Erzena Musić, born in 1961 in the northwestern Bosnian village of Hambarine, felt a movement in her body. She’d been taken to a concentration camp after the village was shelled and raided by paramilitaries and placed in a room of 350 men, women, and children.

She was nine months pregnant.

Her mother asked the soldiers, “drunk, shooting in the air, looking for someone to rape, to kill,” for help. They took Erzena to a medical student nearby. The soldiers told her if it was a boy, they would take him. A girl, and she could keep her.

From 1992-1995, as the Yugoslav state fell into separatist warfare, genocide tore through what is now the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (often shortened simply to Bosnia). War crimes unimagined since the Holocaust rippled through international headlines, including scenes of mass killings, mass graves, and the shelling of civilians. Refugees poured out of the country, and as they did, a distinct pattern started to form—a 5,200-mile path from Bosnia and Herzegovina to St. Louis, Missouri.

St. Louis, with a surplus of available housing, entry-level jobs, and the city’s International Institute, was a prime spot for resettlement. What started with a few refugees snowballed into a significant population of St. Louis Bosnians. That population itself catalyzed a secondary migration of Bosnians, who, having been resettled in various other American cities, were attracted to what had become the American capital of Bosnians.

The city’s Bevo Mill neighborhood became a nexus of Bosnian food and culture. The Sebilj monument, a wood and stone fountain modeled after the famous Sebilj of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, marks a neighborhood rife with smells of burek and cevapi. Now home to around fifty-thousand Bosnian-Americans, St. Louis likes to tout itself as having the highest percentage of Bosnians outside of Bosnia.

Until about a decade ago, that number was seventy-thousand. As many of those former refugees have climbed the economic ladder, they’re moving south and out of the city. “Little Bosnia,” once tightly knit, has stretched into Affton, Mehlville, Oakville, and beyond. When Erzena told her story to the Bosnia Memory Project—an organization in St. Louis that exists to preserve the memory of the genocide, in part through oral interviews—her daughter, then fourteen, sat next to her. As a new generation of Bosnian-Americans comes of age, does their parents’ culture cross the generational divide?

At Affton High School, where over 10 percent of students are Bosnian-American, Brian Jennings teaches a Bosnian-American Studies class to seniors. Although he had no direct connection to Bosnia himself, Brian was inspired after seeing a symposium at Fontbonne University that featured well-known Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon.

Brian Jennings talks with students (from left) Alexis Fisher, Almira Mulaomerovič, and Alem Junuzovic about his Bosnian-American Studies class.

Dr. Ben Moore, founder of the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne, was present at the event, and together he and Brian cooked up a course that was eventually adopted by Affton High.

One day in class, Brian handed out articles about successful St. Louis Bosnians to the students, instructing them to read and answer questions about how they relate to the St. Louis Bosnian community.

Of the class’s ten students this semester, only one is Bosnian-American. That number has shifted back and forth since Brian began teaching the class. Five years ago, the class had forty students, twenty of them being Bosnian-American. “This is the lowest ratio we’ve had so far,” Brian says. “Next year, if we have the same makeup, I’ll have to acknowledge that something is going on. The optimist would say, if this continues, maybe it’s because my Bosnian students are being taught culture and tradition at home. The pessimist would say there’s a lack of interest.”

For Alem Junuzovic, the lone Bosnian-American in the class, the optimist’s view holds. “I try to speak Bosnian at home as much as I can,” he says. He doesn’t know if his first language was English or Bosnian. He spent a month in Bosnia when he was nine, and he says that, among his Bosnian-American peers, the country still has a pull. “I know a lot of people my age who want to go and live in Bosnia.”

But in a classroom of mostly non-Bosnians, Brian helps his students link the Bosnian with the American. As Brian circled the room, Alexis Fisher, who is not Bosnian, was reading an article exploring why Bosnians are now moving out of the city. “In my mind, I’m thinking I was born and raised here,” Alexis said as Brian walked by. “But the chance I get to leave, I’m moving away from St. Louis. I don’t like the violence, I don’t like the crime. And I’m like, if Bosnians had the choice, they would probably leave because of how bad it is here.”

