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Interview for

Irma Quavolli


Interviewed By:

Amy Abdalla

Date Interviewed:

Audio Recording of Interview
00:00 / 56:25

Irma speaks about how she feels she and her family have assimilated to American culture after fleeing Kosovo, especially feeling that she interacts less with her Muslim religion here. She did not always know she was a refugee – a label that still brings her discomfort – but now feels some disconnect from her Kosovan identity and identity as a religious refugee.

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Additional Notes

Narrator: Irma Quavolli

Date: 08/09/2019

Location: Bayonne, NJ

Summary: Irma speaks about how she feels she and her family have assimilated to American culture after fleeing Kosovo, especially feeling that she interacts less with her Muslim religion here. She did not always know she was a refugee – a label that still brings her discomfort – but now feels some disconnect from her Kosovan identity and identity as a religious refugee.

Topics: childhood, conditions back home, religion, Islam, discrimination, stereotypes, diversity of belief, public displays of belief, family, generational differences, historical context, education


Section 1: (00:00-07:01)

  • Holidays - Irma’s family did not celebrate Christmas while in Kosovo but do celebrate in the United States

  • Religion - Irma’s family is Muslim, not Christian. Kosovo is majority Muslim and Irma’s own ancestry includes religious leaders, but her family is not particularly religious.

  • Fleeing danger - Her father received refugee status first and paved the way for their move to Queens, NY. Until Irma and her mother could receive refugee status, they traveled through Europe in order to escape the danger present in Kosovo. They moved between Montenegro and Germany.

  • Refugee status - Her father had trouble receiving status because he had an ethnically Albanian name.

  • Lack of memory - Irma does not remember the period of her life before the age of 5, only realizing later that such a lack of memory is not normal. Unsure of its source, she has pieced together her parents’ life in Kosovo. She tells stories of forced business shutdowns and discriminatory curfews.

Section 2: (07:02-16:24)

  • Muslim identity - Irma was raised Muslim by both of her Muslim parents. Her great-grandfather was an Imam but did not object to her grandmother’s decision to stop wearing her hijab.

  • Stereotypes - Irma struggles with assumptions about Muslims, so she often tries to complicate her identity to open people’s minds about what it means to be Muslim. She tells her family history as part of this effort.

  • Assimiliation - Her parents downplayed their Muslim identities, especially in the US, which she thinks was carried over from their persecution in Kosovo but which certainly impacted her because she and her brother received American passing names, etc.

  • Cultural unity - Irma found a community of welcoming Muslims while growing up in New Jersey. She had to relearn religious practices but never felt alienated doing so. She makes an effort to reach out to Muslim communities, but still struggled with keeping her faith at a distance. Community helps bridge the gap.

  • Closeness to religion - Irma has experienced a change in her relationship with religion, partially fueled by conversations she has had about it. She gives more context when she tells people that she’s Muslim, because she doesn’t think her experience falls into what they would likely assume.

Section 3: (16:24-24:20)

  • Defensiveness - The bloodshed in Kosovo over religion makes ignorance in the US, for example, frustrating. Regardless of one’s practice or adherence to the religion, she sets a standard of respect.

  • Mixing traditions - Celebrating Christmas might seem unheard of to some. Her parents were used to holidays being celebrated based on the state’s mandate. Her parents are not as defensive over religion; they focus more on cultural salience and adapt accordingly.

  • Attending mosques - Irma did not spend much time at mosques in the US. Her family never made a particular effort to attend in the US. In Kosovo, things were different because it was much more ingrained into life. She remembers a particularly impactful moment where her mother publicly reacted to a call to prayer for the first time.

  • Return to Kosovo - Living in Kosovo, a Muslim majority country, was quite casual. She could partake in things like fasting during Ramadan and experience a community that was much more accommodating to her subsequent needs.

  • Acceptance - She felt like her parents interacted with Islam more in Kosovo, and the practice of religion was very second-nature, whereas practicing Islam in the US is a much bigger, scrutinized deal.

Section 4: (24:20-29:03)

  • Relating to new cultures - Along with her parents’ journey through assimilation, they found similarities to their neighbors who also had diverse experiences. Their minority experience defaulted to the majority culture, so their family and community took part in the American holidays too.

  • Avoiding ostracization - Location has mattered quite a bit to how Irma has felt accepted. In part, she doesn’t have a lot of outward expressions of her religion so she wasn’t really directly confronted with it, but she also felt very welcomed.

  • Luck of diversity - Irma went to public school in New Jersey, where she felt understood because there was a diverse group of students.

Section 5: (29:03-38:51)

  • Internalized experience - Irma never really felt like a refugee because her parents waited until she was older to speak about it, but she also lost a lot of her native language because American teachers recommended that they only speak English.

  • Realization of status - There was never an explicit time when her parents breached the subject, other than when they returned to Kosovo, but she remembers feeling shocked when she saw her refugee status document from when she was around the age of 5.

  • Home - She doesn’t really consider any place to be home, but attributes similar feelings to people instead. There is some cultural disconnect at play here, she doesn’t have a sense of homeland for either Kosovo or the US. Instead, she thinks of her family.

  • Family dynamics - Her family grounds each other, particularly because they can relate strongly to each other. She experiences her cultural relationship differently than her siblings, she thinks.

  • Labels - Although they had a distinct experience, Irma is more likely to refer to her parents as immigrants because of the negative association with the word refugee.

Section 6: (38:51-48:54)

  • Public eye - People also usually react to the term “refugee” with a lot of curiosity, which is good but can be tiring at times. There is so much media coverage that people often feel like they know enough to comment.

  • Personal experience - Irma is less likely to bring up her experience as a refugee in academic contexts because it is such a personal experience. Especially debates or close-mindedness makes it difficult to retell her experience.

  • Crossover with religion - There are a number of factors which make religion and being a refugee inextricably tied in Irma’s experience, especially being a Balkan Muslim. She was definitely more open talking about all of this when she was younger.

  • Refugees in academia - Irma realized that she does like to hear the opinions of people who have different stakes. Sometimes boundaries are hard when talking about that sort of thing but she has learned that she can give herself some distance from her experience in some settings and also must recognize her inherent bias in others.

Section 7: (48:54-56:24)

  • Being a Muslim refugee - It is hard for Irma to grapple with the intensity of religious conflict such that people like her family would have to flee their home. She tries to avoid glorifying or demonizing the experience.

  • Personal relationship with religion - A lot of things influence her relationship with religion, but she tends to feel most spiritual around mundane things rather than fanfare or celebration. Her interactions with religion tie into her perception of its future in the US, as a much more nuanced and diverse experience.

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