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What Does Your Identity Mean To You?


What does it mean to be a native-born Russian whose family stretches back generations? Is that person more "Russian" than an ethnic Georgian who has lived in Russia for decades and loves Tolstoy and Pushkin? And is an ethnic Uzbek whose family has lived in Kyrgyzstan for generations Uzbek, or Kyrgyz?

In a year when debate has intensified over the issues of immigration and multiculturalism, RFE/RL talks to immigrants and "natives" in Belgium, the United States, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Balkans about what their identity means to them.

RUSSIA:
Igor Grvitishvili

Igor Grvitishvili: "I value Russia, what Russia has given me [...] But nevertheless, Georgia for me is my motherland."

Igor Grvitishvili is Georgian but has lived in Moscow for most of his adult life. Born in Gori, he studied at a Russian-language school before moving to Russia in 1981. Grvitishvili, 63, is head of the Union of Georgians in Russia. In recent years, he says he has been exposed to occasional hostility in his adopted homeland, as relations have grown tense between Moscow and Tbilisi.

I love my homeland -- my historical homeland, I guess you can call it. I love the language, which I speak well. That's what it means for me to be a Georgian. I value Russia, what Russia has given me, that I work and live here. Of course I value it. But nevertheless, Georgia for me is my motherland, even though I've been in Russia for a long time.

I think that a person can't love their historical motherland and not value another country's culture. I love to read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Gogol. I have two adult children here, a daughter and a son; I have grandchildren here. All my children identify themselves as Georgian, even my older grandson.

I think assimilation is a negative word. You need to accept your new culture -- to know and study it, if you don't know it. Assimilation means dissolving. Assimilating to one thing means you lose another.


RUSSIA:
Yevgenia Sadovskaya
Yevgenia Sadovskaya: "For multiculturalism, you need to copy and create something common for all of you and accept the traditions of other people, and in that way, develop, revolutionize."

Yevgenia Sadovskaya is a native-born Russian who, with the possible exception of some Polish blood several generations back, considers herself thoroughly Russian. Now a student at Moscow's Plekhanov Institute, 21-year-old Sadovskaya admits she's sometimes made uneasy by the presence of Caucasian students on her campus but says the school has made efforts to teach students to appreciate and celebrate their diversity.

I don't know [what it means to be Russian]. It's Maslenitsa, it's some kinds of traditions -- nothing in particular. When everyone around you is Russian, you don't feel it. There's no nationality when everyone is Russian. When there are Armenians, say, among Russians, then your culture becomes important to you. Russians among Russians is business as usual, nothing special.

There aren't a lot of Russians [at the institute], and we stick together. It's scary to live there. [The students from the Caucasus] often carry weapons with them.

For multiculturalism, you need to copy and create something common for all of you and accept the traditions of other people, and in that way, develop, revolutionize. At my institute, for example, we have a tradition. It's already in its second year. We have national weeks -- Armenian week, Georgian week, etc. Russian week is the most boring, because we have nothing to offer up. The others have lots of interesting things. They can share their music, culture, food. And we understand that they are also people, and that they also have their own values. We need this. Otherwise there would be interracial conflict.

KYRGYZSTAN:
Kasym
Kasym: "On the one hand, I'm proud of being Kyrgyz. On the other, I sometimes regret being Kyrgyz, because some of our traditions are just too much."



Kasym, who declined to give his last name, is a 55-year-old ethnic Kyrgyz living and working as a dentist in the village of Akman in the Bazar-Korgon region of Kyrgyzstan's southern Jalal-Abad Province. Ethnic clashes in Jalal-Abad and Osh provinces this summer have forced many in Kyrgyzstan to confront the difficulties of instilling a culture of tolerance in a country with a large Uzbek minority as well as Russians, Ukrainians, Uyghurs, and a mix of other nationalities.

On the one hand, I'm proud of being Kyrgyz. On the other, I sometimes regret being Kyrgyz, because some of our traditions are just too much, they're too excessive. We should get rid of them; I think the younger generation will. For example, we spend a lot of money for different celebrations, or bride-kidnapping. These are very bad things, and a big danger for the future of Kyrgyz. I think that if our youth are educated properly, then Kyrgyzstan will have a good future.

I don't think there's any difference [between ethnic Kyrgyz and other nationalities living in Kyrgyzstan]. They should all feel like citizens of this country and want to support its development. They should feel that they are all Kyrgyz. I think [Kyrgyz and people of other ethnicities] are equal. Everybody has the same rights. There's no doubt about that.

