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.

"I've heard everything -- the United States government gives Bosnians vouchers to buy any kind of car they want, that they get forgivable loans to open their businesses and buy their homes. That's all a bunch of crap. These folks have to pay back their airfare. They may be given a ticket to come to the United States, but they have to reimburse the International Institute or someone for paying for that airfare."

The reality is that Bosnian refugees can qualify for up to eight months of public assistance, but they get no special preference for loans. After that, Bosnians must meet the same criteria for food stamps, Medicaid and welfare that others do.

Bosnians who arrive after spending several years in Germany usually have money saved because the Germans do not allow them to become citizens and they prefer not to stay. Some of those arrivals have money for a down payment when they land. Others, who have suffered during and after the war, are helped by Ron Klutho, co-director of the Refugee Support Program at St. Pius V Catholic Church on South Grand.

Mark Gilliland
Anna Crosslin: "Immigration, long-term, is one of the things that's going to save the city, if anything can."
Mark Gilliland
Anna Crosslin: "Immigration, long-term, is one of the things that's going to save the city, if anything can."

But natives aren't the only ones with misconceptions; Klutho says some Bosnians think other immigrant groups are on the gravy train.

"They think the Vietnamese are getting all this additional aid," Klutho says. "The Bosnians are always telling me they think the Vietnamese have been getting food stamps for fifteen years. And the next wave [of immigrants] is going to complain the Bosnians are getting [additional aid]. It's just what you don't know."

Still, the stereotype of hardworking, frugal immigrants persists, often because it's true. "How can they buy a house in ten months when they came here with $50 in their pocket? I'd like to know that myself," Klutho wonders. "Whenever I ask Bosnians how they do that, how they are able to save their money so much, the answer is always 'We don't go to fast-food restaurants like you do. We eat at home.' There's got to be more to it than that. I mean, c'mon."

Crosslin says there's a simple explanation: "What makes them slightly different from the typical refugee is that because of their education and savings, they have the ability to make the move faster than some of the other people who want to make that move."

Mruckovski says many will make the move to the suburbs because they want newer homes, more space and better schools. Others will be pushed by the sort of conflict typified by the smokehouse controversy.

One City Hall lifer views the complaints about smokehouses as a stealthy way of complaining about outsiders: "It's, like, 'They're taking over the neighborhood,' whoever 'they' may be. In this case, it's Bosnians. In other places, it's black people or Mexicans or fill-in-the-blank."

All of the static about smokehouses, bad driving and Dumpster abuse fades to insignificance for sisters Edina Brdarevic and Advira Cesko.

Brdarevic, her two sons, Cesko and her son moved here in April 2002. Brdarevic, 34, works evenings at National Linen Service; Cesko, 32, works days at Volpi Italian Salami & Meat on the Hill. They're on different shifts so they can share child care duties. They live together in a four-family flat on Itaska Street, near the Bevo Mill. They don't have a car.

Asked why they came to America, the sisters recite a mantra that could have been voiced 100 years ago by German, Irish or Italian immigrants.

"Bosnia is a poor country now," Brdarevic says. "We were not able to go back to our hometown. We heard if we came here and worked, we could make a life for our kids. We don't have husbands or parents anymore. It's just us, two sisters. We were told it was nice here and there was a chance to work. There is no work in Bosnia."

The widows' tale is still more dramatic because they are from Milacevic, a town ten kilometers from Srebrenica, the site of the worst war crime in Europe since World War II. An estimated 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred there by Serbian forces. The women's husbands, Vahid Brdarevic and Mevludin Cesko, are officially listed as missing. The women's father was killed; his body was identified through DNA testing.

Brdarevic and her thirteen-year-old son Vahidin left blood samples with authorities to assist in the search for Vahid Brdarevic.

Brdarevic gets up from the sofa to retrieve photos of her home in Milacevic. She returns with snapshots that show a shell of a house, the wooden frame surrounded by debris. Even the mementos they show are of destruction and the aftermath of war. Only about 200 of the 600 people who lived in Milacevic survived. "Whole families were killed," says Brdarevic. There are still land mines in Milacevic.

"Everything we had before the war is gone," she says. "We had a house, we had a car, but it was all destroyed. My husband is dead."

After being forced to leave Milacevic, the sisters and their children lived in an abandoned Serbian house in the town of Tinje. In December 2000, the Serb owner of the house came back and evicted them. They had nowhere to go.

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