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Immigrant Stories: Bosnia & Herzegovina

Mina Hadzialic

When the armored trucks rumbled up the street of her neighborhood in Banjaluka, Bosnia, 7-year-old Mina Hadzialic tearfully whispered what she thought would be her final goodbye to her father. In an instant, soldiers whisked him away to the front lines of the Bosnian War to involuntarily complete one of the most dangerous jobs in the army: digging trenches. It was a blessing when he returned from what they thought was certain death, yet all the more heartbreaking when he was taken a second time.

Mina Hadzialic

When Mina’s father miraculously survived, the family was unwilling to test their luck again and decided to escape to Serbia, a country not yet ravaged by the effects of the Bosnian War, under a fake identity in 1993.

Despite Bosnia plummeting into civil unrest, three presidents grappling for power, and the never ending fear for her father’s safety, Mina took solace in ballet, piano, and soccer. Instead of sulking over the fact that electricity was only issued once a week, Mina was grateful for the precious hours when the television would flicker on. Some of her favorite memories were watching the Chicago Bulls game as her neighbors joyously cried, “Electricity is here!”

She soon left that all behind.

In 1995, her father applied for refugee papers and found himself in St. Louis, Missouri. His wife and now 12-year-old daughter soon followed in his footsteps. Mina witnessed her parents, a biochemist and entrepreneur from prominent families, were unable to pursue their careers in the US and relied on trade work to support the family. Her father became a carpenter and her mother a babysitter and janitor.

Although she adapted and learned from her new surroundings, Mina also found herself going through her own transition of straddling two cultures and felt as if she didn’t fit in — here or in Bosnia. Her accent and name immediately spotlighted her differences to her American peers, and suddenly it felt as if there was no one in the world who would ever understand this little Bosnian girl lost in America.

With no connections with their community, limited English skills other than translations by Mina, and limited financial resources, the family strugged. It was here that the International Institute of St. Louis entered the Hadzialic’s life in a compassionate and understanding way, and provided stability that was crucial for an immigrant child who’s life had been upended by war. The Institute became Mina’s home away from home, where she received flu shots, English lessons, and job opportunities.

Mina now is the Director of the Steward Family Foundation for the United Way of Greater St. Louis and is part of the Bosnian American Professional Association, which is passionately working to kickstart the economy in Bosnia. She has found her own community of 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis and relishes her time at the annual Bosnian festival as a time to connect with loved ones and friends.

Mina (in front) pictured with her mother, aunt, and grandfather, in Banjaluka 1993-1995

Mina’s childhood was constantly bombarded by the unknown—whether it was the fear that she would never see her father again or assimilating to an entirely new culture. However, her hunger for positive change has allowed her experiences as a child immigrant to unlock the desire to better the lives of those around her—in St. Louis and in Bosnia. The girl who danced and played soccer and found the silver lining in the midst of war has once again done the same: through her immigration experience, one of the most daunting challenges of her life, she is using what she learned to help others and pay it forward.

Sadik Kukic, Bosnian Refugee

By early 1992, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia had declared their independence from the socialist state of Yugoslavia. Finding itself in a crumbling republic with Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina seized the opportunity to become its own country. Bosnian Serbs, a large ethnic and religious minority within the region, wanted to stay with Serbia and protested this move. After the country’s Bosniaks and Croats voted to remove Bosnia & Herzegovina from Serbia, many Bosnian Serbs formed themselves into the Republika Srpska, and with the military backing of Serbia, the region quickly descended into the conflict we know today as the Bosnian War.

At the age of 26, Sadik Kukic was captured and sent to a concentration camp run by the Republika Srpska. Kept oblivious about his family’s whereabouts, he spent several weeks at Luka camp in Brčko before being transferred to another camp in Batković. Life in Batković was horrific, consisting of forced labor, starvation, and lotteries to determine who the guards would beat and torture each night. Sadik’s weight dropped to about 97 lbs. Eventually, the International Red Cross visited the camp, and Sadik was registered and sent to work in Belgrade in Serbia, where he, his brother, and fellow Bosniak co-workers were subjected to constant police surveillance and the threat of arrest. A cousin prompted Sadik to go to the United Nations post in Belgrade and report this harassment, so he did, and upon showing his registration from Batković, Sadik and his brother were allowed to start the process of immigrating to the US.

