The St. Louis region’s Bosnian community long has been touted as the largest in the world outside of Bosnia itself.
But, as some local activists add ruefully, their numbers have yet to translate into political clout.
“We definitely have that sense of being ignored,’’ said Akif Cogo, founder of St. Louis Bosnians Inc., a nonprofit organization advocating for the tens of thousands of Bosnian-Americans who now call St. Louis home.
That frustration has been front and center since last weekend’s murder in south St. Louis of Zemir Begic, a 32-year-old Bosnian-American who was beaten to death by three teenagers wielding hammers. Three arrests have been made.
The incident was the region's second high-profile killing of a Bosnian in the past 18 months, prompting peaceful protests and a vigil as local activists have asserted that public officials and the St. Louis police have ignored the rise in violent crime and related problems in Bosnian neighborhoods.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Police Chief Sam Dotson met earlier this week with Bosnian business leaders and civic activists and promised more police. The mayor also posted a statement on Facebook in which he decried the "horrific crime'' and called for the stiffest penalties possible for those who committed the murder.
Slay communications director Maggie Crane said the mayor is well aware of the importance of Bosnians to the city. “Their residences, their businesses and their investments primarily along the southern corridor and in the Bevo Mill area have really brought back and stabilized that neighborhood,” she said.
The mayor, Crane added, “has built a good reputation for reaching out and communicating with the Bosnian community.”
But Imam Ahmed Serdarevic, with the St. Louis Islamic Center, isn’t appeased. “I believe talk is cheap,’’ he said. “I believe this area is underserved.”
Cogo said that part of the problem may lie with Bosnian-Americans themselves. "Bosnians have assimilated into the community, but not integrated,'' he said.
Little interest in elective or appointive office
According to the International Institute of St. Louis, which sponsored the largest early wave of immigrants, about 50,000 people of Bosnian descent – either immigrants or their American-born children – have settled in the St. Louis area.
In the city, Bosnians are believed to be concentrated in the 13th, 14th and 25th wards. But the largest number now resides in south St. Louis County, and Cogo said thousands have moved to Jefferson County.
Most Bosnian immigrants came to the St. Louis area during the mid-1990s when the eastern European country of Yugoslavia split apart amid a wave of ethic and religious violence that killed roughly 100,000 and displaced close to 2 million.
Then-President Bill Clinton supported the immigration of Bosnian refugees, especially the Muslims who bore the brunt of violence. The International Institute of St. Louis was among the agencies that welcomed the immigrants here and sponsored them.
But although the first wave of Bosnian immigrants arrived in St. Louis 20 years ago, no Bosnian has yet to run for local elective office. And few have been appointed to key area governmental boards.
Sadik Kukic, president of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce, recalls lobbying a local Bosnian immigrant who’s now an influential banker to consider running for alderman.
“She said, ‘That’s not for me,’ " Kukic said. “I told her, ‘Yes, it is!’ ”
He failed to persuade her, and Kukic admits he understands her thinking. He says he turned down a gubernatorial appointment to the St. Louis Election Board, in part because he has been too busy running his restaurant and real estate businesses.
What particularly concerns him now, Kukic added, is that the younger generation of Bosnians born in St. Louis aren’t showing much of an interest in politics either.
Lack of trust may be factor
Anna Crosslin, president of the International Institute, has taken note of the lack of Bosnians’ political representation.
Part of the problem, she and others said, is an understandable, and longstanding, distrust of government – especially among the first-generation immigrants.
“It’s not just the Bosnians, it’s all refugees,’’ Crosslin said. “In the early years, they’re very focused on rebuilding their families and stabilizing their employment.”
Political interests, she said, take a back seat to survival.
What’s unique about the Bosnians, Crosslin went on, is that the first generation of immigrants experienced a brutal conflict in eastern Europe where neighbors who had lived together peacefully for decades suddenly turned on each other.
Many immigrants still have unaccounted-for relatives who likely died in the conflict but whose bodies were never recovered. That unsettled history back in Europe often makes it difficult for a surviving refugee to trust people in their new home beyond their immediate family, Crosslin said.
Parents likely communicate that wariness to their children, she and others said.
And in politics, Crosslin theorized, the result so far has been a lack of Bosnian participation in the regional coalition-building often needed to advance candidates for office.
A decade ago, Crosslin said, she thought the city of St. Louis had enough Bosnians to elect one of their own as an alderman. But she suspects that’s no longer the case, as Bosnians have moved south out of the city.
Did Bosnians help elect Stenger?
Cogo says only about 20,000 local Bosnians have become Americans citizens – many of them by being born here. The rest are legal immigrants but have yet to take the next step.
Cogo believes that fewer than 10,000 Bosnians have become registered Missouri voters, despite a concerted effort over the past few years to sign them up. He estimates that only 4,000 local Bosnian-Americans voted in the Nov. 4 elections.
Still, Imam Serdarevic believes those votes may have been crucial. The largest bloc of area Bosnians now lives in south St. Louis County, the base of St. Louis County executive-elect Steve Stenger, a Democrat.
Stenger defeated Republican Rick Stream by fewer than 1,900 votes countywide. Cogo and the imam say that Stenger made a point of appearing on Bosnian-language radio shows, and his campaign circulated literature in the Bosnian language. Stream, they contended, made no such effort.
Kukic and Crosslin say that most Bosnians are Democratic-leaning, largely because of a sense of gratitude to Bill Clinton for his intervention in Bosnia.
Slay is popular in the Bosnian community, Cogo said. And Kukic praised Alderman Carol Howard, D-14th Ward, who he says has attended the events held since last weekend’s murder.
Still, Cogo says Republicans are missing an opportunity. He says many Bosnian-Americans are conservative and likely more in tune with the GOP on social and economic issues.
But they vote Democratic anyway because “it’s the Democrats who have reached out to us.”
Even so, Kukic says he and other Bosnian businesspeople are fond of former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who helped them a decade ago in assisting the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce in applying for grants.
And some of the current batch of Republicans in Congress may be catching on. Kukic reports a recent telephone call from the office of Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Kukic said he was told to expect the senator to meet with area Bosnian businesspeople later this month.
But that awareness may not extend to Jefferson City. Cogo recounted a recent trip to Jefferson City to meet with various members of the Missouri General Assembly. What struck him the most, he said, was that few even knew that so many Bosnian-Americans lived in the St. Louis area.