were suspected of being immigrants planning terrorist attacks against the United States. The primary perpetrators of terrorist attacks were Muslim and Arabs, which not only heightened government security regarding these people, but it also changed many people’s views of the entire Middle Eastern population. Immigration has since then become a problem in the United States. Congress continues to pass laws and restrictions regarding illegal immigration. In 2003, a controversial bill was passed in Arizona giving law enforcement officers the right to stop individuals if they have reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally. Many people continue to protest against the bill, claiming it as “racist”.

Having lived here for the past 16 years, it’s now clear to me how different the country I was born in is from the one that I am living in now. I now understand why my parents decided to make the move here; they wanted a better life for my brother and I. While we’ve never had problems with the system, I can sympathize with those who struggle to find the same comfort in freedom and security that we once did. It wasn’t particularly easy to move away from an accepting society and from everything we were familiar with for so long to a place that looked down upon immigrants. I’ve met a lot of people and made a lot of friends over the years from different parts of the world that love sharing their stories with me because they know that I can relate with them. It’s a wonderful feeling to find some common ground with strangers and establish relationships with them because of how different we all are.

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