Arriving in St. Louis with the equivalent of $58 and no English whatsoever, Sadik and his brother were lost. They were among the first refugees escaping the Bosnian War, and almost no one else in the city spoke their native language. However, through sponsorship by the International Institute, they had access to ESL classes, grocery allowances, and housing, and they found their first jobs. Since he was an accomplished cook and culinary school graduate back in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Sadik worked in a series of kitchens, climbing his way to the position of executive chef at the Missouri Botanical Garden before leaving to start his own restaurants. Today, he is the owner of Taft Street Restaurant and Bar, the President of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, and a leader of the largest community of Bosnian War refugees in the world. Sadik wishes that no one would have to go through what he suffered in Bosnia, and the community that he and the International Institute have helped to build in St. Louis ensures a better future for Bosnian families.

Nedim Ramic, Bosnian Refugee

Growing up in a small Bosnian city, Nedim Ramic spent his childhood roaming the city from morning to evening. He played soccer, went fishing, and wandered around with his friends. He was ten years old when the conflict began in 1992. Peaceful days and nights were disrupted by constant shelling, and gunfire from the Serbian invasion of the town upriver. Nedim and his friends began to fish bodies out of the river that had floated downstream from the fight and bury them, but soon there were too many to give proper burials.

Later that year, Nedim’s father arranged for the family for cross the river into Serbia to escape the fighting. After a perilous boat journey, they traveled through Czechoslovakia and ended up in Germany where they remained in asylum for 7 years. As the war wound down in the mid-1990s, Bosnian refugees in Germany were being sent back to Bosnia. Nedim’s town and even his family’s house were still inhabited by Serbians so they applied to the United States’ Bosnian refugee program to avoid being sent back.

In June of 1999, Nedim and his mother, father, and two brothers flew to the United States. When they stepped off the plane in St. Louis, Nedim, then 17, was hit by the summer’s humidity. Missouri was nothing like the America he’d seen on television shows like Baywatch. He had learned some English in high school in Germany, and so immediately began translating for other Bosnians at the International Institute. Nedim had always wanted to be a lawyer, so when a college counselor came to his class at the Institute he knew exactly what to ask. Soon he was enrolled in community college and went on to get his law degree from St. Louis University School of Law. In 2008 he passed the bar and became a citizen in the same week.

When asked what those who work with immigrants and refugees can do to help, Nedim advises them to treat immigrants and refugees just like everybody else and to encourage families to stress the importance of education to their children to help them succeed. He hopes that his own contributions to the community have helped shape a better future for immigrants and refugees in the United States.

Ajlina Karamehic-Muratovic PhD, Bosnian Immigrant

Ajlina Karamehic-Muratovic Ph.D. immigrated to the United States at the age of 18 in order to pursue an American college education. Dr. Karamehic-Muratovic is a native of Visoko, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a former resident of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and a current resident of St. Louis, Missouri. She has worked at Saint Louis University since 2010, and now serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Ajlina also spends a great deal of her free time acting as a resource and liason for the St. Louis Bosnian community. Much of Ajlina’s research focuses on mental health of refugee communities (particularly Bosnian refugees), health and mental health needs, and acculturation and immigration. Dr. Karamehic-Muratovic recently received the Grueber Award for Globalization at Saint Louis University. Winners of the Grueber Award are awarded for advancing the international and global mission of Saint Louis University.

Originally, Ajlina planned to come to the United States in order to pursue a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, and then return to Bosnia and Herzegovina or Dubai upon completing her undergraduate degree. However, Ajlina was offered a fully funded Graduate Research Assistant position, which she accepted. This opportunity allowed Ajlina to pursue her Ph.D. in Health Communication at the University of Kentucky. Today Ajlina teaches and conducts research at Saint Louis University—some of her classes include Research Methods and Medical Sociology.

In her interview, Ajlina described her adolescence in a very positive manner. Her hometown, Visoko, was a smaller urban area predominately populated by Muslims, as well as Serbs and Croats,. Ajlina does not recall making distinctions between the inter-ethnic differences for most of her youth, but she also stated that her worldview changed once the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina began in 1992. Ajlina recalls her early life under communism as a mostly positive experience, but some of her memories were tainted by the onslaught of the war and the ethnic disparities that followed. When recalling the most difficult parts of the war, Ajlina stated that her family experienced a devastating loss of a cousin, but this was not the only tragic event to occur. Ajlina also lost the relationship with her close childhood friend due to ethnic differences—her friend was a Serb, and therefore ideologically pitted against Ajlina and her family. Still to this day, Ajlina finds it too difficult or impossible to ever recover the friendship due to an overwhelming sense of betrayal. In her interview, she stated, “When I think of my childhood, I think of her, and what a pity how things have turned out that your friends and neighbors have stabbed you in the back, betrayed you.” Although Dr. Karamehic-Muratovic experienced ethnic differences in Bosnia, she was not accustomed to the diversity she would experience while living in Dubai or the United States.

