First-gen student reconnects with Serbian roots, advocates for queer migrants

By

Emily Balli

In 2001, when Nemanja Demic was just 6 years old, he and his family came to the U.S. as war refugees from Serbia. Throughout his childhood, Demic grew up speaking Serbian and living in a traditional Serbian household in Arizona. But as time went on, he became acclimated to life in the U.S. and learned to speak English — in turn making him feel increasingly disconnected from his Serbian roots.

Through his study of Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian language and culture at Arizona State University’s Critical Languages Institute in the Melikian Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, Demic has now been able to reconnect with his cultural heritage in a meaningful way.

This summer, Demic participated in the Critical Languages Institute’s Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian language program as a Title VIII fellow through the U.S. Department of State.

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The seven-week intensive language program is typically taught in person at ASU’s Tempe campus, with an optional four-week extension in Sarajevo, Bosnia. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic it was adapted to an online format for the second year in a row.

“I was a little sad when they let us know that it was going to be virtual. I completely understand why, but I didn't know what language learning would look like on Zoom,” Demic said. “At first I asked myself, ‘Do I want to spend four hours every day on Zoom learning a language? What's that going to be like? Am I going to bond with the people who are going to be on the call with me?’ I have to say that it was a drastically different experience from what I expected.”

For the first seven weeks, Demic and his peers joined their instructor, Jakov Causevic, for a four-hour Zoom session every morning. Causevic taught the class from Belgrade, Serbia, where there is a nine-hour time difference from Arizona. In the additional four-week program, which was led by partner organization Lingvisti (the Association for Language and Culture Linguists in Sarajevo), the format was slightly different, with workshops featuring guest speakers from the Bosnian community. 

“We weren't just looking at the academic component of it all. We were getting to know Jakov as an individual, which allowed us to talk about ourselves as individuals,” Demic said. “I have these six new friends who are all across the country. It was a really intimate experience — I didn't expect it to be via Zoom. Going into the class, I would say that my language abilities were probably intermediate. At the end of the seven weeks, we had a spoken proficiency exam. I just got those results, and I was categorized as advanced. So there was a lot of growth in a really short amount of time.”

Outside of language study, one of Demic’s biggest interests is researching and advocating for queer migrants. He is currently completing research for his master’s degree in social justice and human rights at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences that explores the experiences of queer migrants in transitional zones, such as at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The experience that I've had as a queer refugee growing up in Arizona is nowhere similar to the experiences that migrants coming in through the U.S.-Mexico border have, but it's a community that I deeply empathize with and one that I want to continue to support,” Demic said. “I do firmly believe that if you're going to support a marginalized community, you have to have some sort of connection to it. It makes the work a lot more personal. It makes the work that you're doing so much more impactful, and it shows the community that you're not some outsider telling them what they should be doing, but that you truly do align yourself with their experiences.”

In his research, Demic is collaborating with a number of organizations that work to provide support to LGBTQ migrants who are detained at the border including Mariposas Sin Fronteras and Casa de Colores to develop a “conoce tus derechos” guide, or a know-your-rights guide, that will address the needs of this community and provide information on how to access specialized resources.

“We know that migrants have a very trying journey, but we don't talk about the micro-communities within that community. Saying the queer community is one thing, but even within that, trans migrants have it incredibly difficult trying to establish a well-founded fear of persecution [for asylum claims],” he said. “It's all too common that individuals who are trans will come to the U.S. border and will be turned away or deported to their home country and then they will be murdered.”

Demic, a first-generation student, hopes to continue his research in Serbia, where queer migrants face similar obstacles to those at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Getting the opportunity to go to Serbia to do this work would be a merger of my academic interests and my personal interests,” he said. “It would be a bit of a homecoming for me, and it would be hugely embedded into my self-discovery journey that I've been on for so long.”

Looking toward the future, Demic aspires to one day attend Columbia University to obtain a PhD in political science.

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