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Bosnians in St. Louis: Reflection 20 years after start of war

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2012 - Twenty years ago, on April 5, 1992, to be exact, the brutal siege of Sarajevo began. For nearly four years, the city of Sarajevo, the capital of newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, was attacked by Serbian forces stationed in the hills around the city. Everyday life soon came to a halt as thousands of people died while thousands more suffered from the deprivation caused by a blockade.

Bosnia-Herzegovina had been a part of Yugoslavia, an Eastern European country that began to break apart after the revolutions of 1989. Slovenia and then Croatia declared their independence in 1991. Bosnia-Herzegovina followed in March 1992. The war in Bosnia, though, was far more brutal than in Croatia, leading to charges of war crimes against Serb and Bosnian Serb leaders for their campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnians, mostly Muslims.

Sarajevo and other places in Bosnia like Srebrenica became the scenes of the kinds of atrocities that Europeans thought that they would never see again.

The Bosnian war created a flood of refugees, who wound up in Western Europe and the United States. The U.S. State Department helped thousands of Bosnian refugees settle in St. Louis, where they helped revive parts of south St. Louis.

Haska Salihovic and her friend arrive at Café Novella together, just after 3, in jeans and T-shirts. We talk for hours, accompanied by the occasional click of a chess timer; two men by the front window have been at it since before we arrived.

Both women are 28, born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, educated, in part, in St. Louis. They represent the increasing complexity of St. Louis’ Bosnian population. It’s a complexity rooted in centuries of changing regimes and intermingling cultures that have made the nation now called Bosnia and Herzegovina one of the world’s most diverse. It’s a complexity multiplied by the extraordinary range of living Bosnians’ experiences during war in the 1990s, and a complexity intensified with each Bosnian-American born to an identity as yet unfathomed.

It’s also a complexity hard to grasp for many Americans, and suppressed – sometimes unwittingly, sometimes necessarily – by Bosnians themselves. In fact, Salihovic's friend declined to have her name included here because her work demands trust from various segments of the Bosnian community, and to speak frankly might put that trust in jeopardy.

It’s easy to depict the resettlement of Bosnians in St. Louis – predominantly Bosnian Muslims, called Bosniaks, but also Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, all fleeing war – as a prototypical American success story. In less than two decades, refugees who arrived with proverbial pennies in their pockets have bought cars, then homes, seen their children graduate from American high schools, then colleges.

In less than a generation, Bosnian-St. Louisans have become doctors, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, professors, tech specialists, entrepreneurs. They have buoyed the population of the city of St. Louis, improved the safety of their neighborhoods, built three mosques, formed a Chamber of Commerce, cracked the code of American capitalism, and plugged into an international network of Bosnian media and Bosnian culture in diaspora.

In this sense, anyway, many Bosnian-St. Louisans have achieved what must have seemed impossible 20 years ago: to live “normal” lives.

It’s easy to tell the story this way (in no small part because it’s true), but there are other versions, too, as many, clichéd as it sounds, as there are Bosnians to tell them.

Selihovic, a Bosniak who lost her father in the war when she was 7, recalls having seen only one black man prior to spending her first year in St. Louis attending Roosevelt High, a predominantly African-American public school. It’s a year she describes as the worst experience she’s had here. The first day was “shock after shock,” she says, starting with the metal detectors at the door, and ending with a stolen purse.

She says she was too old to try to fit in, but watched her brother adapt to the prevailing style. It took him one day, she recalls, to realize his tight Levi’s had to go.

Amir Kundalic, 39, a senior technology executive, calls himself the “accidental president” of the two-year-old St. Louis Islamic Center in south St. Louis, where he works with children and young adults ages 6 to 25. He says that young Bosnians, relocated mostly to "areas with weak schools and gang problems," imitated not only the urban style of their American peers, but also the social dynamics. They organized their own gangs.

Their parents, for a host of reasons – workplaces in which they spoke Bosnian, little time outside of work to spend with kids, physical and psychological damage from the war – didn’t understand the changes they saw in their children. Kundalic describes kids and parents who “live in the same house, but are in completely different worlds.”

“In school,” he says, young people “have to be who they are and adjust to where they are. When they come home, it’s a different story. Are they American? Are they Bosnian? If you add to that something about religious identity, then you have them all mixed up.”

Dijana Groth is the owner of Café Novella, the coffee shop and Bosnian bookstore where I meet Selihovic and her friend that warm Saturday afternoon. Spring has come early and Groth’s husband is planting boxwood from Costco in cement pots along the pristine sidewalk.

Groth came to St. Louis before the war. She remembers, in those days, “the community was small and tight.” When the refugees arrived, “so many came to one place,” a place much more urban than the villages many had left behind, and “they could not recreate that life. They lost their individual communities.”

Kundalic recalls that, in the early years – 1996, 1997, 1998 – Bosnians he knew did find some ways to conjure a sense of community from home. Since then, though, their lives in St. Louis have become more complicated. “Everybody has their own problems,” Kundalic says, “They’re spread out. I don’t feel that sense of being together. You can feel divisions.”

Some of these divisions have clear origins. “I know for sure there are some war criminals here,” Kundalic says, people “who have killed family members of people who live here.”

