Bosnian refugees adapt to St. Louis

? If the “Town Talk” is any barometer, south St. Louisans and their Bosnian refugee neighbors find the melting pot a little sticky at times, but mostly are adjusting to one another.

True, native St. Louisans are puzzled by Bosnians removing shoes before entering a house — a custom originating with the Turks who ruled Bosnia for 500 years, and an Islamic tradition. But the latest controversy, about Bosnians smoking beef and lamb in the back yard, has some South-siders fuming.

However, where Bosnians in St. Louis used to be terrified by police stops, they’re now inviting police to Bosnian radio talk shows. And Resurrection Catholic Church members in the Bosnian-heavy 25th Ward patronize Grbic Restaurant, grateful for moderately priced European cuisine and a boost of economic vitality in their working-class neighborhood.

Resurrection also houses the city’s War Trauma Recovery Project, a counseling service for Bosnians and other foreign-born traumatized by war.

Saint Louis University sociologist Hisako Matsuo, who has studied the city’s Bosnian community, says almost a decade after the first 13 families arrived in St. Louis from Bosnia-Herzegovina, they are finding their emotional and material niche. Bosnians now number nearly 50,000 in St. Louis.

‘I like St. Louis’

Asked where her heart lies — in the Balkans or St. Louis’ Bosnian-dense Bevo neighborhood — Mufida Kadic answered quickly, “Here. I like St. Louis.”

Kadic, wearing a dress, an apron and henna-tinted hair, is the matriarch of an extended family that shares a modest two-bedroom, brick bungalow on Delor Street, one of three houses her truck-driver son bought at bargain prices and refurbished.

Sead Zulic, owner of the Golden Grain Bakery and Grocery, holds a display of Bosnian and European breads sold in his store. Zulic opened the first Bosnian business and bakery in the Bevo Mill section of St. Louis, which during the past 10 years has seen a large influx of Bosnians.

In Kadic’s new community, the towering windmill of the historic Bevo Mill restaurant — a relic of the once solidly German neighborhood — still dominates the view. But the influx of Bosnian refugees has brought new enterprises: Europa and Balkan markets, cafes Palermo, Bollero and the Bel Ami, Golden Grain Bakery, and storefronts advertising international phone cards.

The Bosnians who arrived in droves in the 1990s, resettled by St. Louis’ International Institute as refugees of war after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, are the focus of fascination in the south St. Louis neighborhoods where they settled.

The “Town Talk,” a readers’ forum of the weekly South Side Journal newspaper, both criticizes Bosnians for not speaking better English and appreciates their injecting new life into what were dying neighborhoods. The paper publishes a Bosnian-language page for those who do not yet speak English.

Cultural differences

International Institute President Anna Crosslin said longtime south St. Louis residents often call her to complain that Bosnians are placing shoes on the porch, or driving too fast, or closing their blinds, or owning property they couldn’t possibly afford as new arrivals. She smiles and listens.

For their part, most Bosnians don’t like being placed under the microscope.

“We just want to be part of America,” said an employee of the Stari Grad restaurant in the Bevo neighborhood.

Yet, occasional cultural clashes separate Bosnians from their non-Bosnian neighbors, despite their European ethnicity and “whiteness” that shield them from discrimination, Matsuo said.

Smoke signals

In November, the Bosnian practice of smoking meat in backyard smokehouses — homemade or purchased from the local Home Depot — prompted 25th Ward Alderman Dan Kirner to introduce a bill that would ban them. Kirner, who said he sees Bosnians as the community’s anchor, nonetheless responded to mostly elderly citizen complaints about smoke.

Alderman Stephen Gregali, whose 14th Ward is even more densely populated with Bosnians, is unmoved by such complaints.

Bevo Mill, an authentic windmill built by August A. Busch Sr. and opened in 1917 as a restaurant, is in south St. Louis. The area used to be solidly German, but now is the center of the Bosnian community in St. Louis, which has brought new life to a dying neighborhood.

“I have people calling saying, ‘I’m hearing bleats in the garage, they’re slaughtering a goat or sheep in the yard,”‘ Gregali said. “But you know what? The same people who say that will have a deer hanging in their garage in November.

Bosnians in St. Louis said they too have experienced the shock of a new culture and place, citing crime, a higher cost of living, a faster pace of life, social isolation, an uninviting downtown, inadequate public transportation, vehicle-clogged roads, and the extremes of St. Louis weather.

“It’s hot, hot, hot, then cold, cold, cold,” said Azim Mujakic, who teaches Bosnian language and culture classes to police and other St. Louisans eager to learn about their new neighbors.

St. Louis Police Officer Barry Lalumandier, who is the police department’s liaison with foreign-born communities, said police had much to learn.

Shoes sit outside the house of a Bosnian family in St. Louis. Bosnians usually remove their shoes before entering a house, a custom originating with the Turks, who ruled Bosnia for 500 years. A Saint Louis University sociologist who studies the Bosnian community says that almost a decade after the first 13 Bosnian families arrived in St. Louis, they now number nearly 50,000.

“We have to remember, police (in Bosnia) were part of the military,” he said. “These folks just left a war.”

Lalumandier recalled the time a large Bosnian family filled an emergency room to oversee a relative’s care. When a doctor tried to escort them out, offering the elevator to the women and the stairs to the men, the family became hysterical, he said. It evoked memories of the July 1995 slaughter at Srebrenica, the Bosnian war’s worst massacre, when Serb forces executed up to 8,000 Muslim boys and men, after separating them from the women.

Matsuo, the sociologist, said Bosnians are adapting in St. Louis, especially those who have made peace with their past.

“That’s where their heart belongs,” she said. “They want to go back, but they know they can’t. The Bosnia they want to return to is the one (that existed) before the war.”