Imagine growing up in a home located in the country you have lived in your entire life, and then suddenly being displaced from that home due to a sudden conflict. That is what happened to over two million Bosnians from 1992 to 1995, many of whom eventually settled in a neighborhood in south St. Louis called Bevo Hill.
In 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. In the years that followed, Bosnian Serbs, wanting to form a “Greater Serbia,” started rounding up and massacring Croatians and Bosnian Muslims called Bosniaks. The Bosnian Genocide, as it came to be called, resulted in the murder of 100,000 people, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. The most infamous incident of the Bosnian war occurred on July 11th, 1995, when Bosnian Serb militias, under the authority of Serbian Prime Minister Slobodan Milošević, overran the Bosnian controlled town of Srebrenica. Bosnian women and girls were taken to Bosnian held territory and many were raped or sexually assaulted en route. The Bosnian men and boys were either executed outright or sent to killing sites. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people were murdered in the massacre. As a result of this horrible oppression and the war-torn environment in Bosnia, about 2.5 million people fled their homes in Bosnia and scattered across the globe. This event became known as the “Bosnian Diaspora.” Many Bosniaks would make their way to America. Jessie Hronesova, a graduate student at Oxford University, writes that, “according to the 2000 census, 98,765 persons identified as Bosnian citizens.” Of those 98,765 persons in the United States, a majority of them would find their way to St. Louis, Missouri.
There are over 70,000 Bosnians in St. Louis. This is the largest number of Bosnians outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina and over one fifth of the total amount of Bosnians living in the United States. The Bosnians have created their own little slice of their home country right here in St. Louis. Their influence extends from South County beyond. The neighborhood, known as Bevo Mill, on Gravois Avenue and Morganford Road has turned into a sort of “little Bosnia” full of places to shop, eat, and do business. From butcher shops flying Bosnian flags, to European markets selling famous Bosnian coffee, the district is full of familiarities and positive reminders of home. St. Louis has become a place of hope for Bosnians and their families, not simply a refuge from a traumatic past. It is a place where people have not only resettled but thrived, creating new businesses, starting families, and graduating from higher education. They have written their own new chapters and created their own American Dreams right here.
Since the migration, places in the city have adapted to incorporate the needs of the Bosnians. For example according to an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, more than 16% of the employees of Southern Commercial Bank are Bosnian. The tellers offer financial help in two different languages to cater to the different cultures in the area. Schools in the area have immensely diversified and soccer programs have seen a peak in performance. The Bosnian Islamic Center has offered a place for religious practice and spiritual support. The area continues to grow, develop, and flourish as the Bosnians continue to leave their mark on St. Louis.
The Islamic faith is strong in the Bosnian Community.
“I start and end everyday with Islam,” St. Louis Bosnian Zanin Suljuk said. “I think of Islam as a foundation of who I am and what I aspire to be. It brings me hope and a sense of security when I need it most. It feels so refreshing every time I pray. Most importantly, Islam reminds me what is important in my life and how I shouldn't take anything for granted.”
Bosnians in St. Louis face a unique problem as they are one of the few predominantly white Muslim communities. This leads many to face a strange prejudice.
“It’s like living a double life,” Ajla Ahmetovic said in an interview. “I don't know how else to explain it. If I walk down the street without a hijab on, I am just a white teenage girl. But as soon as a piece of cloth is put over my hair, I am a threat to others. I can't wrap my head around why that's a thing, but it is and I simply have to learn how to live with it. It’s easy for me to talk to strangers, and make conversation, but I can guarantee you that if I was covered and wore my religion on my head, my life would not be the same.”
The women of the St. Louis Bosnian community have an added challenge of wearing the hijab, the headscarf that has been the topic of much controversy, especially in the West.
“For me, and many other Muslim women, the hijab is a symbol for modesty as well as a reminder to show Islam off in a positive light,” Ahmetovic said. “It's seen as modesty because it covered up the parts that men tend to be attracted to the most. When you are covering those parts, a man or other people fall in love with your true beauty and not just how nice your hair is or how much cleavage you show off. It's seen as a reminder to show Islam off in a positive light. For example: When you are wearing the hijab and you get a hateful comment towards you, you are reminded to not talk back to the person and treat them with respect regardless of what they say to you. It's a way to reality check yourself to do what's right instead of what's wrong.”
Despite these struggles, the Bosnian community in St. Louis has been brought closer together by its shared heritage and history.
“I feel like after a horrible tragedy, such as the genocide, gets more people involved with God, I feel like it eases the pain. So many began practicing Islam, more than before,” St. Louis Bosnian Selmedin Gusic said.
Construction of the Nur Mosque, located on Reavis Barracks Road in St. Louis County, began in November of 2015. However, the land had been purchased in 2013 by a Bosnian Muslim organization. After two long years of construction, it was dedicated on April 1, 2017. The project cost approximately $1.5 million. The mosque was built to provide a new worship place for the growing number of Muslims in St. Louis, especially the huge number of Bosnian Muslims. The Islamic Center, one of several throughout the St. Louis metro, is located near the Bevo Mill neighborhood and boasts a 107-foot minaret that serves as a symbol of comfort and acceptance for the Bosnian Muslims living in the area. The new Nur Mosque also includes a large 60 foot minaret which is used to draw attention and call the Muslims to prayer. These minarets remind the Muslims of their faith and remind those around them of their presence. This new mosque is a source of great pride for the Bosnian Muslims. Their influence and faith here have created the beautiful new space. The space will serve as a place of worship, acceptance, and a reminder of home for generations.
From a nation engulfed in war and genocide to a closely knit community half-way around the world, the Bosnians of St. Louis have created a new life centered around culture, family, and their strong Islamic faith. Through the creation of the Nur Mosque, their faith and community will continue to grow stronger and continue influencing the city.
Researched and written by Olivia Hinkel, Mark Heitman, and Sean McDowell
Ahmetovic, Ajla. Interview by Mark Heitman. October 1, 2017.
Friedman, Francine. The Bosnian Muslims: Denial of a Nation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
“The Bosnian Genocide.” History.com, A&E Television Networks. Last modified 2009. Accessed October 19, 2017. http://www.history.com/topics/bosnian-genocide
Hronesova, Jessie. “Migration from Bosnia during the War and the Bosnian Diaspora”, Academia.edu, no date.
Ibrisagic, Ajdin. Interview by Mark Heitman. October 25, 2017.
Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia: a Short History. New York University Press, 1996.
Moore, Doug. “Making St. Louis Home the Bosnian Resettlement Years Later.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 22, 2013. http://www.stltoday.com/news/multimedia/special/making-st-louis-home-the-bosnian-resettlement-years-later/html_dafa620f-9408-5daf-b123-1b2ee29fda56.html
“St. Louis Islamic Center Celebrates Grand Opening of Nur Mosque.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
April 2, 2017. http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/st-louis-islamic-center-celebrates-grand-opening-of-nur-mosque/collection_af345eff-7180-56cb-a6d7-f05289d4f026.html
Suljuk, Zanin. Interview by Mark Heitman. October 1, 2017.
Valenta, Marko, and Sabrina P. Ramet. The Bosnian Diaspora: Integration in Transnational Communities. Ashgate Pub., 2011.
Yarbrough, Luke. Interview by Mark Heitman. October 7, 2017.