A long and harsh path to citizenship: interview with Elvira Mujčić

Writer, translator from Bosnian to Italian, Elvira Mujčić arrived in Italy when she was 14 years old, escaping the war. Today she is an Italian and Bosnian citizen: a long, almost Kafkaesque journey of dual citizenship that only the support of the community of the country that welcomed her has made more bearable. 

Published On: May 29th, 2024

Photo: Salvatore Madau

Today you are an Italian and Bosnian citizen. What citizenship did you have at birth?

Mujčić: I was born in 1980, so I was a citizen of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia dissolved, I became a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and only after a long time I obtained the Italian citizenship as well.

When did you get the citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mujčić: With the beginning of the war, first in Slovenia and Croatia since 1991, and then in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1992, I found myself in a “border” situation… A few months after the outbreak of the war, at the end of 1992, from central Bosnia where we had previously moved after fleeing from Srebrenica with my mother, grandmother and my two brothers, we took refuge with some friends in Croatia with the documents we had, that is, Yugoslav ones.

In independent Croatia our documents, which used to apply to citizens of all the six republics of Yugoslavia, were no longer accepted. So we found ourselves in a surreal situation: being illegal immigrants in a country of which only a year before we were citizens. In Croatia, the process of obtaining refugee status began… while we only received our new documents as citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina once we arrived in Italy. [The first BiH embassy in Zagreb has been established in 1993, with Ambassador Bisera Turković, and during the war period it was the largest embassy in Bosnia; it even had a medical service to assist refugees and the wounded, ed.]

Upon arriving in Italy, what happened?

Mujčić: We arrived in 1994, thanks to a project that housed Bosnian refugees in various countries. We went to a town in the province of Brescia, with a kind of guarantee from the mayor that made it possible for us to immediately obtain a residence permit for humanitarian reasons. Having obtained this permit, along with our social security number and health card, we went to the Bosnian consulate in Milan, which issued us our first BiH passport. Then, for a while, we had to change it every few months, as they couldn’t agree on the color of the passport, which had to be neither green, which was for “Muslims,” but neither red because it was a “communist” color… and because they started a diatribe about whether it should be written in both alphabets – Latin and Cyrillic – and in what order, whether first in Cyrillic and then in Latin or vice versa…

Having obtained refugee status in Italy, what rights did you get but also what difficulties did you encounter?

Mujčić: At first we thought we would stay in Italy for a short time, just until the end of the war. So the documents we had, valid for a few months, didn’t worry us that much. When you don’t plan to live forever in one place, that aspect doesn’t weigh on you. Also, when we arrived in the early 1990s, there were still few foreigners in the province of Brescia, so the waits for renewals and the lines at the offices were not endless.

For the first year and a half that was it. Everything changed when we got into the idea of staying permanently in Italy, that is, when the genocide in Srebrenica was perpetrated in July 1995. At that point, we realized that we were not going to go back….

With the end of the war, we couldn’t remain for humanitarian reasons and the difficulties got bigger.

Can you tell us some concrete examples and how much they weighed on everyday life?

Mujčić: Having an expired residence permit when you have to live in Italy is risky. Even just getting out of the country was difficult: when the permit expired we had these documents attesting to the renewal request, and when I had to go through customs I needed to justify my right to travel by pulling out all the countless documents that I was carrying. Once we lost our refugee status, our life was all about having to justify our presence in Italy.

My mother always had to have a job, otherwise she would lose her residence permit. We, as children, had to either study or work as soon as we finished school or college. I, for instance, majored in foreign languages and literature: one of those degrees after which you often choose a teaching career. But as a foreigner, I could not enter public competitions to teach in schools. In addition to everything becoming much more complicated and time-consuming from a bureaucratic point of view, we didn’t have the right for something to happen to us, such as not having a job. When I graduated, my residence permit expired after a few months and I had to get hired by friends who had a club, in order to renew it. As a recent graduate, I had no choice….

Psychologically, very hard…

Mujčić: Also very humiliating, and the idea that you had to constantly justify your being here stressful. Not to mention all the rights that were denied, like not being able to vote after years of living in Italy and being an integral part of the community. Then there were years when fingerprinting was introduced. So, for example, my grandmother, who was very elderly and had glaucoma that made her blind, was forced by the police headquarters to stand in endless lines to be fingerprinted. Despite being totally traceable and having entered Italy legally with a recognized reception project, for years our presence in the country was always under scrutiny. We were constantly humiliated in front of a right we could never get.

