Making the Breaking News

by Amila Golic:

I could barely believe my eyes. I was watching television and had just caught the last frame of a CNN news report. Though I hadn’t heard any of the dialogue, I recognized the faces of Bosnian politicians as they slipped their ballots into the slits of bulky boxes. Immediately resorting to Google, I was stunned to discover that a general election had just occurred in my homeland.

This was Bosnia’s fifth general election since the 1992- 1995 war that left the country wholly ravaged. Though I still identify as a Bosnian and try to keep up with the political and cultural currents of my homeland, I was unaware of any election, much less the candidates and the issues of debate. Furthermore, my parents did not vote in this election, and I do not know of any of our Bosnian immigrant friends who did. In fact, according to the BBC, of the one million Bosnian expatriates in the world, only 18,000 voted in the recent election. Our lack of involvement in such critical events reflects the gulf that has formed between Bosnian expatriates and our homeland since the end of the war.

Although distance is a part of the immigrant experience by definition, if the relationship between Bosnian expatriates and people still in Bosnia is not improved, the country will undergo further problems. The reality is that Bosnia is still in turmoil. Mass emigration due to the war created a crippling “brain drain” of educated professionals and transformed once-vibrant communities into villages resembling ghost towns. Unemployment officially stands at 31%, with a majority of the 366,000 20- to 25-year-olds without work. The average monthly salary is only 292 Euros. That is $371 a month. With such figures, it is not hard to see how one-fifth of the country’s people still live in poverty. Furthermore, the dismal economic situation continues to be overshadowed by nationalist politics and ethnic rhetoric, as these recent elections demonstrated.

Bosnia is at a crucial moment right now. With the impending signing of the EU Stabilization and Association Agreement, it is beginning to pull itself out of the shadows of war and embark upon the path to EU ascension. At the same time, the generation of expatriates who were children when the war began is now studying in university, entering the job market, and becoming active, powerful members of the societies of their adopted countries around the world. If Bosnia wants to become a prosperous EU member, it needs to capitalize on this population of young, well-educated expatriates.

How can Bosnians already separated by oceans and continents have an impact on their homeland? Just ask Elvir Causevic, a Bosnian who immigrated to the United States in 1990 and founded BrainScope, Inc., a medical instruments company. Recently, Causevic returned to Bosnia to open up divisions of his company in the cities of Sarajevo and Tuzla. Asked what compelled him to return, he answered, “We need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but many in Bosnia don’t believe that anymore and need to be reminded or taught fresh how to do it—something that’s best done by example.”

While Causevic’s contribution is exemplary, less intensive involvement can still have an impact. As Yale History Professor Ivo Banac, a Croatian immigrant and expert on Balkan history, said, “What you need to do is find a group of students over there who are interested in the same field, organize a conference over the summer, and simply get together.” Causevic agreed that there are many ways to make a difference. “You can organize a trip with some of your friends and teachers in an area where you are planning to be an expert and visit a town in Bosnia for a week and make a huge impact,” Causevic said.

Expatriates need to get more involved, but their efforts have to be met by similar enthusiasm on the part of the Bosnian government and authorities. Bosnia needs to realize that, with a small bit of encouragement, involvement like Causevic’s can occur over and over again. Even something as simple as more straightforward absentee voter registration procedures could spur expatriates to become active participants in the rebuilding of their country. A committed partnership is the key to reconstruction, but until Bosnia actively seeks expatriate involvement, it will be just another news story.