Hyattsville resident Dušan Turčan hails from the village of Hlozany in the fertile plains of northern Serbia. The son of a rose farmer, Turčan was raised in a culturally rich and close-knit community, which is something he did not immediately find as an exchange student in America.
At first, “I felt lonely and couldn’t relate to anybody,” he said. “You had to have a car to do anything. In my village, you could walk everywhere. In the U.S., everything was bigger.”
His village was inhabited by Slovaks who immigrated to the area in the 18th century. “There is a diversity of ethnic groups and religions in northern Serbia,” he said, including Slovaks, Serbians, Hungarians, Russians, and Roma. .” The diversity strengthened Turčan’s ties to his Slovak heritage. Growing up, “kids were part of Slovak folk groups and a big part of my social life was playing music, songs, and dance. In the summer there were regional festivals and lots of competitions. Weddings take three days and there are lots of old traditions and old Slovak songs woven into them.”
Turčan grew up in a united Yugoslavia and did not directly feel the dissolution of the nation after Milošević came into power, following the death of the dictator Tito in the 1980’s. “There was a wonderful ‘Yugoslavian brotherhood’ and it was great. After Tito died, as soon as some sparks started to fly, the sentiments went back to the 40s during the Nazi invasion and the tensions started to escalate. The fluffy brotherhood of nations broke up and the ethnic tensions went back to WWII period,” he said.
Turčan first came to the U.S. in the early 90s as a high school exchange student in Washington state. “My dad was enamored with the U.S. because it was the land of opportunity. At the time he had money, so [he] encouraged me to come to study for a semester in the U.S. at a high school.”
After returning to Serbia to complete high school, tensions between the many ethnic groups started to intensify and war was imminent, so Turčan decided to apply to American colleges and relocate permanently to the U.S. “My family encouraged me to leave Serbia to study so I wouldn’t get drafted into the army,” he said. “For me the war was foreign—I was Slovak and had nothing to do with Serbians. A lot of my friends went to Slovakia to study.”
When Turčan finished college in Minnesota, a post-war Serbia was suffering from economic chaos and hyperinflation. Since there didn’t seem to be many opportunities back home, Turčan found a job at a software company in New Hampshire. He later moved to Maryland to start a PhD program in physics at the University of Maryland.
Since moving to Hyattsville with his wife Elizabeth, at the recommendation of a church friend, Turčan has found an American answer to the flourishing community he knew as a child.
“Being from a village I really appreciated that you could walk everywhere. We’ve formed good friendships. I really love family life and being a dad… Being here, in Hyattsville, I feel that there are many other people like that here. This was not the case in other places I lived. And it’s not just our community at St. Jerome Church, but the neighborhood in general.”
Julia Gaspar-Bates is a cross-cultural trainer and consultant. “Cultural Connections” is devoted to bringing forth the voices of immigrants and other foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.