t Cafe Milano, next door to the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce near the iconic Bevo Mill, young men sit at the bar midday drinking coffee, smoking and joking with the pretty bartender. At Mesnica Pehlan, a meat market, U.S. and Bosnian flags are affixed to the front windows near a sign that touts “always fresh roasted lamb.”
Just down Gravois Avenue, Europa Market stocks Bosnian coffee, ground fine like flour, along with dzezvas, the pots to make the strong stuff in.
Twenty years after St. Louis became the center of one of the largest refugee relocation efforts in the nation’s history, Bosnian refugees have remade this neighborhood at Gravois Avenue and Morganford Road into a thriving business district, with restaurants, bars, markets and a newspaper.
Bevo Mill, in other words, has all the cultural texture of an ethnic neighborhood, serving as the most visible face of what is now among the largest Bosnian populations outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the neighborhood shows only a part of how a community 70,000 strong has come to define itself and its relationship with a region it now calls home.
Like immigrant groups before them, St. Louis Bosnians have followed their aspirations to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer neighborhoods and houses on expansive lots.
In the process, the Bosnian footprint on the region has expanded to south St. Louis County and beyond.
Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place and Mehlville schools have seen their international student population jump and bolster sagging enrollments and soccer programs.
A new Bosnian business strip has emerged along Lemay Ferry Road. It includes Spotless Building Services, a cleaning company employing 100, and Vega Transport, a trucking company where 75 percent of the drivers are Bosnian.
Vega’s offices are a few doors away from the Bosnian Islamic Center, with its vast, sunny prayer room. A few minutes down Lemay Ferry is Berix Restaurant, once situated in the Bevo neighborhood.
The move from the urban core is more than a physical migration. It’s also a shift of identity that comes with crafting a new life in America and deciding what to let go of and what to hold onto.
“What happened, happened. We’ve got to move forward,” said Nick Sinanovic, who came here at age 17 in 1999 and now runs Vega Transport with his brother, Irfan.
“I feel I am American first and Bosnian second.”
The brothers reflect the success many Bosnians have found in St. Louis, just 20 years after the first of them were pushed from the former Yugoslavia in a bloody purge. The 1992–95 war left nearly 100,000 dead or missing and displaced 1.8 million people.
But the integration of Bosnians has not been without challenges and missteps. Even tragedies.
A decade ago, Bosnians and city officials clashed over the size of backyard smokehouses, beloved by Bosnians. About that time, Soldan High School was the site of tensions between Bosnians and blacks, leading to a brawl and the arrest of 16 teens in November 2000.
And Bosnians have been both the victims and perpetrators of crime.
Just last month, three Bosnian teens were charged with robbing a resident at gunpoint in his south St. Louis County home. The following week, a convenience store run by Bosnian brothers was robbed. One brother was killed, the other injured.
Still, Bosnians by the thousands have settled into a city 5,000 miles from home that most of them had never heard of. They have built new lives, learned a new language and urged their children to soak up as much education as possible.
Today, St. Louis is more than a refuge from war where memories of a painful past fade ever so slowly.
It is a place where their children are graduating from high school and college, starting families and deepening roots.
Their stories are of struggle, adaptation, success, and a common yearning for their own version of the American Dream.
The story of Bosnian migration has unfolded the past two decades inside a branch of Southern Commercial Bank across from Bevo Mill.
In the lobby, customers are greeted by placards in English and Bosnian — along with a warm smile from Mevlida Hodzic, a customer service representative who sits near the front door.
Bosnian tellers toggle between two languages, depending on the next customer in line.
The transformation dates back more than 17 years, when Jasna Mruckovski and her family realized they needed a reliable car to get around St. Louis. A neighbor told them about Southern Commercial Bank, not far from where the Mruckovskis lived in the 3100 block of Osceola Street.
At the loan closing, Mruckovski’s dad, Halid, said to the bank’s then–senior vice president: “A lot of Bosnians are arriving in St. Louis. It would be valuable if the bank had Bosnian employees.”
|Assistant vice president Jasna Mruckovski discusses the details of a loan on Saturday, May 11, 2013, at Southern Commercial Bank’s Bevo branch in St. Louis. Mruckovski was the first Bosnian to work at the bank.
He mentioned his daughter, Jasna.
On March 18, 1996, she was hired as a teller, becoming the first Bosnian employed by the bank. Today, she’s an assistant vice president.
Turns out her dad was right. A wave of Bosnian refugees came to St. Louis and, early on, most lived near the bank branch at Gravois and Morganford.
In the early 1990s, Bob Hawkins was the bank’s board chairman. He took a risk, lending to refugees despite their lack of credit scores or history.
