A different kind of place: One professor’s growing citizenship concerns

When WKU history professor Marko Dumančić got the chance to move to the United States at age 16, he said it seemed like an exciting opportunity.

It was 1996 at the time, and he was living in Zagreb, Croatia, which had been a part of Yugoslavia only a few years before. The Croatian War of Independence had just ended, and so had his parents’ marriage. His mother decided to continue her education in the United States, and she enrolled in a graduate program at Boston University.

She claimed her son as a dependent on her student visa, and the two moved to the United States for two years while she finished her master’s degree.

At least, that was the plan. Along the way, two years in the U.S. turned into over 20.

WKU history professor Marko Dumančić stands in the back of a classroom on the second floor of Cherry Hall. Dumančić, a Croatian citizen, has lived in the United States since he was 16 years old. As a scholar, he specializes in Eastern Europe, modern Russia and Cold War history.

Dumančić, now a historian, scholar and U.S. green card holder, has come to call the U.S. home. But still, there have been certain times when he’s felt like he doesn’t actually belong — most recently with President Trump’s two travel ban executive orders.

Though he grew up in Yugoslavia, Dumančić was born in Tripoli, Libya in November of 1979. Libya was one of seven countries on Trump’s original travel ban and one of six on his revised order.

Dumančić’s parents, both Yugoslavian citizens of Croatian descent, were living in Libya at the time because of his father’s job as an agronomist for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

The family moved around quite a bit. Before Dumančić was born, his parents had two daughters — Marija, who is six years older than him and was born in Iran, and Katja, who is four years older and was born in Jordan.

“At the time, [one] couldn’t possibly predict the current political climate and what would happen to the Middle East, so at that time, those places were clearly places where Westerners felt completely comfortable going to and traveling and living,” Dumančić said.

Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Morocco, and then eventually, they moved back to then-Yugoslavia. He spent the rest of his childhood living in Zagreb.

He was 11 years old when Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. For the next four years, he saw some of the effects of the war and ethnic cleansing that followed, but he said he didn’t see the worst of it.

“Zagreb wasn’t like Sarajevo in terms of the constant shelling of the siege,” Dumančić said. “We were shelled a few times, and of course [had] war taxes, refugees.”

When the opportunity to move to the U.S. came along, he took it.

Moving to the U.S. brought some changes that Dumančić didn’t necessarily expect. One summer while in high school, he went back to Croatia for the first or second time, and he said things felt very different.

He remembered one encounter in particular. He was back home, having a conversation with someone, when he realized he’d started to become an outsider.

“[That person] said, ‘Well, what do you know? You know, you don’t live here, you just think you can — you go to America, so you think that you know better than we do,’” Dumančić said, remembering that conversation. “So there was that kind of moment when you realize, ‘I don’t necessarily belong here anymore.’”

He said he experienced a number of these moments of realization.

“You start losing those connections that used to be important — and you realize that you can’t talk to people about TV shows, about what happened last week,” Dumančić said. “And people start seeing you as more of an irregular guest than somebody who actually belongs.”

Back in the U.S., as a junior in high school, Dumančić took his PSATs with the rest of his high school class, and he started receiving brochure after brochure advertising American colleges and universities. He started to realize he might be able to stay in the U.S. longer than he originally anticipated.

He was accepted to Connecticut College, and he obtained a student visa of his own.

Since then, Dumančić has been on the “alphabet of visas,” as he called it. He said he moved from the J2 visa he had when his mother was in graduate school to an F1 visa, meant for international students studying in the U.S. Later, he obtained an H1-B visa, which is issued for foreign workers.

In his first few years in the U.S., Dumančić said he started adapting to the norms of his new environment.

His close friend and colleague Addie Cheney said his assimilation is something that is evident. She first met Dumančić four years ago, when they served on a Fulbright panel together. When they met, she said she didn’t even realize he was from another country.

“I remember thinking he was incredibly smart and articulate and that WKU was very lucky to have him as a junior faculty member, and I knew he would go on to do really great things,” Cheney said.