At Fontbonne University, Ben opens a door to what is basically a large closet with a wall of metal shelves. It’s the archives of the Bosnia Memory Project. Although he has no blood connection to Bosnia, he’s become a leader in Bosnian cultural preservation in the United States. He flips through art made by children, who, asked to create drawings after the war, sketched bloody scenes of violence. “Thank God we have a real archivist,” he says softly, pulling things off the shelves one by one.

Benjamin Moore, Ph.D. associate professor of English and director of the Bosnia Memory Project, at the campus of Fontbonne University where the Bosnia Memory Project is based.

Of the two hundred oral interviews the Bosnia Memory Project has conducted, at least half are with younger Bosnians, Ben says. “There’s a real disconnect between a younger generation and an older generation. [The elders] wanted to protect their children from the kinds of horrors they experienced. The elders also had to work two jobs and didn’t have the kind of contact with their children they would have liked to have had. So their children Americanized more quickly.”

In a 2017 book published in Bosnian, Ben wrote an essay on the generational divide in the St. Louis Bosnian community. “Younger Bosnians … all speak to the painful fact that they live separated from prewar Bosnia—a time and place that their parents knew and loved and that they can never experience,” he writes. “Some are dealing with the effects of transgenerational trauma without fully understanding the causes.”

He cites an email he received from sixteen-year-old Alisa Gutić, who had visited a Bosnia Memory Project exhibit in 2007. There she had seen the story of her uncle, Hazim Gutić, who had given up his seat on a bus out of Bosnia for a mother with two children. “My uncle is a very quiet man who never speaks about the war,” Alisa wrote then. “The tears that stood in my eyes as I circled around the room reading each and every display finally dropped like a waterfall as I read the accounts next to the picture of my uncle. … Through the years I have cursed and hated myself for being Bosnian because I was only three years old when I lost my father … I see my life differently now. I am not trying to sound like some crazed teen. I am just trying to find myself in such an unusual world that we live in.”

Some young Bosnian-Americans, as Ben says, feel ashamed of their Bosnian heritage. Some, as Alem testifies, are proud. But for many, there is a middle ground, one that shifts and evolves and isn’t reducible to binary terms like “shame” or “pride.”

Brian Jennings teaches a Bosnian-American Studies class at Affton High School. Other high schools in the area have tried out similar courses, but his is the only one currently active.

Maja Sadikovic is a poet and a singer who works in cardiac rhythm management for Boston Scientific Corporation in St. Louis. She was born in 1989 in Yugoslavia, but she and her family fled Prijedor, a village at the center of ethnic cleansing, in 1991, eventually landing in St. Louis in 1998.

Growing up, Maja had both Bosnian-American and American friends. “I often found the side chatter to be, ‘Oh, Maja is Americanized,’ or, ‘Maja has American friends, too.’ I remember specific points in time where I was like, ‘Oh, is it bad that I’m not Bosnian enough for this group of Bosnians?’ ”

At one point in college, she was asked about Islam. The vast majority of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis are culturally or religiously Muslim. She realized she didn’t know much about her family’s religion. The moment triggered a journey of self-discovery and family digging that led her to abandon plans for medical school in favor of a master of fine arts degree in poetry at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

Maja is now a board member of St. Louis Bosnians, a group that describes itself as a database for the Bosnian community in St. Louis. Does she feel guilty for not being “more Bosnian?” Maja replied: “Maybe, in the sense I’m focusing more of my time and energy in doing things not ‘Bosnian’ and not actively seeking out things that will keep me ‘more Bosnian’ or more engaged in my own community. I don’t think it’s guilt, but I really wish I could still be dancing in a folk group. I wish there were Bosnian exhibits of cultural dishes and brass and instruments and clothing all the time. Those things happen far and few between, for me.”

Still, Maja asserts that the Bosnian half of Bosnian-American is alive and well for young people in the city. They listen to Bosnian music, sing, dance, and attend religious and cultural festivities. They watch Bosnian television through special cable boxes.