“He said: ‘If they’ve got a green card and a paycheck stub, let’s loan a couple thousand,’” recalls Hawkins’ daughter, Melany Kniffen, now the board chair.
Early on, working with the new customers was a challenge.
“They couldn’t communicate,” said Mruckovski, 40, who lives in the Mehlville area with her husband, Darko, and their twins, 9. The loan officers would ultimately ask a Bosnian teller to sit in as a translator.
“Soon, the bank realized it didn’t make sense to have two employees in on every application,” she said, and moved Bosnians into loan officer jobs as well.
Today, 21 Bosnians are on the payroll at the bank’s 10 locations — 16 percent of its 130 employees.
Dan Ryan, a bank vice president, figures Southern has made thousands of loans to Bosnians.
The loans started small, as little as $500, to buy furniture, or to send money back to loved ones in Bosnia. The amounts gradually grew, to buy homes and investment properties, and to start businesses such as restaurants, bakeries, auto repair shops and cleaning companies.
Last month, Mruckovski packed her personal possessions at the bank’s Bevo Mill location, including photos of her children. She was relocated to another branch, where she will replace a longtime commercial lender who retired.
The Bevo branch will be hard to let go. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s the intersection of old and new.
But she knows that with success, change often comes.
One Rig At A Time
Before brothers Nick and Irfan Sinanovic were the successful owners of Vega Transport, they arrived in St. Louis as confused refugees. Like many other Bosnians, they were reconciling the glaring difference between the America they had seen on television and the America of reality.
“I was in shock,” said Irfan, 34.
“There were all these expectations, really, really high expectations of the U.S. You imagine something in your head that’s not there.”
Nick, 31, who also goes by his Bosnian name, Nihad, recalls the family’s first apartment on Ellenwood Avenue being infested with mice and cockroaches.
The brothers came to St. Louis in June 1999 with their mother. Their father was presumed killed in 1995 in Srebrenica.
Within six months of arrival, Nick enrolled at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, then advanced to the University of Missouri at St. Louis for a computer science degree. While in college, Nick interpreted for Bosnians applying for commercial drivers licenses.
He heard stories of the struggles the men were having finding decent jobs, and how they were often treated poorly by employers. It gave Nick an idea. Start a trucking firm. Hire other new Americans.
|Volvo Manager Bruce Mochrie, left, and Mike Hatzl, right, a sales representative with Gateway Industrial Power Incorporated, flank brothers and owners of Vega Transport Nick and Irfan Sinanovic at their truck terminal on Prescott Avenue on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, in St. Louis.
In 2005, the brothers got a spot at a business incubator run by St. Louis County. Along the way, they took out loans from Southern Commercial Bank.
Some of the men whom Nick had helped as an interpreter eventually came to work for Vega.
Today, the brothers have 52 employees and a fleet of 45 trucks. And they can draw from a large base of refugee workers in their goal to expand. An estimated 5,000 Bosnians work as truck drivers in the region, drawn to a job that can pay well without a college education.
In 2009, the brothers learned through DNA samples they provided that their father had, in fact, been killed. A year later, Nick and Irfan traveled back to Bosnia to bury his remains.
Their mother returns almost every year to visit family. The brothers plan to go back again. They’re just not sure when.
“This is really where I belong,” Nick said.
“Older people have that nostalgia. I don’t see myself anywhere else but in this city.”
A Family Rebuilds
In the waiting room of Dr. Edina Karahodzic’s medical office, patients speak Bosnian. About 80 percent of her patients come from her home country.
“It was not my intent but it is logical,” Karahodzic said. “Knowing the culture is a plus.”
Getting to this point of taking care of others, however, took nearly two decades of work.
Karahodzic came to St. Louis on May 15, 1995, with her husband, Said, their 2–year–old son, Vedad, and $350.
Within three months, she was on an assembly line packing boxes for Allen Foods, one of the country’s largest food service distributors.
It was a jarring reminder of what the Karahodzics had both given up — careers as physicians in Bosnia.
“Pride aside, you have to feed your kids,” Edina said.“You have to pay rent. Send money to family in Bosnia, still in war. There is no shame in that.”
After a year at the factory, she applied and got a job as a pharmacy technician. Exactly two years after their arrival in St. Louis, she gave birth to a second son, Amar, now 16. Seven months later, Karahodzic started studying for her medical exams to become licensed as a physician here.
In 2003, she started her own practice, Family Medicine of South City. Her husband, 53, is the office manager.
Their oldest son, Vedad, now 20, just finished his second year at Washington University, where he is studying biology.
He is proud of his parents. The feeling is mutual. Vedad and his parents struck a deal.
