A ‘moment in history’: A St. Louis Bosnian reflects on the Syrian refugee crisis
Nedim Ramic has a powerful personal connection to what he sees happening in the world today in regard to Syrian refugees.
“Being a refugee myself, coming to this country as a refugee and seeing how the Bosnian-American community has flourished and helped the St. Louis region in many ways, it would be a moral crime to go against admitting refugees from Syria into the United States,” said Ramic, now an attorney with Bajric & Ramic Law Office in south St. Louis.
“This is a moment in history that makes you as an individual; that makes you as a nation and allows you to follow those moral guidelines as humans that we’ve got to help other humans. That’s above religion, that’s above everything else.”
"This is a moment in history that makes you as an individual; that makes you as a nation and allows you to follow those moral guidelines as humans that we've got to help other humans."
While very little of what happened during the three-year bloody war that divided Bosnia and Herzegovina 20 years ago is analogous to what is happening in Syria today, the refugee population that the conflict has created there reminds Ramic of his own experience.
On Thursday, he told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh that he believed that most Americans truly wanted to help refugees.
“What we are allowing to creep into our thoughts right now is that fear," Ramic said. "If we allow that to happen, we allow ISIS to win, because that is exactly what they want to have happen to us. Right now is the time for the United States, and individuals and governors that are against it, right now is the time to stand up and say ‘We are not going to be scared, we are going to do what’s right.’ That’s what makes us the best country in the world.”
Ramic came to the St. Louis area in 1999 after he fled to Germany in 1992 with his family and waited two years for U.S. background security screenings to finish. This weekend, he is leading a panel discussion at Fontbonne University called “Living with Dayton.” It is part of a larger event reflecting on the end of the Bosnian War.
Reflecting on 20 years after the end of the Bosnian War
Ben Moore, a professor of English at Fontbonne University and the director of the Bosnia Memory Project, which collects oral histories from Bosnian refugees in St. Louis, is organizing the two day event. It is entitled “Justice Delayed: Bosnia-Herzegovina 20 Years Later” and it is being held in both the English and Bosnian languages.
“There are so many benefits that have been brought to us by the Bosnian population here in St. Louis,” Moore said. “One of the things I’m interested in is how their individual memories can help us establish a historical narrative that’s rooted in the lived experiences of people. One of the things we find is a lot of evidence that’s counter to many assumptions about the war and genocide in Bosnia.”
"We also find remarkable stories about being able to adapt and survive and, indeed, flourish and continue to be lovers of their families and good neighbors despite the kind of horrific things they experienced."
One of those challenged assumptions is the idea that the war in Bosnia took root because of ancient ethnic and religious hatreds in the country.
“The oral histories that recount neighbors in peaceful coexistence among people of different ethnicities demonstrate that is a real misunderstanding,” said Moore. “We also find remarkable stories about being able to adapt and survive and, indeed, flourish and continue to be lovers of their families and good neighbors despite the kind of horrific things they experienced.”
Questioning the Dayton Agreement
The Bosnian War ended when the controversial Dayton Agreement was signed in December of 1995. St. Louis’ population of Bosnian refugees will look back at the legacy of the agreement as well as the Srebrenica genocide during this weekend’s event.
“The good thing about the Dayton Accord is that it ended the war, it has ended the killing,” Ramic said. “However, what it has done, it has frozen in time the ethnic politics that fueled the same war. Twenty years later, you still have those ethnic politics that fueled the war.”
Among other things, Ramic said, the agreement holds in place that you must be Bosnian, Croat or Serb to vote—minorities, such as Jewish or Roma people cannot vote. “How inhumanitarian is that?” questioned Ramic. Part of the panel will address what can be done to change some of those things.
“Most parties agree that the Dayton Agreement is outdated,” Ramic said. “Bosnia cannot function properly. It needs to be amended, it needs to be changed. The question is: how?”
Ron Klutho, the coordinator for the refugee and immigrant program at Places for People, a local non-profit which provides a range of services for people with mental illnesses and trauma, said he works with a lot of Bosnians who survived the massacre at Srebrenica. They are concerned about their families still in Bosnia who are living under such an accord.
What can we learn from Bosnians in regard to the Syrian refugee crisis?
Klutho said that he is getting calls from a lot of the Bosnian people he serves wondering how they can help Syrians who come to St. Louis.
“I think St. Louis has proven to be a welcoming community for the Bosnians and others, Bosnians are not the only refugee group in St. Louis,” Klutho said. “I think most communities have found a welcome here. I hope to welcome some Syrian refugees here over the next couple of years.”
Moore said people can learn a lot from the St. Louis Bosnian community in regard to fears over immigrants’ Islamic faith.
“I am concerned that the horrific things that have been done through ISIS might cause people to hastily judge refugees, and especially refugees that are Muslim,” Moore said. “I think that the example that has been set by the Bosnian community here can go a long way to allaying those judgements. Most, if not all, Bosnians are Muslim in some way. The range of observance is very great here. It is a reminder that many of the stereotypes that arise in the media, or people’s less thoughtful moments, just really don’t apply. The Muslim world is very variegated and integrated into the rest of the world and certainly that’s the case in St. Louis.”
"We ought not to divide the world according to who is Muslim or not, or who is western or not. But instead by the real division that matters here: the division between those people who are extremist in promoting violence and hatred and those who are promoting justice."
Moore said that the common thread between the massacre the Bosnians went through and what we’ve seen inflicted by ISIS in Paris and Beirut, is that civilians who are peaceful are targeted by extremists.
“Whether it is ISIS or perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, it is a reminder that we ought not to divide the world according to who is Muslim or not, or who is western or not,” Moore said. “But instead by the real division that matters here: the division between those people who are extremist in promoting violence and hatred and those who are promoting justice.”
Moore emphasized that the events on Saturday and Sunday are open to anyone in St. Louis to come and learn.
“These are our neighbors, these are events which have touched us here in St. Louis regardless of whether we are Bosnian, because Bosnians have come to live among us,” Moore said.
What: Justice Delayed: Bosnia-Herzegovina 20 Years Later
When: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21-22, 2015 at various times
Where: Jack C. Taylor Library, Fontbonne University, 6800 Wydown Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63105
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.