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.

Mar 5, 2003 at 4:00 am
The meeting is over, but Bob Dimitrijevich still wants to make a point. Cans of Budweiser and discount diet cola are being passed around after the end of a contentious but polite discussion in Alderman Dan Kirner's office, a converted barbershop at Keokuk Street and Gustine Avenue, across from Amberg Park.

"OK, let me just show you this," says Dimitrijevich, a tall, burly retired Mehlville High School teacher who came to St. Louis from Belgrade almost 40 years ago. Dimitrijevich, who served as interpreter during the meeting, shoves two pieces of paper toward Kirner, who is sitting behind his desk, talking to someone else.

"Rora just bought 100 lambs from New York," Dimitrijevich barks at Kirner. "He's going to smoke them."

Kirner is unmoved.

"This is not the problem," Kirner says. "The problem is the ones who go over to Illinois and buy up the live animals and bring them back over here and kill them."

"No kill meat!" blurts Fevzo "Rora" Islamovic.

Islamovic has been listening intently, and these are the first words of English he's uttered all night. He recently opened Rora's Mesnica, a combination grocery, deli and butcher shop at the corner of Finkman Street and Macklind Avenue in South St. Louis.

In Dimitrijevich's hands is a receipt for 100 lamb carcasses that were delivered to Rora's market earlier that day. Rora, a gray-haired Bosnian who's been in the U.S. for almost ten years, is a butcher, but he doesn't slaughter animals at his shop. He smokes some meat at his business, but thus far it's not caused a problem with his neighbors.

The same cannot be said of Miso Todorovic, whose backyard smokehouse on Blow Street is a sore point with neighbors Tom and Diane Wright. The Wrights showed up at Kirner's meeting armed with videotape of Todorovic's smokehouse, belching clouds of smoke. The smell is so overpowering, it has permeated the upholstery of his car, says Tom Wright.

Prompted by a handful of similar complaints, Kirner recently introduced a bill to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that would ban virtually all smokehouses in the city. Bosnians, by far the city's largest immigrant group, were irritated by the proposal, which they believe is aimed specifically at them and their culture. They were so worked up that Kirner's small office couldn't handle all the Bosnians who arrived to complain -- some were turned away.

Hanging around after Kirner's meeting, 24-year-old Bosnian Damir Huskic connects the dots of the smokehouse controversy and says it's really a cover for a simmering xenophobia. Huskic is a busy man. He works for Catholic Charities and sells real estate, and he's the proprietor of Caf Palermo, a coffeehouse at Delor Street and Alfred Avenue, in the shadow of the Bevo Mill. This month, he starts producing and hosting a television show about the Bosnian community on the city's public-access station.

The Wrights insisted that the problem was smoke, not Bosnians, but Huskic didn't believe them.

"She can't say, 'You Bosnians, I hate you, go back.' There is another way of doing that," Huskic says. "That's the smokehouses."

Huskic, as if warming up for his television show, boils the controversy down to a phrase that could fit on a bumper sticker. Of all the issues that face the nation's largest Bosnian refugee community -- estimated at 40,000 or more -- there are far more urgent ones than the right to build and operate a smokehouse.

Schools, real-estate prices and fear of crime all qualify.

"Gunsmoke is much more dangerous than meat smoke," says Huskic.

"That's what people should worry about."

If the recently settled Bosnian community did not exist in South St. Louis, it would be necessary for the city to invent it. The city needs warm bodies.

Most Bosnians who fled their war-torn land for the St. Louis area in the mid-'90s ended up within the city limits, attracted by the ample supply of sturdy, inexpensive brick homes. Despite the dramatic influx, the U.S. Census shows that from 1990 to 2000, the city lost 12.2 percent of its residents, the highest percentage loss among the 239 cities with more than 100,000 residents. That's a net loss of 48,496 people, dropping the city census to 348,189.

All else being equal, the city's fortunes would have been worse without the Bosnians. The not-so-good news is that they came, they saw and now they're moving to the suburbs. It's hard to quantify the numbers, but real-estate agents and school-district officials are seeing the early signs of a secondary exodus of Bosnians to the suburbs.

"Boy, they are flying out of the city, that's for sure," says one of the city's top-selling real-estate agents, who asked to remain anonymous. "They're pouring into Bayless, Affton, Mehlville. I just did a listing in Bayless, and when I told the seller half the buyers in his area are Bosnian, he said, 'Jesus, I know. The guys across the street and on either side of me are Bosnian.'"

A head count of Bosnians in each jurisdiction doesn't exist, but the general consensus is that as many as 20 percent of Bosnians who moved to the city less than a decade ago have since moved out.

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."

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.