“Your job is to study. Our job is to find the money,” his mother said.
He graduated from Lindbergh High School, where his brother will be a junior this fall. Like many Bosnians, the Karahodzics moved to the suburbs a few years after settling in St. Louis.
Vedad says he’s not the typical Bosnian. He drinks coffee for the buzz, not in the slow, social way older Bosnians do. He cheers for the Blues and isn’t good at soccer.
|Vedad Karahodzic, center, celebrates a goal during a St. Louis Blues playoff game Thursday, May 2, 2013, at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. “I discovered hockey my freshman year of high school and just loved it,” said Karahodzic, who finished his second year at Washington University. His dream job would as an orthopedic surgeon for the Blues. To the left is Joe Fiala.
His sport is water polo, serving as president of Washington University’s club team, which won the Division III nationals in 2011 and took second in 2012.
But, like many young Bosnian Americans, Vedad still feels a pull to his home country, where he visits family every other year. A Bosnian flag hangs in his dorm room.
In high school, Vedad decided to learn more about the war.
“I always knew the Serbians killed our people. I didn’t know why,” Vedad said.
One day, when he was 15 or 16, his father pulled out a VHS tape of a program about the Bosnian War.
“This is how it happened,” he recalls his father saying. “He said I was old enough to understand a couple of things now.”
At his mother’s doctor’s office, focusing on the past is increasingly part of the treatment.
Bosnians, like other refugees, often suffer from post–traumatic stress disorder. They have seen loved ones killed. They have often been victims of violence. They have trouble building trust.
Karahodzic refers to a Latin phrase, which translated to English means “everything you have you carry with you.”
It’s a way to frame the development of a new life when your old one is all but obliterated.
Last year, Ena Selimovic urged her mother to begin a journal, which she writes in Bosnian. Her parents haven’t talked much about life in Bosnia and the violence that forced them out.
“Growing up, there were never any details. All I know is the hazy,” Ena said. But it’s a slow process for her mom, Jasminka, 57, who works at a Whole Foods bakery.
Getting parents to try to share their stories is not uncommon for a young generation of Bosnians. Some of those efforts are more formal than others.
Three years ago, six Bayless High School students created a documentary project called “6 Words from Bosnia,” interviewing their parents about what led them here.
An even more ambitious project at Fontbonne University, called The Bosnia Memory Project, seeks to collect 1,000 oral histories recounting the Bosnian War. The project inspired Selimovic to learn more about her parents’ past. Rather than recording an oral history, the daughter wanted her mother to express it in written words.
For Selimovic, 22, a comparative literature major, books are her life. When she was a young girl, plucked from Bosnia to the foreign world of St. Louis classrooms, she turned to heady works — Kafka, Hemingway, Faulkner and Plath.
“I’ve been living in books since I was 12. Books were always my friends. Without them, I might have been dead by now,” she said.
But getting her mother’s story on the page has been difficult.
“It’s really hard for her,” Selimovic said. “Right now, this is for her to do.
“But in the long run, it’s a selfish project. I want to know too.”
For now, the daughter knows only the basics: The conflict ended her dad’s career as a pilot in the Yugoslav army and her mother’s as a high school biology teacher.
Selimovic has lived in four countries. She was born in the former Yugoslavia, then her family fled to Turkey when she was a toddler. Now she has almost completed a graduate degree at Trinity College in Dublin.
She has been to Bosnia about a half-dozen times, visiting family.
But mainly she goes because the trips “connect me to my parents. It’s the landscape of their lives, even if it’s a post–war landscape. When they die, I’ll still have the country.”
A Call To Prayer
The minaret stands 107 feet tall. If the slender tower were not here, most passers–by would not know the building next to it is a mosque.
It used to be a branch of South Side National Bank. A sign for the drive–through still sits at the entrance off Lansdowne Avenue. The night deposit box remains in the building’s west brick wall.
In 2001, the Islamic Community Center bought the building, which shares a vast parking lot with discount retailers such as Big Lots, Burlington Coat Factory and Family Dollar.
Imam Muhamed Hasic said the site was a perfect location, within walking distance for 2,000 Muslims.
|The minaret at the Islamic Community Center at 466 Lansdowne Ave. in St. Louis
The move to the neighborhood went without a hitch until after a groundbreaking for the minaret in July 2007. Internet threats surfaced. One person wrote: “Would be a shame if it were to be vandalized or destroyed. Just a shame I tell you...wink wink.”
The biggest challenge for the mosque, however, was an attempt to expand into south St. Louis County. That, too, came in 2007.
