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Bosnians Finding a Niche in St. Louis

Ten years after the first refugees arrived, about 50,000 live in the city. Newcomers and their neighbors are learning to get along.

June 01, 2003|Cheryl Wittenauer | Associated Press Writer

ST. LOUIS — In the decade since Bosnian refugees started arriving in south St. Louis, the newcomers and their neighbors have found ways to get along -- even if the melting pot grows sticky at times.

When refugees remove their shoes before entering a house, longtime residents simply shrug in puzzlement. But other cultural differences, such as the Bosnians' fondness for smoking cuts of beef and lamb in the backyard, have some South-siders fuming.

Almost a decade after the first 13 families arrived from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnians now number 50,000 in St. Louis, and are finding their emotional and material niche, said Hisako Matsuo, a Saint Louis University sociologist.

Asked where her heart lies, in the Balkans or the Bevo neighborhood of St. Louis, Mufida Kadic answered quickly: "Here. I like St. Louis."

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

In Kadic's new community, the view is still dominated by the towering windmill of the historic Bevo Mill restaurant, a relic of an era when German immigrants and their descendants filled the neighborhood. But the influx of Bosnian refugees has brought new enterprises such as the Europa and Balkan markets, storefronts advertising international phone cards, the Golden Grain Bakery and cafes Palermo, Bollero and Bel Ami.

Bosnians arrived in droves in the 1990s, resettled by the city's International Institute as refugees of war after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

They are the focus of fascination in the south St. Louis neighborhoods where they settled.

In "Town Talk," a readers' forum of the weekly South Side Journal newspaper, some writers criticize Bosnians for not speaking English better, while others appreciate the new life that the refugees have injected into dying neighborhoods. The newspaper regularly covers news of the Bosnian community and publishes a Bosnian-language page.

Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute, said longtime residents of south St. Louis often call her to complain that Bosnians are placing shoes on the porch, driving too fast or owning homes they feel Bosnians couldn't possibly afford as new arrivals. She smiles and listens.

Both sides could use a primer in cultural differences. Taking shoes off outside the house, for example, is a custom originating with the Turks who ruled Bosnia for 500 years, and an Islamic tradition. Most Bosnians are secular Muslims.

As for the fast driving, Crosslin explains that some Bosnians moved to St. Louis after living as refugees in Germany, where they developed a taste for speed.

The homes that the refugees buy are not large, but some longtime St. Louis residents find it hard to believe that the new arrivals have the resources to buy even modest homes.

The Bosnians' European heritage and "whiteness" shield them from the worst of discrimination, Matsuo said. But clashes persist, some of them not easily resolved.

In November, the Bosnian practice of smoking meat in the backyard prompted 25th Ward Alderman Dan Kirner to introduce a bill that would ban smokehouses. Kirner acknowledged the Bosnians as the community's anchor, but said he's responding to complaints about smoke from residents, most of them elderly.

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

"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.

"Some people find the smoke offensive, but as soon as it gets 40 degrees, every barbecue in South City is going to light up. My neighbor smoked a turkey for Thanksgiving. It doesn't bother me."

Kadic's son, Ermin, whose backyard smokehouse is the size of an outhouse, explained simply: "It's our tradition."

The Bosnian refugees 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.

It hasn't been easy for many Bosnians to adjust to their new home. Here, they say, they must learn to deal with more 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. Louis residents who want to learn about their new neighbors.

Officer Barry Lalumandier, the St. Louis Police Department's liaison with foreign-born communities, said police have much to learn.

"We have to remember, police [in Bosnia] were part of the military," he said. "These folks just left a war."

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