Afton High School has recently added a Bosnian Studies class as a part of their course selection. In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Affton High School teacher Brian Jennings highlighted the course’s importance. “The students have a lived experience,” said Jennings, “They’re experts, and that becomes part of the class as well.” In Affton, it is estimated that 15-20% of the student body descend from Bosnians. The Bosnian-American community is unique not only for its particular presence in St. Louis, but because of what it took for the community to settle in the city.
In the Balkans, tensions arose between three of the former Yugoslavia’s main ethnic groups — Bosnians, Serbs and Croats — accumulating in a destructive war in Bosnia-Herzegovina that lasted from 1992-1995. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that 2.2 million people were displaced during the war. Ethnic cleansing campaigns targeting ethnic Bosnians by paramilitary groups resulted in the deaths of 80,000 civilians. As the deadliest war in Europe since the Second World War until the recent war in Ukraine, initiatives were made by the United States and its allies to protect Bosnian refugees during the 1990s. 70,000 Bosnians fleeing the war settled in the United States, and their story continues to be written.
City leaders in St. Louis were eager to provide the refugees with creditless loans to develop declining neighborhoods. With these resources, Bosnian refugees settled in the Bevo Mill neighborhood in St. Louis and developed Little Bosnia. Businesses such as butcher shops, coffee shops, restaurants, bakeries and stores were built. The St. Louis Islamic Center “Nur” was established to serve as a mosque for the community.
CHS junior Damian Boric is a second-generation Bosnian American. His mother Danijela was born in the U.S. to Bosnian parents who immigrated before the breakup of Yugoslavia, but his father Alem was a refugee. Stuck in the crossfire of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital city which was under siege for over three years straight, Alem managed to flee the country. “[He had] no working water, no electricity. [He] had to get out, sneak around, get water, get food, all that stuff,” said Damian. “It wasn’t until ‘95 where my dad finally said, ‘Okay, we need to get the hell out of here.’”
“He rounded up his family, got over to the Sarajevo Airport, almost got shot in the foot, and lived in the capital city of Croatia, Zagreb, for a year before finally getting a green card to the US.”
The restaurants of Little Bosnia include Grbic, serving traditional dishes from Bosnia and the Balkan region as a whole. It also serves as a venue for the whole community. “Grbic is a big one because of the fact that they have a banquet hall,” said Damian, “and usually that banquet hall is rented out for big Bosnian events like weddings or birthdays.”
It’s in these events that tradition is upheld for both first and second generation Bosnian-Americans. “There’s this one big dance that pretty much everybody participates in,” said Damian. “It’s called kolo, basically we all dance in a giant circle. There’s a lot of clapping and a lot of stomping. I mean, if you’re sensitive to sounds and you’re Bosnian, then I am sorry.”
Other restaurants include Balkan Treat Box and Berix, where dishes such as burek and cevapi can be found. Stores such as the Europa Market serve the community for people to enjoy treats from Bosnia and remain in touch with their roots.
At the center of Little Bosnia stands the community’s central landmark, a recreation of the Sebilj, a kiosk-shaped Ottoman-style wooden fountain located in Sarajevo. The fountain was built in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis, but also to recognize the attachment the community still has with their home country.
As a community built by refugees fleeing war and genocide, trauma is still very much present. “It’s just obviously tragic,” said Damian. “We obviously know a lot of people who have had casualties [in their family], whether they live in St. Louis now or still overseas in Bosnia. There were just a lot of people still affected and traumatized by the war and its effects.” Little Bosnia bonds together over the pain of war. “The war is just something that we all have a part of whether or not you were directly involved or have family members who were, or in my case, are a second generation American with a Bosnian parent or two.”
“We just built our own little community here in St. Louis,” said Damian. “[Bosnians] were driven out of their country. They found a place and they embraced that place. We brought this Bosnian community. It had no basis [in this country], there were barely any Yugoslavs before ‘95.”
Although nothing can ever fade the trauma of war, the thriving Bosnian-American community of St. Louis is a testament to humanity’s resilience.
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