Czech Republic - A Second Homeland

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Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Czech Republic has become a second home for many foreigners. Among them - a sizeable community of 7,500 people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Why did they decide to leave their homes and come here? What do they do now? Do they see Prague as their new home? Maida Agovic reports about their experiences and impressions in the Czech capital.

The disintegration of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the subsequent wars forced many people to leave their homes and seek a better and, above all, more peaceful life abroad. Some found their way to the Czech Republic.

Jelena Silajdzic from Sarajevo came here with her husband and two young children in May 1992, fleeing the war in Bosnia as one of the more than a million refugees. As she explains, Prague was an accident rather than a choice:

"The reasons for our coming to Prague are simple and sad. It wasn't really even our decision. At the time of the Sarajevo blockade in April 1992, we happened to be outside of town, on unfriendly territory, where some horrible things had already begun to happen, so that we really had to run away for our lives; otherwise, the consequences would have been truly terrible.

"We went to Prague because I was working in the film industry at the time, and I was involved in final preparations for a Bosnian film to be made in cooperation with Prague's Barrandov Studios. So we came here convinced that everything would calm down in two weeks and that we would be able to go home then. But, we are still here."

Igor Blazevic is also Bosnian, but in contrast to Jelana and her family, he deliberately chose Prague as his new home 13 years ago:

Jelena Silajdzic
"I came here for the first time in 1988 because my wife studied here and I just came to visit her. And in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution here it was for me too tempting not to come, so I was here for a couple of months when certain things changed, but I definitively moved here in 1991.

"Although already in 1991 it was obvious that things were going very badly in the former Yugoslavia, I was not pushed by the war. I didn't come to the Czech Republic as a refugee; it was my own private personal choice."

Igor is one of the founders of a very well known humanitarian organization in the Czech Republic - "People in Need." He explains how his origins directly influenced his vocation:

"When I came to the Czech Republic I never expected that I would do the things that I have been doing and that I am doing now. When I came I was working as a journalist; I was trying to write some literature. I was spending time at home reading books and dreaming about writing a book myself.

"But when the war started in Bosnia, for me it was impossible to continue to live my own private life knowing that there is such a terrible war going on there. All my family was in Sarajevo during the war and I could not get them out during the whole war. So I started to cooperate with a small group of very committed Czechs, and we started to collect some aid and travel there, so basically that's how 'People in Need' emerged and developed."

Prague has always been a very attractive destination for the young generation as well, especially film students. Many of the last century's most famous film directors from the former Yugoslavia studied at Prague's Film Academy. Today, the Czech capital attracts an even wider range of Balkan students.

Natasa Bozovic is from Belgrade, and currently a third-year student at the University of New York in Prague:

"Three years ago when I finished high school I was deciding about a university to attend and I had in mind to leave my country - Serbia, and go abroad to earn my degree. One of the options was Czech Republic because I found this American university, so it was an American education at Eastern European prices."

Living in a foreign country is not always an ideal situation. One cannot live in isolation, and there is always a fear of not being accepted and respected by the local population. But even though it is sometimes said that Czechs are not always foreigner-friendly, the people I talked to felt welcome.

Jelena Silajdzic:

"In contrast to many others, we were lucky because we knew some people in Prague; some acquaintances and friendships have grown out of professional cooperation, so that we didn't have to start from scratch. Czechs usually reacted splendidly, with much compassion, and with desire to help us to get organized somehow."

Igor Blazevic:

"I didn't have any problems living here in the Czech Republic. I know that Czech society is in many aspects a xenophobic society, it is not really ready to accept a lot of foreigners, particularly if these foreigners are not white Europeans. I am surrounded by extremely wonderful Czech friends, so in that sense I really feel at home in this country."

Igor and Jelena have lived in Prague for more than a decade. They work here and have many Czech friends. The question is whether they really feel integrated into the Czech society, or are the differences between Southern and Central European mentalities too great to overcome?

Igor Blazevic:

"I think I have been better prepared for the Czech mentality than some of my friends coming from Sarajevo, because I lived in Zagreb for some time. This Central European mentality is slightly different than our Bosnian mentality. So I have been better prepared for this Austro-Hungarian approach to social life."

Jelena Silajdzic:

"I think I am very integrated in Czech society. I think we are people who managed to preserve our own culture totally, who are absolutely proud of where they come from, and at the same time people who have accepted something from Czech culture in the way that we succeeded in establishing good relations.

"I even think that we are doing something to contribute to the development of Czech society, to create multiculturalism and diversity, because some contours of xenophobia and fear of foreigners are still visible in the Czech Republic."

Jelena is also professionally involved in deepening relations between Czech society and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. In 1999, she established "Slovo 21" which organizes various cultural events aimed at deepening links between the two communities:

"Our last big project was finished last year, and that was a two-year cultural cooperation between Sarajevo and Prague. We had 'Days of Prague Culture' in Sarajevo in 2002. That was a seven-day program where some top Prague artists performed, and where we presented Czech film and music production, photo exhibitions, and organized numerous meetings of artists from Sarajevo and Prague. And then in turn we had a week of 'Days of Sarajevo Culture' in Prague with a similar program, and I really have to say that Sarajevo artists have made an extraordinary impression."

Natasa came to Prague only three years ago, and during her studies at an American-run university didn't have much time and opportunity for true integration into the Czech society. Nevertheless, she sees Prague as her new home and plans to stay here:

"I feel Prague is my home. I don't plan to go back to Belgrade in at any point in the very near future, but some day for sure. I will stay in Prague long-term."

Igor Blazevic has slightly different plans:

"I left Sarajevo when I was 18, and already at that time I did not plan to come back. Then the war started and psychologically and physically I came back to Bosnia during the war because I felt obliged to be there and to do something for Bosnia. But after the end of the war, I again felt that I was in a way disconnected and that I could again make a choice of my own. It's for me easier to think of moving somewhere else than going back."

Jelena Silajdzic is also very clear about her plans for future. But they seem to go in the opposite direction:

"We always go home to Sarajevo. We will stay here as long as it is necessary for our children to choose their own paths. But one thing is perfectly clear. In some future, my husband and I do not imagine ourselves here. We imagine ourselves only in Sarajevo, there where we feel at home."