Mrs. Jessica Lazdins Vuk, You have been living in BiH for years. Can you tell us your life story? What made you decide to move from the States to Sarajevo?
My first visit to Sarajevo was in 2004 and it was not by my doing! I had signed up for a summer internship program while I was in university and I was assigned to go to Bosnia-Herzegovina. At first, I didn’t know much about Sarajevo, but I was instantly excited to go. Over that summer, I found myself enchanted with the culture and people I had met. I was deeply moved by their stories of strength in the midst of deep suffering. I went back to the States with a strong desire to come back to live in Sarajevo for a longer period of time.
I graduated from college and was hired for a two-year internship with students in a church that had a long-standing relationship with a student organization in Albania. At the end of my internship, we organized a trip for our students to go to Albania and volunteer with this organization. At this point, my memories of Sarajevo had begun to fade and I did not see any way that I could come back to live there. When I was in Albania, the director said that he was just recently at one of their European gatherings and was told that the Sarajevo branch was in need of more staff. This seemed like no coincidence to me!
I did some research and found out that the Bosnian division was called “Evangelical Union of Students” or “EUS.” EUS existed to promote positive values, giving Bosnian students a chance to open up their horizons and equip them for a better future. When I heard about the things they were doing, my desire and passion to return to Sarajevo was revived. This seemed like an ideal way to come back and do something meaningful for the country. I applied and was accepted. I arrived in Sarajevo in October 2008 and have been living here ever since!
Would you still choose to live in Sarajevo if you had to make the decision again?
Absolutely! My decision to live in Sarajevo has truly enriched me as a person. Even though it was difficult for me in the beginning to adjust to a new culture and learn a new language, I have gained so much from the experience personally. Living in another culture forces a person to question their unspoken and untested values. Every time I would face culture shock, I had to think and reflect about why this particular aspect of Bosnian culture was difficult for me to understand and embrace. Through this kind of introspection, I found myself challenging some of my own cultural values. I realized that my way is not always best! I believe every culture has its beauty and its demons, so to speak, just like every person does. I have had the great privilege of discovering the beauty in both American and Bosnian culture. Hopefully, I have been able to get rid of some of my demons as well! This is an experience that I will always cherish and value.
You are married to a Bosnian. Can you share your story?
About two years into my time living in Bosnia, I met Goran through the Evangelical church that we both attend in Dolac Malta. We struck up a friendship and eventually started to date. At that time, I had signed a contract for one more year at my work and already had plans to go back to the U.S. So at the beginning of our relationship, we both were very unsure of our future. Goran was very understanding and never put any pressure on me to stay. However, with time as I began to think about where my life was headed, I realized that I was not done with Sarajevo. I still had so much more to learn, grow and experience. Not to mention, Goran and I were very much in love at this point! About six months later after I made this decision, we got engaged. We were married in May 2012. We are now expecting a baby in April!
They say that cross-cultural marriages aren’t easy. I can’t really say, because I have nothing to compare it to! But I think the things I mentioned earlier about what I learned from my time in Sarajevo also apply to our marriage. Goran and I entered into our relationship convinced that we could learn from each other and that neither culture is better than the other. We also share common values that far outweigh our cultural ones; such as the importance of our faith in God, integrity, family and a strong work ethic. This is what has kept our marriage and friendship strong these past five years.
Did you get used to life here in Sarajevo? Why are you still living in Sarajevo?
I have been in Sarajevo for eight years so I can say that I have definitely gotten used to life here! Of course, I am still a foreigner so I can’t deny that I still find myself surprised by certain cultural dynamics. However, living abroad for so long, I have now gotten to the point that when I go back to the U.S. I find myself surprised, and even shocked, at the American way of life. You could say that in some ways it is easier for me here in Sarajevo, because I am a foreigner and I know I am not supposed to always fit in or understand everything around me. It is more challenging when I am in my home country and feel like a foreigner—that just feels unnatural. I know this is just part and parcel of living cross-culturally. All in all, I love that living in another culture means that I am constantly learning new words, new concepts and experiencing new worldviews. This helps satiate the inner nerd within me!
I am still living in Sarajevo, because both Goran and I believe that there is hope for this country. We are trying, in our small way, to gradually build towards a better future for this place. This is why Goran opened his restaurant “Bon Appetit Sarajevo.” We wanted to contribute to our society by opening a business that would be run honestly and with integrity. This is also the reason why I continue to work at EUS with students, as they are the future leaders of this country and it is important to invest in them. Honestly, we don’t know what the future holds, but we hope for the best! We have always said that as long as we are able to sustain ourselves financially here that we will stay. Obviously if that wasn’t possible, we would have to consider other options.
What things or people have persuaded you to stay here?
We are really grateful to have the friends and family that we do here. They bring us great joy! As an American, I am able to appreciate the social dimension of life here in Bosnia-Herzegovina probably more than most. The spontaneity, availability and willingness people have to meet up for coffee, go out and just be together is really special. I know that this does not exist, to this extent, in most of the West. Goran and I also love taking trips to the nearby mountains or coast—there is so much natural beauty to enjoy in the Balkans!
Interview by Zejna SY