Forced Freedom: Any Country But Their Own
“We were forced to choose any country but our own. The American Dream? I didn’t even want to come here,” said Bosnian refugee Denis Sehic, providing a viewpoint that most people aren’t used to hearing from immigrants coming to the United States. Americans are conditioned to believe that this country is the safe haven for those fleeing from war, persecution, plague and other misfortunes.
However, this wasn’t how Sehic saw it in 1998 when war caused his family to move to St. Louis, which now has the largest population of Bosnians outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “For those people who moved out of our country for the first time, they are happy to be here; but for those who have seen and lived in other countries, this is miserable,” he said.
In 1992, a growing tension erupted into war among primarily Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats. There were charges of war crimes against Serb and Bosnian Serb leaders for their campaign to religiously cleanse Bosnia of Muslims.
Adnana Muranovic, a SLU sophomore, remembers coming to the U.S. with her family to avoid the attacks. Her father, once a commander for the Yugoslavian military, was forced to choose sides when the war broke out. The typically Orthodox Christian Serbian army wanted him to serve for them, even though he was Muslim. He refused and tried to flee to Hungary with his family. As they attempted to cross the border, they were sent to a prison camp in Budapest, Hungary. From there, the family was deported to the U.S. with nothing except each other.
Sehic’s family, on the other hand, found refuge in Germany during the war. When the war ended, the German government forced the family to return to Bosnia. “What future do you see in going back to a country that just got destroyed?” Sehic asked. They decided against it.
Many refugees fled to the U.S. after the war. The State Department chose south St. Louis as the site for Bosnian resettlement. The area met the criteria for affordable housing, adequate entry-level jobs and an agency that offered adjustment services.
Subsequent waves of immigrants followed their friends and family, eventually creating a “Little Bosnia” in the city of St. Louis. The International Institute of St. Louis worked in collaboration with the State Department to assist with the transition. Currently, the Institute provides help to 6,000 immigrants and refugees a year through offering educational and job services. The influx of Bosnians brought new enterprises to the once solidly German neighborhood. “Town Talk”, the weekly forum from the South Side Journal, covers the news in the Bosnian community and even publishes a Bosnian-language page for readers who cannot understand English.
Although many Muslim Bosnians said they were welcomed into the U.S., in recent years, the perception of Islam in the U.S. has put them, and other Muslims, on the defense. However, some Muslim Bosnians claim that they avoid racial profiling due to their lighter skin tone.
A particular instance occurred when Imam Muhamed Hasic, a spiritual leader of the largely Bosnian Islamic Community Center, wanted to add a minaret to the building. A website arose in response to the idea, threatening to pour pig’s blood on the community center and claiming that “the Muslims [were] taking over.” The harsh media attention regarding Islam made Bosnians reminiscent of the cruelty they thought they left behind.
Although religion unites many cultures, it can also tear people apart. During the 1990s, the U.S. served as a sanctuary for Bosnians in need. Religious persecution is not a problem of the past, but an issue that continually brings harm across the globe today. This history and present reality illustrates the importance and necessity of religious tolerance.