The Bosnia boom - Former refugees look to future in St. Louis

Monday, November 12, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- Driving through south St. Louis, there are not-so-subtle indications when you've reached a Bosnian neighborhood. Shoes are stacked high on front steps, marking the Bosnian custom of checking your shoes at the door.

There's the hospitality once you're inside: Sit down. Talk. Have a bite to eat. Drink coffee -- strong coffee. Milk with that? Sugar? Eat. Talk. Stay a while.

Six years ago, Bosnian hospitality could be found in some St. Louis households, but was nothing more than the scattered international presence common in cosmopolitan cities.

But as the flood of refugees slows to a trickle, St. Louis is experiencing a Bosnia boom. An estimated 35,000 people from Bosnia-Herzegovina live within St. Louis' city limits -- about 10 percent of the city's population. In no other major U.S. city do Bosnians account for such a large share of the population.

Ron Klutho remembers when St. Louis had relatively few Bosnians -- refugees from a war that most Americans knew little about. In the early 1990s, he began volunteering to welcome new families and ground them in urban, Midwestern life.

"I started meeting the neighbors and newcomers, and it just sort of grew," Klutho said. "By the late 1990s, it just exploded."

No longer refugees

Why St. Louis? Immigrants have little say about where they end up, and their new hometowns are chosen by the U.S. State Department because of those cities' effective resettlement agencies, which welcome refugees and help find housing, clothing and other necessities. The presence of cheap housing and plentiful jobs in a city also plays a role.

After five years of living in the United States, former refugees are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

An important thing to understand: Once wartime is over and the newcomers make themselves at home, they are no longer "refugees."

Bosnians bristle at the word.

"I was a refugee for years, and I really hated that name," says Jasminka Grubor, who arrived July 31, 1996, with her husband and two children. Now she works at the International Institute of St. Louis, the city's largest resettlement agency, helping other Bosnians get on their feet.

"To be a refugee ... it's a real personal experience," she says. "I actually wanted to work, to have my family, and to not have to think about, 'How can I buy something tomorrow?' Or 'Can I stay in one place or can I move to another place?'"

'That's American way'

There are many signs of Bosnians adjusting to American life. Many are becoming U.S. citizens, and their young children often speak fluent English with no discernible accent. Adults find themselves working overtime at blue collar jobs. A few have the luck, skill, or initiative to return to their prewar trades.

Sasha Radicic, 39, owns and teaches at the European Lutherie School in south St. Louis. For years he has been a luthier, making high-quality guitars by hand. He arrived in 1998, and eventually started teaching his craft at a guitar school in Webster Groves. He opened up his own school in May.

"I realize I have to take a risk and go my own way," Radicic says. "My skill is in my hands. This is America, right?"

His school is a storefront with a garage-sized workshop in the back. On the wall hangs a glossy, stunning classical guitar that took four weeks to make. He points at it and says, "$4,000." He has sold five guitars to a dealer in Nashville.

Radicic also had a shop in Sarajevo, but it was smaller.

"Bigger is better," he says. "That's American way, you know?"

Fewer Bosnians are arriving now in St. Louis, and most find adjustment easier than their predecessors did in the 1990s. Plenty of fellow Bosnians offer advice, augmenting the agencies that have welcomed the influx for nearly a decade.

But adjusting is difficult, and most Bosnians arrive with few personal belongings and little grasp of the English language.

The Likic family -- Kemal and Arijana and son Golib -- arrived July 26 after seven months in Austria.

In their mostly bare living room, Klutho translates for the young couple:

"The beginning's hard," Kemal Likic says. "We didn't have a sponsor, no family here. We just felt trapped in this apartment because we didn't know anybody, we didn't know where to go."

He was a miner in Bosnia, and he'd like to do that kind of work again. "But whatever there is right now ... We don't have a choice right now, we've just got to take whatever."

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