Has this condition ever made you think about leaving Italy?

Mujčić: No, for several reasons. First of all, we were a family that suffered a great loss. We hung on my mother, the only adult if we exclude my grandmother, who was in the final stage of her life. My father was killed in the genocide of Srebrenica, so were all other adult male relatives. For my mother, to think of emigrating again with three children and an elderly woman in tow, having to learn another new language and to look for a new job, that would have been very difficult.

But also for a positive aspect, as opposed to the negative aspect of bureaucracy. We had a very deep community experience in that small town in the Brescia area. So many people worked hard to help us, for example teaching us Italian, but also to support us emotionally. A whole village networked around my mother and they made her feel much less alone. So we never took it into consideration to abandon this very important human part.

So being recognized as part of a community, did that motivate you to stay, despite the Italian state making it very hard for you?

Mujčić: Yes, and we always talked, even publicly, about these two parallel experiences related to Italy. On the one hand, a practical, daily life with people beside us who made everything very easy for us and who, at least emotionally, overshadowed the bureaucratic aspect. On the other, a bureaucracy with which we clashed, and against whose hindrances there was no social network that held.

When did the Italian citizenship became reality and what was the path like?

Mujčić: After ten years of continuous residence we were able to apply. So we are talking about 2004, except for my grandmother who was not eligible because of the age limit. At that time, three to six years were needed for a response. For me and my mother the positive response came in 2009, while they denied it to my two brothers because we had not attached part of the documentation – the criminal records. We hadn’t really thought about it, since they had entered Italy when they were two and four years old, and had lived in Italy the whole time afterwards: they seemed unnecessary. Instead, they were. So we applied for them in Bosnia and integrated the application. Their citizenship came a couple of years later. We became Italian citizens 15 and 17 years after arriving in the country, respectively.

Getting citizenship, psychologically what did it mean to you?

Mujčić: It’s a notion that I couldn’t process for a long time. I kept having that whole set of fears that you have when your documents and citizenship are a source of problems. For example, before obtaining the citizenship I never carried my residence permit with me, I was more afraid of losing it than of being stopped and being taken to the barracks… So when I was walking around I feared being stopped by the police. This fear stayed with me for a long time even after I got my citizenship. If I was in another city I would think: “Oh my God, I left my permit at home, what am I going to do if they stop me?” At the airport I would stand in the long line for non-European citizens, arrive at the checkpoint with my Italian passport, and they would ask: “Why did you stand in this line?” Because it felt like a privilege, which had long belonged to others, and did not belong to me.

Perhaps the biggest psychological change came when, finally, after a very long time, I stopped fearing that I could not stay here. When you are a foreigner, the relationship with police checks, with going through customs, is so traumatic that it really takes a long time to get rid of it.

Also, we were Bosnian citizens of the diaspora, so citizens of “nowhere.” At least for me it was like that. I felt for a long time that I was a citizen of a middle ground: diaspora on the one hand, outsiders on the other. A feeling of “not belonging”, which later also became my way of being in the world.

Has being an Italian and Bosnian citizen, bilingual, been reflected in your work as a writer and book translator?

Mujčić: Gradually, owning two citizenships started to have different meanings. The Bosnian citizenship is what I would call “affective”, I always travel with an Italian passport, as being from the EU it is obviously more convenient. But maybe I use the Bosnian one when I go back to Bosnia, out of affection.

The two citizenships are not just two pieces of paper for me, in my work they have played a different role, they are two identities that I have always felt. After a few years I felt Italy was my country, although it was not yet on paper. Italian became my mother tongue, the language I write my books in and into which I translate authors from Bosnian, while professional translators usually translate only to their original language. If your mother tongue is the one in which you feel you can express what you are the best, for me today Italian is that more than Bosnian. But since a mother tongue also has to do with affection and visceral emotions, so is Bosnian…

After that, bureaucracy is one of the topics I write about the most ever. While it used to be a theme that paralyzed me, because it scared me a lot, since I got Italian citizenship I can write about it with the irony that I used to use for all the other topics in my life. It is a thing that I can sarcastically mock today, because I came out of it safe and I can tell the grotesque aspects of it. Whereas when you’re in it, it’s very difficult, you know it’s all a bit crazy and surreal, but you’re a protagonist and a prisoner of it – like in Kafka’s trial.

Original source: https://www.balcanicaucaso.org/aree/Bosnia-Erzegovina/Elvira-Mujcic-questioni-di-cittadinanza-230798

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