“Life without freedom is not worth living”

We entered the United States on Obama’s 50th birthday, August 4th, 2011. We were heading to San Francisco, a place that my husband, Djordje visited a couple of years ago and called right upon landing to say: “I found us a new home.” I laughed it off and shook my head, both in disbelief that it would be possible and that I would ever agree on crossing the ocean. We were then living in Serbia.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Davide D´Amico

From this first visit to San Francisco, Djordje brought back the story about an Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey. Like many journalists around the world, Bailey lost his life to his story. However, the story lived on thanks to Bailey’s colleagues who gathered to finish the work after his death and discovered the trail to the murderers who were found and convicted. The fact that the story will live to be told no matter what was fascinating to us. Djordje had it in mind when he was founding the first Serbian Center for Investigative Reporting, in a country where journalists were helpless and their murderers never prosecuted. The ideal of American journalism seemed unachievable.

But there we were, on a late night flight, in disbelief that we are actually doing it, taking a year off from Serbia and our complicated life there. I should explain here how and why we ran away from the authorities who threatened us because of our work, but the story is too significant to us to be told in a few words. Let’s just say that we were flying in from Belgrade exhausted, terrified and excited at the same time. Still, we weren’t immigrating. We were just headed for a year at Stanford where Djordje was awarded a John S. Knight Journalism fellowship.

We still had a grain of hope in restoring our former lives while we were packing our bags. We were already 34 years old and accomplished in many ways. We left everything we worked for. I meant to come back; I left my books and my photographs behind. Our daughter left her French school, her music school, her programming classes, her piano, first loves. I knew I might not see my father alive again if I leave. But we had to leave.

When we first arrived at Stanford, we were surprised with the – although famous –  American hospitality, the smiles and the endless stream of “How are you?”s.  Before we knew it, we dropped our RBFs (Resting Bitch Faces) and were able to stop being unbelievably cool in order to survive. At the first session in the JSK lounge, a moment I will cherish for as long as I live, JSK director Jim Bettinger addressed us with words: “We are all journalists here. We all have faced prosecution, threats, corruption, danger, and we all have scars. I want you to know that this room, and this program, is your safe place.”

Even among the most peculiar places, the area known as Silicon Valley or San Francisco Bay Area is unique (although the two are not the same, names evolved to cover the whole area from San Francisco to Cupertino). If Heaven was ever on Earth, it was here. Probably on Stanford’s campus somewhere. While Baudrillard was writing about America as the last standing primitive society, even for him, leaving California meant returning to the life that cannot get you excited anymore.

The competition is fierce – in everything. Everybody you meet is extraordinary in some way. While 30.9 percent of Americans have completed at least a bachelor’s degree, almost 80 percent of Palo Alto residents have an undergraduate degree and 14.5 percent have doctoral degrees, the highest percentage in the U.S. It is hard to have a meaningless conversation here. San Francisco is among three of the most expensive areas in the U.S. next to Manhattan and Honolulu. Therefore, although all these fabulous conversations are taking place in the fancy shadows of sleepy palm trees, the small talk among adults is always the price of real estates and rentals, and among teenagers are their SAT scores (a standardized test for college admissions).

In the second part of our fellowship year,  in 2012, Serbia had elections. The “new” authorities were those who led the country into wars and isolation, media blockage and censorship a decade before and they were back. Although we did run away imminently from a “democratic” regime, we knew that we couldn’t deal with those who succeeded them. We were way past that moment. Not because we were scared, which we certainly were, but because we felt we have tried everything. We didn’t believe in any possibility of change in our home country. Couples say various things unite them. For us, life without progress and freedom is not worth living. Turned out that the fact we were avoiding to face, jumped on us after those elections: we didn’t have where to return. It was the first phase of our immigration.

What followed was the most difficult process we could ever imagine. We had to be ingenious, quick, hopeful, resilient, resourceful and courageous, all at the same time. None of our war, bombing, threats, lawsuits, life-threatening illness without a chance for medication experiences, prepared us for surviving American capitalism and Bay Area rentals. We didn’t consider moving elsewhere in the States because all of our friends were here and we desperately needed their support and love. With their invaluable help, we settled into our after-fellowship immigrant life. It was like being students again.

We applied for permanent residency and lived in a vacuum: our J-visas expired, but the new status wasn’t granted nor denied yet. We couldn’t leave the country when my father passed away. Not being able to travel even in the moments like that is one of the common sacrifices for many immigrants. So common, that my high school classmate has been through the same thing, years apart from me.

After being “somebody” in your home country, moments like that are defining in your new life. Being helpless again, but in a different way made me mourn our times of conquering freedom. I felt I was late for defining anything on that scale in the new country. All our achievements, milestones, and obstacles had to be repeated and solved again. Thinking of the life I left behind, I felt old. Fine threads of our relationships, memories, beliefs, got disconnected. One can maybe go back sometimes, but not back to his old self as well. We left because of dangers we faced while we were trying to make an impact. However, while we did find safety in the new country, we got too busy with accommodating into a new life to be satisfied with our impact.

But life is a change, both for the worst and for the best. It is an understatement to say that we were surprised with a long time wanted pregnancy. Without health insurance, residency, or a job, in a rented townhouse, just a few weeks after my dad passing, barely six months into our immigrant life, I was expecting a baby. Before I even had a chance to process our decision to stay in America, I was giving birth to a brand new American at Stanford Hospital.

Days after Nicholas was born, after numerous appeals and ups and downs (if Nick ever shows some signs of trauma, we will know it draws from his prenatal immigrant phase) we were granted permanent residency. People think they are funny when they ask if Nick was our anchor baby. It is not funny. It is deeply insulting, and it disregards a complicated and challenging process of obtaining residency. We were lucky, but we also put in an enormous number of hours of mastering immigration law and were fortunate to get pro-bono help from a brilliant young lawyer and from almost twenty of our friends, who were writing letters of recommendation and support. We also have to thank many strangers, who we never met, but who valued Djordje’s work enough to testify on how valuable it would be in the new country. The same way those incredibly sad moments transformed us for good, the extraordinary support we received from friends was equally important in forming our new identities. Staying the same is not an option when immigrating – survival depends on one’s capability to evolve.

It has been wonderful living in the land of the free and being a part of a fascinating journalism community at Stanford’s JSK. However, the struggle to achieve things we took for granted in our home country is always present. Health care, daycare, housing, access to culture, catching up on the go with everything, sometimes makes us feel we are running a marathon without an end. I often wonder if our motives for immigration were opportunistic, if we had planned it for years, streamed our lives towards it, would it feel different? Easier? Sometimes I miss being spontaneously smart and hilarious in my native language, and while I appreciate immensely everything we found here, most of all friendships, I can’t help but feel robbed of that unbearable lightness of living. Although I was already robbed of it even before I booked my flight to San Francisco.

Djurdja Jovanovic Padejski

Djurdja Jovanovic Padejski

is a Serbian journalist, now living in the States and turning her career towards academia. Djurdja was awarded William and Barbara Edwards Media Fellowship at Stanford and she is the author of the www.balkaninamerica.net project. She is a proud mom of Andjela and Nicholas, and a life long partner in adventures to Djordje Padejski.