Initially, the County Council rejected a request to rezone 4.7 acres the center had bought for $1.25 million, leading to a lawsuit. Plans called for a mosque and community center to accommodate Bosnian growth in the county. Four months after its first vote, the council reversed itself on the zoning and the lawsuit was dropped.
Still, Hasic said, Bosnian Muslims have generally been embraced by the community. That’s in part because they are white and face fewer cultural and racial barriers than other Muslims, he said.
Farida Jalalzai, a political science professor at UMSL, said Bosnian Muslims are sometimes referred to as more secular than South Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims because they do not adhere to all the tenets of Islam. For example, many Bosnian Muslims drink alcohol. And as refugees, they were dropped into a culture where Muslims are the minority, often blending tradition with western culture.
“All the different influences, exposure to non–Muslims, ultimately there is a loosening of connections over time,” Jalalzai said.
On Hasic’s desk sit revised plans for the county land they successfully fought to rezone six years ago. The latest blueprints show a soccer field instead of a 4,000–square–foot community center. A 4,000–square–foot building would be renovated into a mosque and education center. Plans remain on hold as the center fights in court to regain its tax–exempt status pulled in 2010 by the county, citing lack of activity at the site.
Sitting in his office, Hasic points toward the minaret, a tower traditionally used to call Muslims to prayer. But this one has no sound system attached. It was built to represent acceptance and comfort for those who attend the mosque, the imam said.
He then motions to church steeples, also dotting the nearby skyline.
“This symbolizes freedom and equality in America,” he said.
40 Miles South
After four years of dating, Fehim and Meliha Salihovic married two months ago in a ceremony that straddled two worlds.
It was a wedding of cultural juxtapositions. The bride and groom wanted the trappings of U.S. traditions: the stretch limo and photos in the park.
The couple chose Andre’s banquet hall in south St. Louis County for their reception, a boisterous affair with dancing and a buffet. In Bosnia, a backyard tent would have served the same purpose.
But Meliha, 22, said the wedding ceremony needed to respect the traditions of their parents.
“We felt like it was our duty to get married at the mosque,” she said.
So the couple had a small service at the Bosnian Islamic Center. Meliha wore a strapless wedding gown but covered her head and shoulders in a shawl for the ceremony.
Then they stopped at Fehim’s house in the city, where his mother received the new couple, serving drinks and snacks to the wedding party and family.
Fehim and Meliha met on Feb. 21, 2009, when she was a freshman at a community college in Columbia, Mo., where she and her family moved when she was 9. She later graduated from the University of Missouri after studying business and economics.
Fehim, 25, was a standout soccer player at Soldan High School and was offered a four–year scholarship to Harris–Stowe State University. He turned it down.
“School was never my thing,” he said.
In Bosnia, Fehim’s family was forced to flee from their home and struggled to survive.
“It was hard living. My parents didn’t have a job. Dad cut wood to try to sell it.”
Fehim’s mother testified at The Hague against war criminals, which ultimately helped the family get here. They were to have arrived in 2001. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. refugee resettlement program was suspended.
Fehim is now a machine operator for Eagle Nonwovens in Green Park, a textile mill that makes, among other things, sewer liners. He gets $15 an hour, not counting the overtime. He loves his work.
“Where else would I be allowed to smoke two packs a day” on the job? he said.
“I thought you were going to quit,” said Meliha.
It’s part of the playful interaction between the young couple as they sit on an oversized couch in their living room. She pokes fun at his English while looking at her smartphone. He urges her, repeatedly, to get coffee for their guests.
Fehim said he does not want to return to Bosnia, a place he left when he was 13.
“I’m not going back. My parents are here. Most of my family is here,” he said.
The newlyweds have chosen to set up their new life in Imperial, 40 miles from the Bevo Mill and a world away from Srebrenica, where Fehim’s father saw his brother killed by Serb soldiers.
The couple said the 7–year–old house they bought for $120,000 is the perfect fit. It has three bedrooms, a two–car garage and a giant back yard.
“We wanted the space, the quiet,” Meliha said.
But Jefferson County markets don’t sell the coffee they like or the tasty bars of chocolate–covered rice puffs that are reminders of traditional Bosnian households.
Fehim said he may open a store here. After all, more Bosnians are moving to the area, he said.
Maybe the market will feature some American products, too. That would make sense.
Half his life in Bosnia. Half his life here.
“This is the life I am. So Americanized now.”
|Fehim Salihovic tends to his lawn on Thursday, June 20, 2013, in Imperial, Mo. “I don’t think I will ever go back to Bosnia. My future is here. I just got married. I have a good job and my own house,” said Salihovic. “When I sit down and think about it and how I got here and I have all of this, it’s unbelievable,” said Salihovic. “I feel like I am dreaming.”