Taylor Reyes, a history major, was enrolled in Dumančić’s history of sexuality class in the spring 2017 semester and works in the department as a student worker.

Reyes said he’s enjoyed having Dumančić as a professor. He can easily recall times when Dumančić has joked with the class and other times when he has encouraged class members to speak up and share their opinions.

Reyes also said Dumančić’s nationality is something he is pretty open about with his students.

“I don’t get the feeling that he’s not American or that there’s anything weird about his mannerisms or like anything like that,” Reyes said. “But he does joke about it a lot, and it’s obviously something he thinks about a lot, so I’m sure it’s really important — like really central to his own identity.”

Earlier this semester, Potter College recognized Dumančić with its faculty award for teaching.

Dumančić’s colleague, Patti Minter, has been at the university since fall of 1993. She said Dumančić brings something special to the history department, both in terms of scholarship and enthusiasm.

“He is a dynamic teacher, and he is an outstanding scholar, and he brings a lot of energy and flair to the department,” Minter said.

When Dumančić received his bachelor’s degree in history from Connecticut College, he realized he had two options if he wanted to stay in the United States.

“Either I was going to get a job and get a work visa or I was going to continue with my education and continue on my student status,” Dumančić said.

He was accepted into the PhD program at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where he studied Russian and eastern European history. Starting this program meant he would live in the U.S. for at least another eight years.

However, this is around the time he said he started realizing he would probably stay much longer.

He’d adapted to the culture and started to identify with American norms. The United States, he realized, was where he would probably spend the rest of his life — but his sense of security in this decision was called into question on a couple different occasions.

One afternoon in 2006, while living in Chapel Hill, an unexpected visitor came to Dumančić’s door: a Department of Homeland Security officer.

Dumančić had recently returned from Moscow, Russia, where he’d spent a year doing dissertation research.

“There were some red flags, and they just wanted to make sure that I was who I said I was, and I lived where I said I did,” he said.

A few years later, after earning his PhD, he was teaching at Oberlin College and living in Cleveland, Ohio when he received another one of these visits. He wasn’t home at the time, so Department of Homeland Security officers left a note on his apartment door, asking him to give them a call.

“The second time was when the Gaddafi overthrow happened, and they wanted to check who I was, what connections I have with Libya, did I have any business, personal, familial relations in Libya.”

Of course, Dumančić answered “no” to these questions about Libya. He didn’t have any connections; he was so young when his family moved that he doesn’t even really remember living there. Libya was a line in his biography that external events had made significant.

These reminders — that he is not an American citizen and was born in a country often seen as unstable — were impactful to Dumančić.

And today, such reminders are becoming more frequent.

Last summer, Dumančić reached a milestone in his status as an immigrant. He received his first green card.

For many, a green card is a big step in the path to citizenship. A green card holder is given permanent residence status for up to 10 years, and after five years, he or she is allowed to apply for citizenship.

The designation of “permanent resident” allows immigrants to legally live and work in the U.S. Permanent residency is also supposed to make international travel easier as most U.S. visa holders who travel internationally must obtain a new visa from an embassy in their home country before re-entering the U.S. This is a process Dumančić had to complete before returning to the U.S. at the end of his trip to Russia in 2005.

A permanent resident, on the other hand, is expected to be able to exit and re-enter the country more easily.

To him, Dumančić said a green card seemed like “the lottery.”

“I thought once I got my green card I was going to be this free person — that I was going to be able to be like any other American,” Dumančić said.

Besides his research trip to Russia in 2005 and a few trips back to Croatia, Dumančić had spent most of his adult life avoiding international travel because of potential visa complications upon reentry to the U.S. He hasn’t been back to Croatia since 2005.

“So last June, I received permanent residence, and I was like, ‘OK, I finally have a way when traveling to come back in without problems,” Dumančić said.

Wanting to take advantage of the new security he’d have as a green card holder, he applied for the university’s fourth annual Zuheir-Sofia Endowed International Faculty Seminar.