As an extensively educated woman and professor of sociology, Ajlina holds very critical and informed thoughts about the state of racial, gender, and religious relations in the United States. Ajlina admits that upon arriving in the United States, she was very optimistic about her new life and potential for achieving “The American Dream.” While she acknowledges that democracy is the best governmental system and that there is likely no better place in the world to live than in a democratic nation, Ajlina believes that there are many areas for improvement in the American society. She quickly became socialized into the culture and learned that one’s demographic background determines the potential for one’s success. Ajlina discussed how her varying intersectional backgrounds continue to influence her American experience. As a Bosnian immigrant, Ajlina stated that even though the color of her skin is white, she often related more to minority communities in the U.S. because of their shared experiences. As a woman, she acknowledges the gender inequalities that pervade the work place and beyond. As a Muslim, she experiences the lasting covert and overt effects of Islamophobia. Despite the downfalls of American society, Ajlina remains excited and optimistic about the diversity she sees and experiences in the U.S. She reports not being exposed or having an opportunity to experience such diversity while living in Bosnia. This diversity has come to be a very important part of her American experience.

When asked about her assimilation into the U.S. culture and the formation of her American identity, Ajlina jubilantly expressed, “I’m a mess of cultures, that’s how I think of myself you.” While she welcomes and celebrates many aspects of American culture, she and her family also work to retain their original Bosnian identity, values, and practices. For example, Ajlina thoroughly enjoys American cuisine, the emphasis on individualism, and the expected politeness from strangers, friends, and family. In contrast, Ajlina and her husband strongly value and attempt to maintain their Bosnian cultural values, their native Bosnian language, and teaching their children about Bosnian heritage.

Facts about Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina declared sovereignty in October 1991 and independence from the former Yugoslavia on 3 March 1992 after a referendum boycotted by ethnic Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs – supported by neighboring Serbia and Montenegro – responded with armed resistance aimed at partitioning the republic along ethnic lines and joining Serb-held areas to form a “Greater Serbia.” In March 1994, Bosniaks and Croats reduced the number of warring factions from three to two by signing an agreement creating a joint Bosniak/Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 21 November 1995, in Dayton, Ohio, the warring parties initialed a peace agreement that ended three years of interethnic civil strife (the final agreement was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995).

Population: 3,849,891 (July 2018 est.)

Location: Southeastern Europe, bordering the Adriatic Sea and Croatia

Official Languages: Bosnian (official) 52.9%, Serbian (official) 30.8%, Croatian (official) 14.6%, other 1.6%, no answer 0.2% (2013 est.)

Religions: Muslim 50.7%, Orthodox 30.7%, Roman Catholic 15.2%, atheist 0.8%, agnostic 0.3%, other 1.2%, undeclared/no answer 1.1% (2013 est.)

Ethnic Groups: Bosniak 50.1%, Serb 30.8%, Croat 15.4%, other 2.7%, not declared/no answer 1% (2013 est.)

Information from the CIA World Factbook

Facts about the Bosnian War & Genocide

In April 1992, the government of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians for atrocious crimes resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 percent Bosniak) by 1995.

In early May 1992, two days after the United States and the European Community (precursor to the European Union) recognized Bosnia’s independence, Bosnian Serb forces with the backing of Milosevic and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army launched their offensive with a bombardment of Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. They attacked Bosniak-dominated town in eastern Bosnia, including Zvornik, Foca, and Visegrad, forcibly expelling Bosniak civilians from the region in a brutal process that later was identified as “ethnic cleansing.” (Ethnic cleansing differs from genocide in that its primary goal is the expulsion of a group of people from a geographical area and not the actual physical destruction of that group, even though the same methods–including murder, rape, torture and forcible displacement–may be used.)

Information from the History Channel: Bosnian Genocide

The International Institute has resettled more than 6,500 refugees from Bosnia since 1993. Many more Bosian refugees have migrated to St. Louis from other parts of the United States from their orginal placement.