Slice of Life

Professor plans to travel to home country Bosnia to study elder care

Fiona Lenz | Staff Photographer

Azra Hromadžić, a SU professor, returns to homeland of Bosnia to study elder care in the post-socialist country


Azra Hromadžić graduated from high school in war-torn Bosnia with no options for higher education. She was the valedictorian, but she felt hopeless.

“I remember I wanted to burn my high school diploma because I didn’t know what to do with it,” she said.

The Syracuse University professor will return to her homeland — now in a post-war state — next semester to study elder care as part of the Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, which she won earlier this year. The program gives money to professionals for research and teaching.

Hromadžić has spent the last decade studying youth citizenship in Bosnia, which led to the publication of her first ethnographic research book in 2015. Hromadžić said she plans to return to Bosnia to focus on an issue talked about much less: the country’s lagging public health services for the nation’s aging.

Anthropology was not Hromadžić’s initial passion, nor was staying in Bosnia. After high school graduation, she worked as a translator for a local school and applied for a U.S. visa, hoping to find a future at an American university. But she said she thought “nothing of it,” until a student visa came in the mail.


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Hromadžić would go on to study at a small community college in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where she dabbled in biology and business. Her professors soon encouraged her to transfer to a better institution. She chose the University of Pennsylvania.

When she was forced to take it as an introductory class at the university, Hromadžić’s love of anthropology began. She said the subject helped her learn about the “everyday struggles of ordinary people.”

“(Anthropology) allows me to theorize about violence and reconciliation,” she said. “How do people make sense of life after suffering such extreme forms of violence? How do people carry on after losing everything forever?”

These were some of the same questions Hromadžić asked herself when growing up while Bosnia was under siege, which led her to focus on her home country. By this point, Bosnia had moved into the reconstruction period after the war, which began in 1992, when the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from socialist Yugoslavia. The war lasted until 1995.


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While doing primary research, Hromadžić said she found herself “puzzled and confused” by how other anthropologists were portraying the region.

“It clashed directly with my personal experiences,” she said.

She decided to focus her dissertation work on her country and Bosnian young adults in particular because she said “they could have been my children.”

She began to study high schools, which had been ethnically segregated during the war and were now reuniting. Returning summer after summer, she studied the ethnic divisions among the youth, many of whom had barely known a life without war.

More than 10 years of work would eventually turn into her first book, “Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-Making in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina,” which has gone on to be a supplement to other academic research, said Edin Hajdarpasic, an assistant professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, in an email.

After her book was published, Hromadžić decided to move on from her study of youth citizenship after hearing about a “mushrooming” of private nursing homes in Bosnia from many of the country’s refugees living in Syracuse. Currently, there are low budgets for public elder services and many private — and expensive — nursing homes.

With so many families living without pension, Hromadžić hopes to learn who is using and funding these private nursing homes. She also said she relates more to the elderly.

“Elders are on the same schedule as me,” she joked. “Young people go out too much.”

Many of the elders living in post-war Bosnia still remember a time when the socialist state used to provide for them, Hromadžić said. In her research, she said she hopes to look at the transition between “war to peace, from socialism to post-socialism.”

“She is trying to look at how different segments of society deal with peace and how they are divided by different ethnic groups,” said Mary Lovely, one of Hromadžić’s colleagues and an economics professor at SU.

Though she has already surveyed a number of elderly residents, Hromadžić plans on spending time observing them in their natural environment. Though she has traveled back to her motherland many times before, the trip next semester will be her one of her longest visits yet.

“People have to get used to you,” she said. “It’s not unusual to come back with hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes.”

Though elder care is her focus, Hromadžić couldn’t give up working with young people next semester. She plans to teach an anthropology course at a local Bosnian university, the University of Bihac.

Hromadžić will face several obstacles in teaching in Bosnia. She has never attended a Bosnian university, and said the learning styles in American and Bosnian universities are quite different. She said her goal is to offer students a “hybrid of both countries’ teaching.”


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Jesse Nichols, an SU alumnus, said Hromadžić has a very interactive, text-heavy teaching style. He said she is engaging and interesting due to her first-hand experience of the Bosnian war and her ability to draw  listeners in.

“Even if you don’t raise your hand, she will call on you,” Nichols said. “She makes you passionate about the subject. She is really unique.”

In addition to adapting her Americanized teaching style for Bosnian students, Hromadžić must combat the different outlook Bosnian students have on their future.

With a youth unemployment rate of 63 percent, Bosnian students are cynical of their future, Hromadžić said.

Though she calls the situation “challenging,” Hromadžić wants her research to lead to more than just a publication, though that is one of her goals. She hopes to bridge the gap between Syracuse and Bosnia and serve as a mentor to her young students, pushing them to consider higher education as an option.

As the January date for her trip approaches, Hromadžić has begun looking for an apartment for her and her family and contacting social workers to interview. But, she said “over-preparing is so American” and will go where her teaching and research takes her.

Though she may be leaving her job for an entire semester to travel across the world and try to relate and connect with strangers, Hromadžić isn’t worried.

“It’s not a distant place to me because I was born there, I grew up there, I go there so much,” she said. “It’s mine.”


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