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Two decades after fleeing, the children of Yugoslavia’s diaspora are becoming adults in the US
ST. LOUIS — Sinan Jasarevic remembers being able to play in his neighborhood park without worrying about land mines. Vedran Marjanovic was judged unfairly at a new school. Greta Morina recalls the red-headed soldier who helped her family when they first arrived in the United States.
They were all part of the last generation to be born in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia before war ripped the European country apart in the ’90s. They were all, as children, uprooted to an unknown city that would later come to be known as the capital of the Bosnian diaspora: St. Louis. It’s believed the greater metropolitan area around the Gateway City has the largest population of Bosnians outside Bosnia-Herzegovina, estimated to be near 70,000.
Twenty years later, their lives are very different. Yugoslavia’s children are graduating college, having babies and entering the workforce. These days, it would seem their interrupted childhoods were generations away, but their success came with stories of their own, filled with a whole new set of challenges.
Like many Bosnian refugees, Jasmin Sekic arrived in the United States by way of Germany, leaving his home in Todorovo in northwest Bosnia. He hid in a secret compartment of a Winnebago where he could see the road racing by underneath him, fleeing a war that had pitted two sides of his family against each other.
The family made it to St. Louis in 1999. Sekic was 9.
But, when he went back to Bosnia for the first time 10 years later, something didn’t feel right. For individuals like him who were old enough to remember Bosnia and young enough to become assimilated into American culture, forging an identity can be difficult.
“I realized how Americanized I had become,” he said. “I feel like this happens to a lot of first generations when they cannot really relate to the U.S. or their home country. You’re stuck in the middle. You’re an outsider to both sides in some ways.”
Today, he has a job and is working on a master’s degree, while finding time to do volunteer work. He credits his memories of the war and his experiences visiting Bosnia for bringing him from poverty to prosperity in barely a decade.
“When you know your past, you know where your future is going to go,” he said. “In a way we are lucky. We experienced such hardship that we know what we want from our future.”
But not everyone was as lucky. For younger Bosnian generations born in the U.S. from refugee parents, the cultural gap Sekic felt in Bosnia is wider and can manifest itself in harmful ways.
“Kids don’t have mother or father figures anymore,” he said. “They’re working one, two jobs, three jobs, overtime … just to earn more for their kids, only to realize it’s too late when their kids are in jail (for drugs or theft).”
St. Louis proved to be a refuge for those fleeing Yugoslavia, and some believe the refugees saved dying parts of the city. Now the community is dividing, Sekic said, largely along generational lines.
“We’re not together like we should be. We’re separating too much and too fast,” he said. “We’re building mosques left and right, but they’re all empty. Who are you building for? They say it’s the next generation, but who is the next generation if we’re all separated? If (the younger generation) doesn’t know where they came from?”
Sinan and Mirhada Jasarevic are among those who will be raising that next generation. They became new parents less than a year ago, and they already know the kind of childhood they want their baby to have — one that isn’t like theirs was.
Both fled their homes before the age of 10.
Sinan was 6 when the first bomb fell on his hometown of Vlasenica.
They eventually made it to safety — relatively speaking — and in 1996, Sinan and his family arrived in St. Louis as refugees. For two weeks, the entire extended family, 17 in all, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in one of St. Louis’ more dangerous neighborhoods.
“The first Friday we slept in our apartment there was a shooting at the corner,” Sinan said. “It happened every other Friday. It almost felt like you were at home (in Bosnia), hearing the gunshots.”
Sinan, 26, has a much different life now. He married Mirhada, 24, and last year they welcomed their son, Aydin, into the world. Usually Bosniaks their age would have married after high school, but Mirhada had other plans. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2011, becoming the first person in her family to get a college degree. For her, the motivation was her parents.
“I had to show them, ‘This is why you brought me here,’” she said. “I’m going to become somebody.”
Now young parents themselves, Sinan and Mirhada have vowed to give their son what had been taken from them.
“I just want him to have a childhood,” Sinan said. “Mine was in war.”
“You were constantly an adult,” Mirhada said, tears welling up in her eyes. “Now we have to have that tone where it’s OK (for Aydin) to go outside. It’s safe. ‘You’re going to have something to eat when you come home.’”
Vedran Marjanovic was the kind of kid Sinan and Mirhada’s parents told them not to talk to growing up.
Wartime feelings live on, to some extent, in this community — especially in the older generations. St. Louis’ Bosnian community is overwhelmingly Bosniak — Bosnian Muslim. But Marjanovic is a Serb, the ethnic group largely viewed as the antagonizers of the wars in Yugoslavia.
Marjanovic was born in Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The most he remembers of the war was his family grieving when family or friends were killed. They arrived in St. Louis in 1998, two days after Marjanovic’s eighth birthday.
St. Louis’ Serbian population is relatively small, at least compared with the Bosniaks. But what they lack in numbers, they make up in history. Marjanovic’s first apartment in St. Louis was just a few doors down from Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church, built in 1909.
