by Tarik Beslija
Even if you’ve lived in St. Louis for years, you might have overlooked these people. Some 70,000 resilient, diligent, proud, and tenacious but scarred immigrants consider St. Louis their home. They are none other than Bosnians, originally hailing from Yugoslavia, a European country in the Balkans that broke up as the result of a civil war in the 1990s. No longer feeling safe, prosperous, or accepted in their homeland as they once did, many Bosnians, including my own parents, exited the country in search of acceptance in a place that would not persecute them on the basis of their beliefs or ethnicity. Though there are Bosnian diasporas all over the world, the largest one is right here in St. Louis. Many other wealthy European nations, such as Germany or the U.K., were taking in older displaced Bosnians, but the United States was keener on taking in young people, such as my parents.
My mother was my age, twenty-one, when Serb soldiers pounded on her door, telling her and my grandma that they had a week to pack up all of their belongings, leave, and never return. There was my mother, one moment studying economics and law at the School of Economics in Banja Luka, a university student with a promising, bright future, and the next moment she was on the street selling her and my grandma’s belongings. My mother found herself separated from my grandma but on the path to a refugee camp in Croatia, which was much safer than Bosnia during the war, where she met and fell in love with my father. My father, twenty-three at the time, had been studying at the School of Dentistry in preparation to become a dentist, just like his father, who was a respected dentist in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. My father was not the most serious student even though his mother, my nana, loved chemistry and was a chemistry professor. Unfortunately, neither me, my dad, nor my grandpa share that love. As my father was a robust young man when the war broke out, it was perhaps only natural he stepped up to the obligation of defending his home.
Long story short as to what caused the war, Tito, who had ruled Yugoslavia as the undisputed premier, died at age 88 in 1980. Tito had tried to groom his sons to replace him after his time had come, but none seemed to have the gusto that he did. So, with no clear replacement, a power vacuum formed in Yugoslavia, with presidents from the various republics being elected and succeeding each other every few years; however, with Tito gone, much of the glue that held these republics together slowly fell apart. Serb politicians fed people falsehoods and propaganda about Bosnian people for years, and it all came to a head in 1992 when Bosnia decided to declare independence from Yugoslavia because it no longer wished to be a part of the union.
This was problematic because the bulk of Yugoslavia’s military power was concentrated in Serbia, and Serbia did not approve of this decision. With war engulfing his homeland, my father fought alongside his fellow young men in combat. Eventually, a secret tunnel was built underneath Sarajevo, which allowed my father and others to escape the besieged capital. From there, my father found his way to the same refugee camp my mother was in. In the camp, my parents heard that America was accepting young Bosnian refugees, especially couples, who were of prime working age. Bill Clinton, president at the time, felt remorseful that the U.S. had not intervened in the war sooner. Though they had not been dating long, my parents seized the moment and were married on December 8, 1994.
With the influx of thousands of Bosnian refugees, the U.S. government directed many of them to St. Louis because the city had fairly cheap housing, sparsely populated areas, and a sluggish economy during the 1990s. The Bevo Mill area has earned the nickname “Little Bosnia” because so many Bosnians opened restaurants, practices, and firms there. In South County, Berix offers delicious, authentic Bosnian food with traditional Turkish coffee. Seriously, if you ever happen to visit the Mehlville area, you need to stop at Berix for lunch. You won’t regret it. Moreover, Bosnians have started law practices, trucking companies, and insurance firms and have gotten their own aisles in stores like Schnucks and Walmart (at least in St. Louis). My cousin’s wife’s sister runs a dental practice in Affton.
Despite starting over with nothing, Bosnians in St. Louis are fairly well off today, but they worked extremely hard to get where they are. For most of them, life in the United States meant working long hours at a minimum wage job either because their degrees were not valid in this new country or, like in the case of my parents, they never had the chance to complete their education, and physical labor was the only way forward.
My mother found her calling in the banquet industry, working as a server in the Hilton Frontenac downtown. Today, she is a banquet director at Four Seasons - St. Louis. Initially taking up odd jobs like night shift security and dog washing, my father soon wanted something more fulfilling and tried his hand at being a restaurateur. He had a good run with a couple of them but eventually found more solid ground working as an operation manager for a trucking company.
Both of my parents carry the scars from the war, mentally and physically. For my mother, I suspect the trauma of being kicked out of her home will never leave her. For my father, though he wasn’t kicked out, he witnessed friends die and buildings he had fond memories of blow up in smoke and flames, and he ultimately left his country alone.