"There have been officers who have received calls for people cooking dogs," he says. "I will grant that a goat on a stick turning around may look like a greyhound, but there was never anything to it."

In the five years he's been working the immigrant beat, slaughter hasn't been a real problem, either. "Not to say it didn't happen, but I don't know of any incident where an animal was slaughtered in the backyard," Lalumandier says.

With the backdrop of other misinformation, when an elected official introduces a bill to ban smokehouses, it's a "slap in the face of the general Bosnian community," says Crosslin. Excess smoke from a smokehouse can be corrected, she notes. "You don't outlaw the whole darn thing," says Crosslin. "That says, 'We don't want you.'"

And that's something the city can't afford to do.

"Immigration, long-term, is one of the things that's going to save the city, if anything can," says Crosslin. "When you look at population loss, you're not going to encourage enough people to move back into the city to stabilize the city. The only way you're going to come up with new bodies to be able to repopulate this area is through immigration." In fact, the International Institute is working with the State Department to bring in Bantu refugees from Somalia. Several hundred may arrive from refugee camps sometime this summer. The Bantu may have a different kind of adjustment than the Bosnians' -- they speak the rare Maay-Maay language, and many have spent long periods in refugee camps in Africa, mostly Somalia.

The International Institute directly sponsored about 7,000 of the Bosnians who came to St. Louis. Others arrived here after trying another U.S. city first or came because they had relatives here. In other words, word got to them that St. Louis wasn't so bad.

Compared with the land of Srbrenica and Sarajevo, almost any American city looks like a safe port -- even St. Louis, which has a crumbling public-school system and a history of racial tension and was recently tagged the nation's most dangerous city by Morgan Quitno Press of Lawrence, Kansas. Of course, there have been no ethnic cleansings, no U.N. peacekeepers, no war-crime tribunals.

And in St. Louis there's at least an official recognition that the immigrant community is a critical part of the city's future. "Our population needs to be diverse and willing to work together," Mayor Francis Slay says. The mayor insists that he wants St. Louis to be an "immigrant-friendly" city and points to programs aimed specifically at newcomers, including translation services provided by the health department and business assistance offered to Bosnian immigrants by the St. Louis Development Corporation.

For all its warts, St. Louis is not such a bad blind date.

Nedim Jasarevic arrived in St. Louis from Bosnia on Halloween 1997. For the first few years here, life for the metal worker, wife Azemina and daughter Nezira was more treat than trick.

The Jasarevics moved into a four-family flat in the 3600 block of Montana Street, near the intersection of Grand and Chippewa, occupied by fellow Bosnian refugees, including Nedim's cousin Alija, who was Nedim's sponsor.

Just about the time the usual run of food stamps was to expire, after three months, Jasarevic got a job at Argo Products, located at 3500 Goodfellow Boulevard in North St. Louis. Argo makes what Jasarevic calls "yard machines"; he assists with the welding that is done on the lawnmowers. Jasarevic speaks English haltingly, but he understands the language and can communicate.

At first he tried taking public transportation to his job, starting on the Chippewa bus and transferring to a Hampton bus, but he says it sometimes took him two hours to get to work or to return. Then he relied on Bosnian co-workers for rides until he could afford a car, a 1995 Nissan.

"Three months, I got a job, everything go to better," Jasarevic says. "Four, five, six months I got a car. Upward I go. I go up."

After three years on Montana, the block became troubled. "The last year was getting bad," he says. "Too much criminal, too much drug -- everything."

Just before New Year's Day 2002, a neighbor was assaulted in the alley behind the flat. A carjacker stole the victim's late-model Pontiac Grand Am and pistol-whipped him, putting him in the hospital.

That was enough for Jasarevic. He and his family spent one more night on Montana, then moved in with relatives who lived elsewhere in the city. At first Jasarevic looked for an apartment in the city, but the areas he deemed safer were too expensive.

What sold him on where he's living now -- the Lakeshire community on Tesson Ferry Road, near Gravois Road -- is what he saw as he drove by the apartment building: a police substation next to the apartments.

"When I went to Lakeshire, I saw the police. I make decision I take this apartment," says Jasarevic. "Everywhere I was looking, but when I saw the police, I made the decision. I go there."

With housing and security taken care of, his next concern was education.

Jasarevic had successfully navigated the city schools for his daughter, who attended kindergarten at Madison School and then transferred to Dewey School. Jasarevic liked Madison and Dewey -- both are magnet schools -- and chose them after concluding that other city public schools he visited lacked "discipline."

When Jasarevic and his family moved into the Lakeshire apartment, he went to the nearest school, only to discover that it was in a different school district. His apartment, though closer to an Affton school, was in the Lindbergh School District, so he enrolled his daughter in Sappington School. Nezira and her parents are satisfied with the school.