This is a faculty trip abroad that takes place each summer and kicks off WKU’s “International Year Of” program for the upcoming school year. Selected faculty members spend a couple weeks in WKU’s upcoming “International Year Of”country. They conduct research and prepare educational materials that they can bring back to WKU to educate students and faculty members on campus about the selected country.

This year, the trip is to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country, which is a neighbor to Croatia and was part of the former Yugoslavia, is close to home for Dumančić. And it ties almost seamlessly into much of his scholarship.

“I’ve been writing about Bosnia and former Yugoslavia for a decade, and it was the first time I was going to be able to [visit],” Dumančić said. “You know, it’s different when you read about the places and you watch the movies, and you read the newspapers, you read the books, and you try to make sense of the society from a distance.”

Dumančić was one of eight faculty members accepted into the program, and he started contacting friends in Croatia and making plans travel plans for this summer.

And then, on Friday, Jan. 28, President Trump issued his first travel ban.

Dumančić remembers hearing about this executive order the next morning, as he sat at a dark-brown, wood-stained table at Spencer’s Coffee in downtown Bowling Green.

The voices of coffee drinkers and the sounds of baristas making specialty drinks behind the counter filled the room. That morning, Dumančić was contacting some friends in Croatia he hadn’t seen in over ten years, making some tentative plans to get together over the summer.

But, over the next 24 hours, the reality of the travel ban sunk in, and Dumančić realized he wouldn’t be able to make the trip after all. Green card holders, like Dumančić, were included as a part of Trump’s original travel ban, and Libya, where he was born, was on the list of banned countries.

He broke the news to his friends in Croatia, who he said completely understood.

And he told the trip’s co-leaders: Jerry Daday, sociology professor and the director of the center for faculty development; Gina Dzeli, a WKU alumna and Bosnian refugee; and Cheney.

That travel ban was eventually struck down, and a new, revised travel ban was issued and then blocked by federal judges again.

But still, Dumančić stuck with his decision not to make the trip. He said several friends urged him not to travel internationally unless it became absolutely necessary.

“Now, [he] can’t leave the country, right, for fear that this would happen,” Cheney said. “And that’s the advice he’s been given.”

Like Cheney, Daday said he understood Dumančić’s decision.

“Technically, he could go, but why would anyone take that kind of risk with this current administration?” Daday said. “Why? I just — I don’t blame him for not going. I don’t blame him.”

Still, Daday sad Dumančić’s absence on the trip would certainly be felt.

“He knows more about the history of Bosnia than anyone else on this trip,” Daday said. “He knows more about the region than any other faculty member on this campus, and when I heard he wasn’t going to participate, it really upset me — not because I think the project is going to fail. I think we’ll still be fine.

“It’s going to make the project and its outcomes less rich because I could have learned a lot from him and the other faculty participants could have learned a lot from him.”

Dumančić admits that current events, like the travel ban, have made him a little more “irrational” and “paranoid” about his position as an immigrant and non-citizen living in the U.S.

Cheney said these types of events have made his position as an immigrant seem more significant, at the least.

“You could’ve characterized him as an immigrant before, but I don’t think that would’ve been something you would’ve thought of immediately,” Cheney said. “But now … it carries with it these repercussions, these potential consequences, right?”

This is what Dumančić fears. It’s a fear of the unknown — of potential complications that could arise with travel, executive orders that could be issued in the future, things that could happen to immigrants like him under a Trump administration.

His sister, Katja Dumančić, said it’s something they both worry about for each other.

“I mean, [it’s] a detail that he ultimately had no control over — where he was going to be born — but to all those years later have such a profound effect on the decisions he makes in his life, yeah, the bottom line is it’s scary,” she said. “It’s scary to kind of have to think about those things and realign your life. But that’s how it is.”

After the first travel ban was issued, Dumančić said he felt something had changed about the place he’d come to call home.

“I just thought, ‘Why are we going backwards?’” he said. “I thought we moved to a place that didn’t concern itself with where you were born and what faith you were. I thought this was a different kind of place. So to see America all of a sudden become so tribal — that was the thinking that I thought I left behind.”