“We enjoyed the foundations that they built,” Marjanovic said of St. Louis’ pre-existing Serbian community.
His family moved to the suburbs when he was in sixth grade. It was then that he started going to school with more of the Yugoslav diaspora, including Bosniaks and Croats.
That’s when being Serbian became a little more important, whether he liked it or not.
“Everyone started asking where you were from,” he said. “Some would say ‘he’s not ours’ about me. Some judge you.”
Marjanovic doesn’t agree with that. He’s made Bosniak and Croatian friends, and, as far as he’s concerned, they all fled the Balkans for the same reason: refuge from war and suffering.
Prejudices shouldn’t prevail in the land of opportunity, especially among those who were mere children during the war, he said.
“We moved out of there for a reason — why would you bring it up?” he said. “It’s not that person who caused the war.”
Greta Morina has lived in St. Louis for 15 years, arriving in 1999. She grew up in the heart of the city’s Bosnian community and knows Bosniaks and Croatians, but can’t think of one Serb she’s met in the city.
“‘Serb’ is like a curse word (to us),” she said. “If you can do that to some other human being, you must not be human. You must be an animal. That’s how we were raised to think.”
Morina said she remembers celebrating her fifth birthday in a refugee camp. She remembers being one of masses of people struggling to climb over the fence that marked the border with Montenegro, fleeing an approaching army. She remembers being on a train, seeing fires burning outside. Bombs. Gunshots. Screams.
“I turned 5 years old and survived a war,” she said. “Who can say that?”
Morina, 20, is from Pristina, today the capital of Kosovo, which, depending on who you ask, is either a southern region of Serbia or its own country. She’s an ethnic Albanian, known as Kosovars in that part of the world. In St. Louis, she’s part of a community of a couple of thousand, most of whom are refugees who had been targeted in an ethnic cleansing campaign that drew on into the 21st century.
But that hasn’t stopped her from visiting her homeland or having pride in it. She’s been back nearly every summer. However, she knows she could never call Kosovo home. The lives of her cousins and childhood friends in Pristina are in stark contrast to the one she has in Missouri, and a reminder to take advantage of the opportunity she found in St. Louis.
“Here, I go to college,” she said. “There, I’d be married before I could even go to college. I am happy — very, very, very happy that I’m here.”
When she visits Kosovo, she said, she sees women her age quietly serving coffee, staying out of the way. Many don’t finish high school. But that’s not for her. In the U.S., Morina studies political science and plans to go to law school. Her sights are set on being a corporate attorney.
And even if that future wouldn’t be possible for her in Kosovo, it’s how she will honor her people in St. Louis, Kosovo, and around the world.
“If I can be something,” she said, “then I can bring up the entire Albanian community.”
Sandra Tasic was 12 when the air raid sirens started going off in Zagreb, now the capital of Croatia, where she was born and lived. Within a couple of years she found herself on the Illinois side of metropolitan St. Louis, a few years before the mass waves of refugees from Bosnia would arrive in the city.
At the time, Tasic’s background was only an interesting novelty in her new community in Highland, Ill. People would ask her to speak her native language and comment on how they didn’t know what Croatia was. But, when she began interacting with others from the former Yugoslavia, there was a different feeling at times.
She recalls being at a fundraiser for Croatia in Boston during the war. One of the speakers made a derogatory joke about Serbs.
“I could feel my heart drop,” she said. “I’m half Serbian.”
Tasic’s father is a Serb, her mother a Croat. Mixed families weren’t uncommon in Yugoslavia. Tasic, 34, has never had a problem when she’s gone back and visited family in Croatia and Serbia. Many negative encounters, she said, are from when she’s interacting with the Yugoslav diaspora.
“I find the diaspora tends to be much more nationalistic,” She said. “A scary thing that could be the outcome of this mass migration, to me, is if this generation carried on the resentments that were started in this war. That would be an even greater tragedy.”
But with that statement comes important context, she said. Many of the members of the diaspora — Bosniak, Croat, Serb, Kosovar — are survivors of some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since the Holocaust.
“I think it would be unfair not to take into account there are people with that depth of trauma in their lives,” she said.
However, she’s seen hope. While studying at Washington University in St. Louis, she encountered several custodial workers who also spoke the Serbo-Croat language, likely part of the wave of refugees from Bosnia that came to the city after her own arrival.
“When they recognized that we spoke the same language, there was this immediate recognition. There was this immediate bond,” she said. “They didn’t know where I was from, exactly. I didn’t know what their experiences were. There is still that yearning to connect with somebody from the old country.”
Even if Tasic and the workers would have been considered enemies in another time, in that moment a common Yugoslav identity took another breath far away from the recovering cities and towns they once called home.
“Despite the war, there’s still hope that at the very core, people from that region do have a common bond,” she said. “There is a connection. There is something that is shared.”