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Muslim-dominated Bosnian community in St Louis seeks counsel and integration

September 28, 2001
By: Julian Pecquet
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - While Americans are recovering from shock after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many inhabitants of the U.S. already have had to cope with the traumatizing experiences of war and relocation.

In St. Louis, where refugees represent 10 percent of the population according to the city's International Institute, this is especially true with the Muslim-dominated Bosnian community which totals about 30,500 people out of the more than 45,000 refugees living in the St. Louis region.

Many Bosnians arrived in the United States around 1993, as war raged in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the division of Yougoslavia. Some refugees were sent directly to St. Louis because the city was not yet a haven for numerous groups of displaced people, others first lived in other states, or even other countries.

But the city, and especially its German neighborhood in the Southside, Bevo, quickly became the main resettlement zone for Bosnians attracted by the low cost of living and the job opportunities.

"The first two years were really hard times," said Damir Didovic, who owns the Lucky Duck Bosnian restaurant with his brother Mirsad.

"I started to learn English by myself, I didn't have time for classes: I had to work, feed the family," Didovic said.

Didovic arrived in the United States in 1997, and worked as a meat-cutter and a butcher for a St. Louis company which went out of business last year. Out of a job, he invested in the restaurant, which opened last year.

"All my family's here," said Didovic, whose second son was born in the United States. "There is no future over in Bosnia for at least another fifteen years."

Ron Klutho, who works with the refugee services of St. Pious church in St. Louis, said that many Bosnians experienced trauma after having spent a while in their new surroundings.

"Once they are in a routine, the nightmares start coming back," said Klutho.

Klutho said that many Bosnians in St. Louis had been interned in concentration camps, been tortured, or had been witnesses to atrocities.

"They'd be crazy if they weren't affected," Klutho said.

But misinterpretation by the American public, and misunderstanding because of the language barrier, pushes many social workers not to publicize their work with the refugees for fear of attracting attention to this fragile community.

"We don't want to advertise that there's a lot of psychological problems in the community", said Chris Huber, director of the War Trauma Recovery Project in St. Louis.

Bosnians make up 80 percent of the refugees seeking help with the Project, which was created in 1997 and offers counseling and psychological help for non english-speakers. The Project employs a full-time psychotherapist from ex-Yougoslavia to treat Bosnian patients in their own language, but mental health counseling remains insufficient in St. Louis, according to Huber.

The Bosnians' first contact with counseling is often done through the services of the International Institute of St. Louis, Missouri's largest refugee resettlement agency. The Institute, in addition to ESL (English as a second language) classes and social services, also provides mental health counselors, but spokesperson Ann Rynearson says it's a good thing that other groups are providing similar services.

"The need is so huge that we could have twenty in St. Louis," said Rynearson. "We have more people coming in than we can handle."

The Institute also helps refugees by providing them with information about their new surroundings. One such program is the weekly civilian academy of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which informs refugees about the role of the police in the United States.

The program, headed by Officer Barry LaLumandier, is the first multicultural civilian's academy in the country. The idea gained extra momentum last October 10th, when 150 angry members of the Bosnian community stormed the Southside Police Station after two young men, arrested for provoking a drunken brawl in Didovic's restaurant, were released because no charges were filed.

"The victims didn't know they had a right to report," said LaLumandier.

Another role of the academy is to dispel myths about the police, which in many countries is related to the military and repressive regimes.

"We had to squash a rumor that was already going around the Afghan community that the police is organizing roundups and sending them to camps, like the Japanese in World War II," LaLumandier said.