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St. Louis was a destination for Bosnian refugees. A new film shows what happened next

Filmmaker Joseph Puleo conducts an interview for "A New Home," his documentary about Bosnian refugees that premieres on Sunday.
Joseph Puleo
Filmmaker Joseph Puleo conducts an interview for "A New Home," his documentary about Bosnian refugees that premieres on Sunday.

A surplus of affordable housing stock in the 1990s made St. Louis a good destination for Bosnians fleeing an ethnic civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

The first refugees were joined later by Bosnians who initially relocated elsewhere in the U.S. but made their way to friends and family in St. Louis, forming the largest community of Bosnians outside of Europe.

“A New Home,” a documentary by St. Louis filmmaker Joseph Puleo, tells the story of the brutal war that caused thousands of Bosnians to build a new community in St. Louis. Itpremieres Sunday at the Whitaker St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase.

Puleo and executive producer Rio Vitale previously collaborated on “The Hill: America’s Last Little Italy.” More than 1,700 people bought tickets to stream it online during the 2020 showcase, setting a sales record for the festival.

“Many people would come up to us and pitch ideas about what our next documentary should be. And nine times out of 10, they referenced the Bosnian story,” said Puleo, who grew up in St. Charles. “This is not something that, if you live in St. Charles, is ever referenced. So I had no idea about it. I think that this is going to be, hopefully, an eye-opening experience for people in St. Louis and beyond.”

The Bosnian community in St. Louis grew to an estimated 70,000 members at its peak, centered in the Bevo Mill neighborhood. Then many Bosnians began retracing the pattern set by other white residents following World War II, moving from the city to St. Louis County.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Puleo about the story behind the film and how Bosnians have made an impact on St. Louis.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: Was it more difficult to find sources for this film than it was for “The Hill: America’s Last Little Italy”?

Joseph Puleo: Very early on, we were set up with Patrick McCarthy, who had also started on the ground floor with these refugees back in ‘92, helping them when they first came over. And he had this incredible archive of photographs and VHS tapes. He had relationships with multiple families and members of the Bosnian community that he was able to call on our behalf. Another refugee coordinator, Ron Klutho, was also huge in helping us make these connections.

You're talking about people who are going to be reliving the worst experience of their entire lives in front of a camera. So that's obviously going to be more difficult than “The Hill,” in which they're probably referencing the greatest memories of their life. So we found people that were willing to share, and I'm just blown away by the stories that we were able to get. And for us, being on set, it was just an incredibly emotional experience hearing these people reliving these moments. It was just extremely profound. And we couldn't be more appreciative to the people that participated in the film.

Goodwin: Did refugees from Bosnia end up clustering in particular parts of the city?

Puleo: Yeah, Bevo and south city were the main parts where the Bosnian refugees ended up. And so they lived there for 15 to 20 years, and then started that migration to south county, which is what we get into at the end of the film.

Goodwin: You mentioned that this wasn’t something you heard about when you were growing up in St. Charles. What did you learn through this process that really surprised you?

A scene from "A New Home," which documents the migration of Bosnian refugees to St. Louis, and the community they established here.
Joseph Puleo
A scene from "A New Home," which documents the migration of Bosnian refugees to St. Louis and the community they established.

Puleo: I think the fact that it’s such a triumphant story. You're talking about these people going through such a harrowing experience, just to be able to make it over to St. Louis. And then the fact that they were able to build this community, and really rise above everything. It's just a story that I felt was incredibly relevant and needed to be told. And, you know, I'm just very appreciative that the Bosnian community trusted us with making this story.

I thought this was a great story and not one that everyone in St. Louis knows, and probably people beyond St. Louis have no idea. Building up this Bevo Mill neighborhood and starting all these businesses and just being really successful in building a community.

Goodwin: Are some of the folks who you spoke to for the film planning to be there for the premiere on Sunday?

Puleo: Definitely. I think we're going to have a lot of Bosnians in from the community, who are going to be in attendance.

With “The Hill,” we weren’t able to have a public screening because of COVID-19. And now we're going to get that opportunity for this film, so we're incredibly excited about that.

Goodwin: In this film you do talk about how the Bosnian refugees’ experience is colored by the fact they are perceived to be white people. And that gave them an advantage, so to speak, in terms of how white St. Louisans received them as new neighbors. Do you think the city’s positive experience with Bosnian refugees made it more open to refugees from other places?

Puleo: I think so. You see the success that the Bosnians have had and you hope that the Afghan refugees who are coming over are going to be able to experience that, and the Ukrainian refugees who are going to be coming over here can experience that as well.

It is difficult, because you would have hoped, for the city, that they would have been able to stay. And that's a big thing that we get into at the end of the film, really showing that migration to south county. And also the division between city and county, and how that really affects everything that St. Louis does.

If you go

What: "A New Home"
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Brown Hall at Washington University, Centennial Greenway, St. Louis
Admission: $15

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.