KYRGYZSTAN:
Farruh Husainov


Farruh Husainov, 40, is an ethnic Uzbek, who has lived his entire life in Kyrgyzstan. Born in the southern city of Osh, he currently works as a market trader, although his professional training is as a secondary-school teacher. Uzbeks make up nearly 15 percent of the population of Kyrgyzstan, and many Uzbek families have been living there for generations.

I'm proud of being Uzbek. There's no difference between [Kyrgyz people] living in cities [and Uzbeks in Osh]. But Kyrgyz people from villages are more uncultured; they behave badly. If they drink alcohol, they become uncontrollable. But people from the cities aren't like that; I have a lot of Kyrgyz friends living in different parts of Osh.

We should all have the same rights. Even in the United States and France, all nationalities are considered equal in terms of rights. We shouldn't put people in different categories just because of their ethnicity. Freedom of speech and other rights should apply to everyone, equally.

SERBIA:
Ljubisa Rajic
Ljubisa Rajic: "I always say that I'm a Yugoslav -- something which no longer exists, except in old passports."



During the last Serbian census in 2002, more than 80,000 residents declared themselves to be "Yugoslavs" -- reflecting nostalgia for a time when the region existed as one country rather than seven, and when the term Yugoslav could be used as a single ethnic designation for Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins alike. One such Yugoslav is professor Ljubisa Rajic, who was born in Belgrade in 1947 and now chairs the department for Scandinavian languages and literature at the University of Belgrade.

I was born in Yugoslavia, and it was there that I grew up, got educated, married, and had children. I couldn't be something other than Yugoslav, although my mother and father were Serbs.

Whenever I go somewhere abroad, people ask me, "What are you?" They expect me to say I'm a Serb, or a Croat, or something like that. But I always say that I'm a Yugoslav -- something which no longer exists, except in old passports. I just couldn't terminate a relationship with a country, a community, that gave me everything I have and made me everything I've become.

People who call themselves Yugoslavs today are attached to this cultural notion. But the Yugoslav identity can extend to those 1.2 million people who defined themselves as [ethnic] Yugoslavs [in the 1981 census] -- anyone from one of the 800,000 mixed marriages conducted between 1945 and 1990. For these people, it's not possible to be anyone other than a person who overcame narrow national boundaries.

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA:
Faruk Cupina
Faruk Cupina: "Frankly, being Bosniak is a matter of dignity, a sense that we are brought up and live according to the principles of tolerance."



Faruk Cupina is a prominent lawyer and philanthropist in the ethnically divided city of Mostar, where political control is split between Croats and Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, and where only a small Serbian population remains after most Serbs were forced from the town during the Bosnian war. Cupina, a Bosniak, has helped fund the construction of numerous churches in Mostar and was one of the first to come forward to support the renovation of a Serbian Orthodox church.

Frankly, being Bosniak is a matter of dignity, a sense that we are brought up and live according to the principles of tolerance. Bosniaks are people who are not prepared to seek revenge, to commit genocide, or to respond to all the negative things that have happened around the world.

Unlike during communist times, Bosniaks have been able in the past 20 years to have a complete identity. In Europe, we're misunderstood, even as we build a multicultural, multireligious, multinational Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Europeans today are quite surprised to learn that their best friends are Bosniaks -- Muslims -- because it doesn't fit into the Islamophobic picture now burdening all of Europe and the world. In the world, and in Europe, being Bosniak means pride, dignity, and self-esteem.

UNITED STATES:
Silvia Lopez
Silvia Lopez: "I think language determines your culture. My first language is Spanish, and I think that determines very much my relationships to many cultural expressions."



Silvia Lopez is 46 years old and an assistant professor of Latin American literature at a small college in the Midwestern U.S. state of Minnesota. She was born in El Salvador to a mother who worked as a doctor and a journalist father who ran a left-wing press. She has happy memories of her childhood, despite growing up during the country's 13-year civil war between the military-led government and a coalition of left-wing militia groups.

Lopez came to the United States in her twenties as a graduate student and eventually earned a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. She is now a U.S. citizen, married to a native-born American, and living in Minneapolis, a city whose snow and extreme cold are a far cry from the tropical climate where she grew up.

I'm Salvadoran. It means having ties to a land, a particular history, a people, a language, a childhood. I'm connected to both [El Salvador and the U.S.] in different ways. I think I'm connected to El Salvador through the sensorium of my childhood. And I think I'm connected to the U.S. through my adulthood, my profession, and being here and doing things here.

