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Refugee Voices: Goran Kajan, first refugee in Charlottesville

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Goran Kajan as a young boy, before being resettled in the United States.

Photo: Goran Kajan


By Goran Kajan

When the Bosnian War broke out in the early 90s, my mom took my brother and me to Croatia with the expectation that this seemingly little disagreement between nations gaining independence would last about a week. In hindsight this may seem absurd, but it wasn’t an uncommon thought at the time. Fast forward 20 years and we had lived in 5 countries, 10 cities and countless apartments, houses, and refugee camps.

I try to put myself in the shoes of my parents; they were in their twenties and thirties with their whole lives and careers in front of them. Then one day, some people far away in a different city made a decision that caused their entire world to be pulled out from under them. All their career aspirations, family expectations, and hopes for what their children and communities might become had vanished instantly. My mom went from being a structural engineer to a cleaning lady nearly overnight. Throughout the war and throughout our lives as refugees traveling from one place to the next--I understand now how it must have been immeasurably difficult for my parents.

It was also difficult for me, albeit in a very different way. I was a young boy at the time and had many friends and close family. Then suddenly, I had none. I believe all kids need some level of steadiness to develop and to learn and understand the world around them. Since we were forced to move so often, it felt like my life was caught in a whirlwind and I would have to restart it every few months. We would move to one place and I would make friends, just to lose them when we moved to the next. This was an age before the internet and it was difficult to keep in touch. I used to write letters and mail them out, hoping to hear back from someone not within the day or week but within months.

I have made and lost so many friends over the years that by the time I came to the United States I felt pretty empty. Sure, I was excited too: I grew up watching all the big Hollywood blockbusters. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, these were the heroes of the day, and this was their land I was in. I was so excited to go that I told all my friends in Germany before I left that I would send them all photos when I hung out with Arnold and Bruce. Thus far, I have only met Arnold, who is an extremely genuine person.

We landed in New York City and it was like landing in Disneyland for me. At the time I had a small obsession with skyscrapers so before our trip my dad bought me a book about them. I could see all the notables from the airplane: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the World Trade Center. It was fantastic. All my premonitions about the US seemed to be true and I was going to live the life of a Hollywood movie character. 

Goran and his father arrive at the Charlottesville-Albemarle regional airport in 1998. Photo: Goran Kajan

Sadly, we were in New York for only a day before we had to leave for our final destination: Charlottesville. I knew nothing about Charlottesville but it’s in America so how different could it be from New York? We landed under the cover of night and I soon went to sleep. However, when I woke up in the morning, I immediately noticed Charlottesville and New York were like two different planets! I then went into a small depression. It all hit me at once; I lost all my friends again and I was in a strange new place. I was twelve years old then and had lived in Germany for a third of my life so I was quite attached to the people and their culture. It was difficult. 

But it should be said that kids are kids all over the world. And kids in the US are really not that much different from kids in Germany, or Norway, or Bosnia for that matter. Typically they all like similar things, they all find similar things funny and cool and lame. I had a talent for art and I would draw all the time. Often, when I moved to a new place, I would draw something and the kids around me would take notice. When I lived in Germany, I sat down in class not knowing a lick of German. So I passed time by drawing a picture of Batman in my notebook and one kid noticed. He motioned over some other kids, and they were impressed with my drawing. One of them gave me a stick of gum, the others started teaching me German curse words. We instantly became friends.

When I started school in Charlottesville it was a similar situation. I spoke with a British accent at the time because I learned English from watching Cartoon Network in Germany. The station was located in London, which explained my accent. The American kids found that pretty curious and many hadn’t really ever seen or met a foreigner like me before. I had come from a war-torn country, I spoke a bunch of languages, and I wore Asics, not Jordans. And I was just as curious about them. To me, American English was the language of movies and I felt like I was in a movie watching them all speak to each other and to me. Just as easily as everywhere else, the curiosity of young kids led to friendship and I’m very close friends with many of them to this day. 

A page from Goran's middle school yearbook. Photo: Goran Kajan

On my first day I was given a school orientation and a student named Ben was in charge of making sure I didn’t get lost. He introduced me to some of the kids: Harry, Chris, and Ian. I wore a Nike tracksuit that day and ran into Kelly who was the tallest person I had ever seen. He gave me a nod of approval for my tracksuit and I began to see that it was that easy to integrate here. They were very nice to me, regardless of their background, and they made me feel included. I never felt like a foreigner and I never felt like I was overstepping or intruding. They were my friends and I was theirs and my status gave me no limitations to be part of their lives and the American life.

As a matter of fact, I became so integrated into society here that when more people from Bosnia arrived, I felt like I was a little bit of an outsider to them. Not to say that we weren’t friendly, but I had ingrained myself so deeply into American society because I wanted to belong, that I was almost a foreigner to many people from the place where I was born.

The reception that I have received here, the acceptance, and the lack of any “special treatment” was paramount to who I am today. Young kids don’t want to be different in a way that expels them from society. And even though they may not know it, those I met long ago have altered the course of my life with their acceptance. I understand that I came from a place that had posed no threat to the United States. I understand that kids coming from Syria will likely receive some hesitance in their integration to society here. But if integration is the goal for both sides than acceptance is required on both sides. I truly hope that the generations coming after us find the courage and strength to accept someone different, as my friends accepted me when I came here.

Goran with one of his dogs earlier this year. Photo: Goran Kajan

Goran and his family were the first refugees to be resettled by the IRC in Charlottesville twenty years ago this year. After graduating from Charlottesville High School, Goran followed his love of skyscrapers to New York City, where he earned his BFA in Design & Technology from Parsons School of Design. Years later, he returned to Mostar, his home town in former Yugoslavia, with his wife. Much of the city was severely damaged in the war, but he showed her familiar places from his childhood where he had taken shelter from artillery fire, rebuilt and filled with international tourists sightseeing. He now lives and works in Charlotte, NC, with his wife and two whippets who are “spoiled rotten”.