“It’s called translocalism, or trying to recreate the place they’re from,” says Dr. Adna Karamehic-Oates, the associate director of the Bosnia Memory Project. “It’s not necessarily Bosnia as a whole, but towns, communities on a small scale.” Adna, who lives in London, was raised in Visoko, just outside of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. When the violence began, her father was working for the Yugoslav government in Dubai, so her family was spared.

As Bosnians have solidified themselves in the middle class and sprawled into the suburbs, it has stretched local communities. But the people of the diaspora are accustomed to spreading. “A lot of people whose kids are living in St. Louis but whose grandparents are in Bosnia or Austria or Australia regularly talk on Skype and maintain those connections,” Adna says. “They grew up in a collective culture, close together. They’re struggling with not having those cultural family practices and proximity that they grew up with.”

For her part, Maja is more concerned with looking forward. “I’m thirty years old. It’s been eight years since my come-home moment. The hardest part of the discovery is over for me, but I do often think about, ‘What next? Who am I? What will that look like if I marry outside my culture? What if I marry within my culture?’ Et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know. I don’t know.

 


Taste Bosnian Culture in St. Louis

If you’re interested in exploring Bosnian culture for yourself, try some of these Bosnian-owned St. Louis establishments. Consider this a beginner’s guide to Little Bosnia, there’s more to discover at MissouriLife.com.

Grbic: The most famous Bosnian name in the city, Grbic (pronounced “Ger-bich”) has a history that precedes the Bosnian War. Although the restaurant was opened in 2002, executive chef Ermina Grbic has been in St. Louis since 1981. The menu includes food from around the Balkans, but if you want the Bosnian classic, order the cevapi (grilled beef sausages on pita bread) or the Bosnian coffee (similar to Turkish coffee, but with a different preparation method). Tip: While Grbic is a bit more traditional, the Grbics’ three children also opened up Lemmons by Grbic a mile down the road, which puts Balkan spins on American food.

4071 Keokuk St. • 314-772-3100 • GrbicRestaurant.com

J’s Pitaria: Perfect if you’re on the go, J’s Pitaria describes its cuisine as “Mediterranean,” but its anchor is the Bosnian pita, a phyllo dough roll of meat, potatoes, spinach, or cheese that tastes like Bosnian street food. You can pair that with a glass of ayran, a probiotic yogurt drink popular in the Middle East. You may also want to try the ajvar, a red pepper-based condiment with a sharp taste unlike any you’ve tried before.

5003 Gravois Ave. • 314-339-5319 • JsPitaria.com

Novella Wine Bar: The bustling traffic of Kingshighway in Princeton Heights makes Novella feel all the cozier once you step inside. The bar was once a bookstore until owner Dijana Groth converted it to a wine bar. Either in its homey interior or its charming backdoor patio, Dijana serves wines from across Eastern Europe and beyond. And yes, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro can make wine every bit as complex as Italy and France. See for yourself.

5510 S Kingshighway Blvd. • 314-680-4226 •  Facebook.com/NovellaWineBar

Balkan Treat Box: Balkan Treat Box might be the hottest name in the St. Louis Bosnian food scene. From food truck to a brick and mortar site in Webster Groves, Balkan Treat Box’s dynamic vegetarian-friendly menu adapts classic Bosnian cuisine to the American city dweller’s diet. Chef Loryn Nalic has captured the attention of Bon AppétitThe New York Times, and the Food Network.

8103 Big Bend Blvd • 314-733-5700 • BalkanTreatBox.com

Festival of Nations: Each year in August, St. Louis hosts the Festival of Nations, an international culture festival held in Tower Grove Park. With endless food tents set up along the park’s streets, the weekend highlights the cuisines of everywhere from Mongolia to Eritrea, from Bolivia to Bosnia. There’s also live music, dance, and traditional crafts from around the world. With its bulging Bosnian population, St. Louis always brings a Balkan flavor to the fest.

August 22–23, 2020 • Tower Grove Park • FestivalofNationsSTL.org

J’s Pitaria serves, among other menu items, the traditional Bosnian dish Sarajevski cevapi. Across the Balkans, cevapi is a popular dish, but there are many different versions.

Photos // Nicholas Benner