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When Life Gives You Lemons founder Dunja Relić on helping first-generation immigrant girls make their own lemonade

By Monica Athnasious

Jun 17, 2021

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We’ve all heard the common saying ‘when life gives you lemons make lemonade’ at least once in our lives and usually we give it no more than a shrug. I mean, we’ve heard it all before right? In the past few years, there’s been a powerful shift in the phrase. Lemonade isn’t just a drink anymore it seems, it’s become more than that. It’s become a symbol. But a symbol of what? A notable example is that of Beyoncé’s revolutionary 2016 album Lemonade; a watershed moment in the discussion of intersectionality, femininity and the struggles in womanhood—specifically for black women. It also gave way for an iconic new motif against misogyny: the lemon. This humble little citrus fruit has, in many ways, become a signal of overcoming the systemic obstacles that can stand in the way of many minority groups. Serbian-born activist and aspiring lawyer Dunja Relić is no stranger to this symbolism. The fight for women’s rights is literally plastered all over her resume. Relić has been a Youth Ambassador for the National Council of Women in Great Britain (NCWGB) for the past four years and even represented the organisation at the United Nations (UN) in New York in 2017. In 2015, she was one of two delegates to represent the UK in Australia for the 7th Commonwealth Youth Parliament—tasked with analysing and critiquing a charter on a human rights bill. Wow, right? Well, there’s honestly heaps more. Her LinkedIn profile puts mine to shame. Funnily enough, that’s one of the areas she has helped other first-generation immigrant women and girls with. With nearly a decade of incredible political and volunteer experience under her belt, Relić sat down with us at Screen Shot Pro to discuss her own lemonade recipe.

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On International Women’s Day in 2019, Relić announced the foundation of her own youth organisation When Life Gives You Lemons dedicated solely to helping first-generation immigrant women and girls. “This project will aim to help first-generation immigrant girls gain the skills and confidence they need to pursue their dreams, whatever their chosen careers may be.” As a recent graduate in law from the University of Liverpool, Relić realised she wasn’t really an academic person. “I love projects. I love people feeling inspired. The feeling of having helped someone or demystified something for someone. It fills me with purpose and excitement.”

When asked about her branding, Relić jokingly said, “I went through a phase of loving lemons. I saw it on a print on a skirt. And that started my love for lemons. I literally just ran with it. I am my brand at this point. Everyone’s like, every time I see a lemon I think of you and I just think it’s crazy, but it’s amazing. I’ve done the branding very well.”

When Life Gives You Lemons

Relić and her family immigrated to the UK when she was two years old due to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Her complicated experience as an immigrant would later become the building blocks of When Life Gives You Lemons. Since she moved here so young, Relić has heard epithets such as ‘you’re basically English’—to this, she has criticism. She points out that ironically, “geography has nothing to do with it” and it’s rooted in the politicisation of your identity. This heightens even more so for those who have to battle against the deep racism and anti-blackness of the UK as well as for those who exist outside of the heteronormative gender and sexual binaries of our society.

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Relić told me, “I cannot explain to you how, when you’re a first-generation immigrant, regardless of when you’ve moved here [or] if your parents have moved here. You, in your home, might as well be in Serbia. I’m not joking. You literally open your door and you’re in the UK. And suddenly the culture changes. And suddenly you have to, like a chameleon, conform to how people behave here, and what is normal here. But your parents don’t understand it.”

It forces immigrant children to make a ‘choice’—assimilate to the culture you’ve migrated to and risk your parents not understanding and even rejecting it or not trying to conform at all and be seen as an outcast. As not really British. This tug-of-war that can happen with an immigrant parent and their child is something Relić is no stranger to. “You’re met with this dilemma then as a first-generation immigrant of where precisely do I belong? And it’s somewhere in between. But that’s so weird, because [sometimes] it’s not like a stable thing.” Relić is dedicating much of When Life Gives You Lemons to eradicate this feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’ in young women and help them embrace confidence.

This complicated experience with their parents, especially for first-generation girls or women (thank you patriarchy) is something Relić cares deeply about. “I think the first-generation immigrants, in general, have it really hard, but first-generation immigrant women have it so hard. I feel like first-generation boys [can] get really offended when we say that because they’re like, ‘well, we have the same struggles’ and, I completely get that, but the standards that your family holds you to and society holds you to is a completely different kettle of fish.”

When asked about these standards, Relić divulged responsibilities that many young daughters of immigrant households—myself included—have had to take on. Having parents who struggle with the English language forced Relić to grow up quicker. From as young as 10 years old, she was translating official government documents for her parents as well as writing emails to their employers. Relić explains, “You struggle with the language barrier, it takes you some time to get your head around it. If you think in two languages, and you’re trying to corroborate the two, [schools] generally don’t have that support.”

Relić made clear her frustrations at the inadequate support for young women in education. When seeking advice about writing a CV and how to become more confident, she was given a book published in the 70s and some cartoons about different types of relationships. “If this is the support that schools are providing for young girls who may be struggling with confidence and self-esteem, especially for first-generation immigrants whose parents don’t possess any of those skills and don’t know any of that, then we have a really big problem here.”

