Keeping Up With the Jasarevics

Bosnian refugees found safe haven in St. Louis in the 1990s. Many are on the move again -- this time to the suburbs.

No one reason explains why this group is on the move again, but these new immigrants are not immune to the impulses that have induced generations of other city residents to leave. But for the Bosnian community, the exodus has come more quickly, something that those working with the immigrant community blame on the way this sclerotic city has reacted to its new residents.

The federal government saw St. Louis as a suitable destination for Bosnian refugees in part because so few other immigrant groups have made it this far inland. Of the nation's largest 35 metropolitan areas, only Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have smaller percentages of immigrants. With the last major wave of foreigners hitting the banks of the Mississippi toward the end of the nineteenth century, it could be said that St. Louis has grown more insular and less open to outsiders. That unease with newcomers may explain the chilly reception Bosnians have received from some locals, says Anna Crosslin, director of the International Institute.

"We got inbred over the generations between the Second World War and the growth in immigration to St. Louis again," Crosslin says. Couple that with a city government comprising 28 aldermen, each with his or her own turf to protect, and problems arise. "We've got some who seem to be fighting a rear-guard kind of effort," she notes. "Maybe it has to do with aldermen getting elected by a few hundred votes, not thousands of votes. The ear of their constituents, if they happen to be the voters, is very important to them."

Alderman Dan Kirner: "I'll take all the Bosnians you want to give me. They're clean people, they don't go on welfare, they get a job, they buy a house."
Mark Gilliland
Alderman Dan Kirner: "I'll take all the Bosnians you want to give me. They're clean people, they don't go on welfare, they get a job, they buy a house."
Eight-year-old Nezira and twenty-month-old Nermina with their parents, Nedim and Azemina Jasarevic
Mark Gilliland
Eight-year-old Nezira and twenty-month-old Nermina with their parents, Nedim and Azemina Jasarevic

Lately those constituents have been sniping about personal and public acts, griping that Bosnians are smoking up the neighborhood, leaving their shoes outside their doors, putting trash in yard-waste Dumpsters, driving recklessly and refusing to speak English. Aside from the usual rants in the Town Talk section of the South Side Journal, most of these complaints don't rise above the level of exposure that would come from the grumpy occupant of a nearby barstool. For example, nearly two years ago, complaints that Bosnian youth were taking over Willmore Park on the South Side -- speeding, squealing tires, acting rowdy -- drew police attention, resulting in citations for traffic violations [Wilson, "Vocal Yokels," August 1, 2001].

Barry Lalumandier, immigrant-liaison officer with the St. Louis Police Department for the last five years, sees some of the friction as generational, not ethnic or cultural. Problems with "Bosnian driving," he says, involve young Bosnians who live in older neighborhoods that haven't seen kids for a long time: "Some of these neighborhoods have nothing but senior citizens. Their kids have all grown up and moved on, and then suddenly four or five Bosnian families move in on one block, and they've got younger kids, and their kids start driving."

But the criticism took on a sharper edge when Kirner, a Democrat who represents the 25th Ward -- the Dutchtown neighborhood -- introduced his bill after four constituents complained about the Bosnians and their smokehouses.

A retired police sergeant of German extraction who has maintained a low profile as an elected official, Kirner insists he has nothing against Bosnians. But even when he tries to assert his open-mindedness toward his new constituents, he slips into one of the frequent but usually unsubstantiated raps against them -- that they slaughter animals, usually goats or lambs.

"I'll take all the Bosnians you want to give me," says Kirner, who estimates he has "3,000 or 4,000" in his ward. "They're clean people, they don't go on welfare, they get a job, they buy a house. They've got some faults, like speeding and the language barrier and this smokehouse deal. A couple years ago, I got a call they were killing a goat one Sunday morning, and blood was running down the alley. Well, we don't have the sewers for that kind of stuff. They throw all the waste in a garbage can, and if it's a warm summer day, that doesn't last too long."

Kirner insists the goat-killing tale is true: "Somebody I knew called me at 7:15 on a Sunday morning and said, 'Mr. Kirner, there's blood running down the alley; they're killing a goat next door.' I sent the police over there. I guess they stopped them -- I don't know. I never got another complaint on them."

"That's not a big problem," Kirner says of the goat-killing, "but this smokehouse thing could be."

Those who work with the Bosnian community insist that allegations of slaughtering animals and other questionable practices approach the level of urban myth.

When Bosnians buy a lamb from Jay International on South Grand Boulevard to cook in the backyard, neighbors may conclude it's a dog on the spit. Crosslin, of the International Institute, has heard this tale too often.

"When they're in big pieces like that, these little old ladies are convinced they are dogs," Crosslin says. "They're not dogs. Bosnians don't eat dogs. But they look too much like dogs to the neighbors. Then they worry about Muffy -- 'What will happen to Muffy?'"

Lalumandier says the police have been called on this charge, for no good reason.

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