What Jasarevic had not realized was that because his daughter is white, she could have stayed at Dewey as part of the interdistrict desegregation program. He got an application for the magnet program, but by then Nezira was enrolled in the second grade at Sappington. Jasarevic says what his daughter has been through is different than what he experienced when he was going to school in Bosnia.

"Too much change," he says. "Child, too much change. I not change too much school. I know exactly, when I finish this school, I go in that school, in Bosnia. But in America it's different. My child, in two years she changed three schools. It's hard for me, hard for her."

In Bosnia, Jasarevic says, it was common for three generations to be born in the same village. "But everything different now," he says. "Too many changes."

The one change he doesn't regret is moving to the county, though he misses certain aspects of the city.

"I come back to the city very much. I like the city. But living in the city, I don't," says Jasarevic.

Proximity to other Bosnians is one big advantage the city holds over the suburbs. Living in the county, Jasarevic feels too far from other Bosnians, and he has no yard. On Montana, there was a small yard and a four-family flat full of Bosnians.

"We sit outside in evening when it was nice," says Jasarevic of his years in the city. "I miss it. We were all together. At night, in evening, we go outside; in the summertime, we're talking. Different. Always somebody outside."

Jasarevic thinks finding a house will be the last piece of the puzzle for his family, which now also includes twenty-month-old daughter Nermina.

"I must buy house pretty soon," says Jasarevic. "I lose the money if I don't buy a house. When I come, house was priced around $60,000 and $80,000 in this area. Now cost over $120,000. I lose $40,000, $50,000."

"Safety and school," Jasarevic says, are what's important to him. "School, for my child, is the future."

Darko Mruckovski, like any good salesman, follows the market. Described by many as the area's premier Bosnian real-estate agent, he estimates that more than half of his business is in South County. Just a year or so ago, it was less than a third. Sensing the trend, Mruckovski and his wife moved to South County.

Mruckovski says Bosnians are moving out of the city for two reasons: better schools and fewer hassles with City Hall. Occupancy permits pose a recurring problem for many Bosnians in the city because extended families and in-laws often move in together. And, as Jasarevic learned, even as crime has prompted Bosnians to move westward within the city to safer neighborhoods, prices have spiked beyond their ability to pay.

"The Bosnian community considered a good part of the city the 63109 ZIP code [west of Kingshighway to the city limits, north of Chippewa Street], but the prices went up; it got ridiculous in the last two years," Mruckovski says. "So if they could afford homes in that part of the city, they could still stay. But homes go for, like, $150,000 in that part of the city. It's just ridiculous. You can get a better house in the county for the same kind of money."

Much of the movement to South County is by Bosnians who moved into the city first and rented. Because Bosnians no longer qualify for refugee status, whatever migration that continues to St. Louis will involve Bosnians who are coming here from other American cities, drawn by the growing community and comparatively cheap housing.

As Bosnian students move south and west, school officials are trying to address their needs. City schools have more than twenty English as Second Language sites, a large increase from just a few years ago. Mehlville High School has an estimated 180 students of Bosnian heritage. Crosslin is concerned that adequate ESL services may not be available as the community disperses.

"Just at a time when school districts have to be able to deal with all these massive budget cuts, they're also getting a more diverse population, which means they have to offer more specialty services," Crosslin says, "yet they don't have the critical mass sometimes that's necessary to offer classes affordably."

Although refugees and immigrants put an extra burden on public schools and social services, that burden is often overstated. Lalumandier, the police liaison officer, says that at neighborhood meetings he frequently hears myths repeated about how much government assistance Bosnian refugees are getting:

"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.

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.

In March 2001, they applied for refugee status. They considered Buffalo and Seattle, where they had relatives, but St. Louis was the best choice because of its low cost of living and large Bosnian community.

Vahidin benefited from a program, designed for children of Srebrenica, that paid for him to live in New York for three months to learn English. He often translates for his mother and aunt. A certificate for academic excellence he received at Long Middle School hangs on the living-room wall.

Aside from being able to work and provide an education for their children, the sisters see the absence of sectarian strife as the biggest improvement.

"People here are treated equally; it doesn't matter what your religion is or what your background is," says Brdarevic. "I'm not afraid of the things I was afraid of in Bosnia, the political violence."

Before they left Bosnia, Brdarevic went back to visit the remains of her old house. She found a sweater her eldest son wore when he was an infant. She also found some slippers belonging to her husband, lying where he had last left them, by the front door.

Knowing that she was leaving her country to help give her son a better future, she took the sweater along as a keepsake.

Knowing that her husband was gone and would never leave Bosnia, she left the slippers.