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This pressure to help your parents so early on makes childhood slip away faster it seems. Being called “uptight” at school by her peers, Relić refused to not be. “I was always so conscious that if I’d broken out of that form, that something really bad would happen, and that I wouldn’t succeed in the way that my parents wanted me to. Because naturally, as we both recognise, it is such a massive sacrifice to leave your homeland.” The stress ultimately got to her father who had a stroke early on in her life. “It was because he was working so hard. He was working really long hours, and we weren’t even seeing him at all.”

Relić passionately highlights the insane pressure that this puts on first-generation girls, “It’s just so scary. All these things are intertwined. Health, money, pressure, the expectations of you, where you should be, especially as a woman, what you should be doing, how you should behave, what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable. And you just think, there are so many different things to think about here. I cannot be selfish at this moment. I am alone in a country with just my parents and my brothers, and I cannot live for myself, that would be the wrong thing to do. I’ve met with this struggle of ‘this would be so great for me, I know that I would love this’. But would my parents approve? And would this benefit my family as a whole? Could my family also be proud of that? Does that make sense? Yeah, it’s a really complicated and layered issue.”

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Make lemonade

Relić has made it her mission to aid other first-generation immigrant girls to navigate this experience through her organisation. There seems so much standing in the way. So how do you battle against these forces trying to mould you? How does a first-generation immigrant girl gain that confidence? Here’s Relić’s realistic advice, “This will take you a long time, girls. But as soon as you realise that no one else in the world is like you, that [becomes] your power. That is something you can mould into whatever you want to.”

Yes, being caught in between languages and cultures can be an obstacle but, according to Relić, it can become your strength. “Do you know how much it takes to recalibrate your brain to be thinking two different ways? Now imagine completely embracing that. And applying yourself in your dream career and your dream, whatever you want your life to be. Imagine how much of an impact you would have on your own life, but also everyone around you.” What about logistics though? What may you have to face as a first-generation immigrant woman? Honestly? Relić is an example of how much you have to fight against.

Not only do you have to fight against society, but you may also have to fight against culture and even your own family. This was behind all of Relić’s achievements and something she advises you have to brace yourself for, “I fought a lot in my house to be able to go to Australia, to be able to go to the UN in New York, to do all of these things.”

“I’m really struggling with how to weave that into When Life Gives You Lemons. Naturally, I don’t want to send a message like, ‘your parents are ignorant because they don’t know any better’. They’re just scared, and they want the best for us. But in many ways, they stand in the way of our dreams and our successes. And that upsets me and I think that is specifically an intersectional issue. Because people from really different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds can be met with that resistance.”

This, she noted, was particularly prevalent when choosing career paths that don’t align with the ‘typical immigrant expected path’—being confined to four or five professions (doctor, lawyer, dentist, accountant) when, actually, there is a plethora of other industries and jobs. “Let’s open up those rules and let’s think about what other things exist.”

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It was this struggle against different forms of authority—school, teachers and parents—that triggered the creation of When Life Gives You Lemons and perhaps your own project next. “I really hate being told what to do. I can’t do this for the rest of my life where I really want to do something empowering and then I’m met with a no. I just thought, ‘well if I’m my own boss, no one can tell me no’.”

So once you overcome this ‘no’, how do you go about finding and getting those opportunities? Relić’s path, like most of us, was not a clear one. “I honestly didn’t really have a linear way of going out and finding these things. I literally was just mortifyingly, like deathly embarrassing, sending emails to anyone I could find. I got a reply from some random person on a Parliament website and that’s what kind of snowballed it. Once you start interacting in professional settings, then they’ll start telling you about things because they know about them.”

Relić advises you to also learn from her mistakes and learn where to draw the line, “I really did not have a linear way. Any opportunity [that] came, whether I understood it to be bad or good—I took it. It was all good for me. I said yes to everything. And that is my problem now because I can’t say no to anything.” When sending that email or CV, Relić has some notes for you to take.

“Every time you send in a CV, you have to tweak it to fit that firm or to fit that industry. So actually, you don’t have a copy-paste CV situation, which people don’t realise. So I feel like having a workshop through When Life Gives You Lemons on how you can lay out a normal CV and then how to tweak it to work would be great. Because if teachers are still giving [students] books from the 70s to do their CVs, they’re not going to get a job—I’m not joking.” Relić will soon be providing a multitude of resources, education and advice about how to do the following through her organisation.

However, Relić passionately told Screen Shot Pro how difficult it may be for some people to be able to follow through on her advice. “I think that it’s so important to recognise that some of these first-generation immigrant girls don’t even have the facilities to be doing stuff like this. I’m telling you, I’m giving you all these resources, I’m throwing it out there but if you don’t have it at home to take it away with you—it creates another obstacle. If you don’t have a home computer for example. So I want to make sure that it’s 100% accessible. It would be a massive shame if anyone was excluded because of that, I would hate that, that would just kill me.”

Relić has even offered up her email to Screen Shot Pro readers; if anyone ever needs help or advice, her inbox is always open. It’s important to lean on each other and to help those who are in the same boat—especially those who are even worse off.

When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, Relić has this to say, “You will go through some really low points, points that your peers may not understand, points that you are even ashamed of yourself, points where your family will be ashamed of you and you will feel like you’re so alone. Those moments will be short-lived, I promise. Now? Now I’m sitting here with my law degree from a Russell Group university as a first-generation immigrant. The first person in my family to go to university ever in our family tree. You will of course have obstacles but you do not need yourself as an enemy also. As soon as you come to terms with the fact that you literally can do anything you set your mind to—you’ll fly.”