When I came to the United States, I didn't feel it was my responsibility to adopt its culture. But I did feel it was my responsibility -- and also because of the curiosity I have -- to understand its culture, speak its language. Because I felt that to be part of its civil society, I had to be completely functional in its language and codes. But I didn't feel compelled to adopt a culture, or adopt customs, or adopt things that were specific to the American imaginary.

I think language determines your culture. My first language is Spanish, and I think that determines very much my relationships to many cultural expressions, and although I'm perfectly functional in American culture and in its language and its codes, I do think that I'm a different person in my native tongue, and therefore relate to the world in a different way, through the culture that's expressed in that language.

UNITED STATES:
James Cahoy
James Cahoy: "America's at its best when it's a healthy mixture of assimilated immigrants adopting our democratic values but holding onto their own culture."

James Cahoy is a 43-year-old novelist and an acquisitions editor at a major academic textbook publishing company. A native-born American of Czech ancestry, his family has been in the United States for more than a century, and he has spent much of his life in Iowa and Minnesota, states that have emerged as major immigrant destinations in recent decades. In St. Paul, where Cahoy lives now, large groups of immigrants from Somalia and Laos have greatly altered what was, for many years, a population that was almost exclusively white and predominantly ethnic Scandinavian.

My nationality is American. It means being part of a country that I think of as a great experiment in whether a nation that is not homogenous can function as a democratic nation for a long period of time. And I think the verdict is actually still out on whether that experiment is going to succeed.

It used to be with America that the immigrant population was mostly white. And I think they had a fairly easy time being integrated into the population. Now we have a much more diverse immigrant population, and I think that is making it harder for our society to integrate those people. I'm hoping that that changes, because America was founded by immigrants, and our whole existence really depends on immigrants and our future prosperity. But I do think it's becoming more of a challenge for immigrants than it used to be.

I think that [immigrants] should assimilate to some degree, because I think there's a lot of things about American society that are valuable and important. But I also don't think that assimilating into American society necessarily means that they need to give up their own culture. America's at its best when it's a healthy mixture of assimilated immigrants adopting our democratic values but holding onto their own culture, and thus contributing to the great mixture that is America.

BELGIUM:
Faysal al-Bakali
Faysal al-Bakali: "I consider myself to be Belgian, because I work here, I pay my taxes, I pay social security, health. I'm a foreigner, but Belgian at the same time."




Faysal al-Bakali is a 30-year-old flower vendor living in the Belgian capital, Brussels. Bakali was born in Morocco but says he has fully embraced his adopted homeland. Moroccans and Turks make up the two largest immigrant populations in the Belgium capital and are plagued by nearly 50 percent unemployment -- far higher than that of other immigrant groups in Belgium. The large numbers of Turks and Moroccans have prompted debate about the link between immigration and Belgium's high crime rates.

I was born in Morocco, and I came here as a child. My father was already here. He had been working here since he was 16 or 17, so he already had Belgian citizenship. This is how I also became a Belgian citizen.

Now I work for a flower vendor on the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode Square. I consider myself to be Belgian, because I work here, I pay my taxes, I pay social security, health. I'm a foreigner, but Belgian at the same time.

Of course, I understand that the people here see all this theft and violence around. And yes, I agree that there are too many foreigners here. People who are born here already have a hard life, so if they have to also take care of immigrants and give them money, it's understandable if they're frustrated. One can't feed the whole planet.

BELGIUM:
Christian Wauthier
Christian Wauthier: "We live in a small country, in which all of the regions are different, and one needs to adapt to each one of them. Each region has its charm and its own specificities."



Christian Wauthier, 52, is a native-born Belgian who lives in the capital, Brussels. A self-employed butcher and caterer, Wauthier's family history reflects Belgium's unique historic identity as a country divided between Dutch and French speakers.

I come from a family where my mother was German, and my father Belgian. I have two brothers and a sister. My father was in the military, and when I was a child we moved to Flanders. I then married a Dutch-speaking woman. We have two children who did their university studies in Dutch.

I'm self-employed, and for two or three years I worked in the Congo, where you find a lot of Belgian expats, and which is also a mixture of cultures and races. Then I came back to Brussels, where I became a butcher and caterer.

If you ask me, yes, I feel totally Belgian. I am proud to be one, and to be part of this multiracial society. For me, to be Belgian means a mixture of all the things that I've been talking about. We live in a small country, in which all of the regions are different, and one needs to adapt to each one of them. Each region has its charm and its own specificities.

Kevin O'Flynn, Dan Alexe, Heather Maher, Tina Jelin, Radovan Borovic, Ernist Nurmatov, and RFE/RL's Balkan and Kyrgyz services contributed to this report
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