Within the Bosniak population, a subset was allied with Fikret Abdić, a politician who had made his name as the head of farming conglomerate Agrokomerc. In 2002, Abdić was convicted of war crimes, and those once associated with him, several have told me, tend to guard this information.

Old divisions difficult to overcome

Vedran Marjanovic, 21, is a Serb who arrived in St. Louis in 1998 and started 3rd grade at Sigel Elementary: “I would literally just come there and listen,” he says. “I would listen, listen, listen; and one day, I don’t know what got into me, I just raised my hand.” Now a student at Fontbonne University, Marjanovic remains outgoing, but he recalls that, until other Serbs joined him at Sigel, he hadn’t known how to talk to other kids.

Later, when his family moved to south St. Louis County alongside many others like them, Marjanovic had more Bosnians in his classes. “During middle school,” he says, “nobody really cared” that he was Serb. In 7th or 8th grade, though, Bosniak students began to treat him differently. “Some places you can’t fit in. Some places you can,” he says matter-of-factly.

Marjanovic says he has close friends who are Bosniak and Croat, that they “aren’t going to take on those hatreds” from the past. “My parents are like, ‘watch out for them’. ‘Don’t just say anything you want. You never know what can happen.’ This is an unknown land to them. For my kids, I’m not gonna be like ‘watch out’.”

No matter how genuinely Marjanovic aims to step outside of his parents’ prejudices, though, to do so will not be easy. He describes how, “on Facebook, when something happens, you have to share your two cents: ‘You did this to my people’; or ‘How are you saying I did it?’; ‘You had to go to war or you had no bread.’”

Originally, Kundalic envisioned the Islamic Center as a means to reach and support this younger generation.

“Nobody teaches them to hate someone,” Kundalic says, but “they’ve grown into that culture.” Their parents may not speak to them directly about the war and genocide in Bosnia or its roots in nationalist politics, but they overhear plenty of talk, and are then left by themselves to create their own picture,” accurate or otherwise.

In St. Louis. Kundalic estimates “not even hundreds” regularly attend religious services. Yet he and others say that few groups have the penetration in the Bosnian community that religious organizations do. Religious life offers Bosnian-Americans their “only bridge between culture and heritage,” Kundalic believes, a way for “kids to understand their parents and where they came from” in a context other than war and genocide.

At the same time, Kundalic acknowledges that the Islamic Center was formed in part to respond to conflict among existing Bosnian religious institutions.

Hope placed in 30-somethings

The near-impossibility of seeing around wartime experience has also interfered with Bosnians’ ability to organize in St. Louis. Groth believes the 30-somethings – those who fled Bosnia as children and young adults, old enough to have formed personal connections to their home culture, yet young enough to master the systems of American life – must shoulder the burden of fostering solidarity, trust and cultural appreciation among Bosnians in America.

One such person is Anela Barbanell, newly appointed treasurer of the revamped Bosnian Chamber of Commerce. Barbanell arrived in St. Louis in 1994 after 18 months in Croatia. Her mother, who spoke no English, found work within weeks, though Barbanell remembers her mother’s dread the first morning she set out on the two-bus commute she’d practiced once.

Now 31, Barbanell, graduated from Soldan High School in 1998 and went on to St. Louis Community College and Fontbonne University. She’s been married for six years to an American, and is an assistant vice president at Carrollton Bank.

But she’s upset when people tell her she hardly has an accent; and though her American friends think she’s crazy, she’s proud to have bought the house next door to her sister’s, just one choice she’s made in an effort to maintain a connection to Bosnia.

Ibro Tucakovic, 34, is secretary of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, as well as an agent for American Family Insurance. On the afternoon I meet Tucakovic and Barbanell at the Chamber building on Gravois, he’s dressed down for a company picnic, long hair pulled back in a thick ponytail.

Tucakovic, according to Groth, is the kind of young Bosnian who “is going to be able to distance [himself] and take Bosnia as a whole.”

He believes community among Bosnians in St. Louis “is alive, but it’s on life support.” Understandably, he says, older Bosnians “see it as hard to live again with people who committed those acts, but I believe a lot of younger folks see that the only future is by working together.”

Adnan Cutuk, 37, assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Saint Louis University, says that, when they first arrived in America, Bosnians “trusted other people more than they trusted their fellow immigrants.” Scrambling to establish themselves in a new country, refugees weren’t in a position to look 10 years down the line. “If the benefits of an organization weren’t immediately apparent,” he says, “it became something to be looked upon skeptically. When money is involved, it becomes why are you in charge and not me?”

Now, he agrees with Tucakovic (with Kundalic, with Groth, with Barbanell) that Bosnian-Americans of his generation are “recognizing the benefits” of organizing. If you have numbers, he says, you can have a political voice, and “if you have a voice, things can be better for you and can be better for everyone.”

The original Bosnian Chamber of Commerce was, I've been told, an ineffectual group that, near the end, included one board member who had moved out of state, and another who didn't know he was on the board.

In February, the revived organization held a fundraiser to pay off back taxes and raised $7,743, nearly the $10,000 they were seeking, and Barbanell and Tucokovic are optimistic about the future of the Chamber.

The morning we meet there, the building is a blank slate, no sign, empty window, long room decorated by a single table, and next to it, a notepad so large it needs an easel.

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez teaches at Fontbonne and is a freelance writer.