How Affton High teaches Bosnian American studies to a new generation
Even though Brian Jennings’ Affton High School students weren’t yet born when the Bosnian War ended in 1995, they see the conflict as recent history — especially compared to other conflicts covered throughout K-12 education, like World War II. And that makes the genocide that took place in eastern Europe shocking to them.
“This went on in the ’90s — the ’90s!” remarked Affton senior Grace Grana. “The same time that Tupac was big, and Nirvana, and people were wearing stupid fashion trends and stuff, and all these TV shows. While Americans were living normal lives, Bosnians were struggling to survive.”
Jennings has been teaching a course in Bosnian American Studies at Affton since 2014. He’s seen how it can open students’ eyes. Grana told Jennings that the conflict reminded her of Nazi Germany — and that she was surprised to learn that ethnic cleansing did not end after 1945.
“As hard as it was to hear,” Grana added, “I'm glad I did hear about it, to know what happened.”
For students like Affton senior Hana Prevljak, the conflict is a part of their family history. Prevljak’s parents were born in Bosnia and later came to the U.S., with her mother arriving before her father.
“My mom came to the U.S. in 2001 by herself, which is very unique because they very rarely let women in by themselves,” she told St. Louis on the Air. “I've heard her story a million times in different bits and pieces, but every time I hear it put together is always amazing and heartbreaking — and also hopeful.”
An estimated 15% to 20% of students in Affton are of Bosnian descent — many of them with relatives who came to St. Louis after fleeing genocide.
“The students have a lived experience,” Jennings said. “They're experts, and that becomes part of the class as well.”
For Jennings, reactions like Grana’s — and the attention paid to stories like that of Prevljak’s family — are why he pushed for the creation of a Bosnian American studies course. While Jennings has no personal connection to Bosnia, he was moved to create the class after attending a 2013 symposium organized by the founder of the Bosnian Memory Project, Fontbonne University professor Benjamin Moore.
After that event, Jennings worked closely with what’s now the Center for Bosnian Studies at Fontbonne to create the semester-long class. He also fostered close connections with St. Louis’ Bosnian community.
“It's about the community as a whole, and so it's a new way of seeing how we can educate each other,” he said. “This class has definitely transformed the way that I have taught.”
The course offers conversations with guest speakers like Elvedin Pašić, the 2021 recipient of the Center for Bosnian Studies' Civic Courage Award, and Bosnian refugee Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, the author of “The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival.”
The students also collect oral histories from survivors and descendants of Bosnian refugees for their capstone project. Those recordings are then stored at Fontbonne’s Center for Bosnian Studies.
“Our students are not just learning about history; they're making history,” Jennings said.
He added, “I think too often we underestimate our young people.” Jennings described his students as “being capable and aware of and able to handle these really tough conversations.”
Senior Kenny Paulus interviewed a classmate, someone who was born in the U.S. but was treated as an outsider in America soon after 9/11. “I remember him in kindergarten,” Paulus said. “And it was interesting to hear another side of the story, hear [about his] parents and also to hear about people saying, ‘Go home, you dirty terrorist.’”
In addition to interviewing her mom for the class, Prevljak had her own story recorded, with an interview conducted by Adna Karamehic-Oates, director of the Center for Bosnian Studies. At first, Prevljak felt like she didn’t have a story to tell — she wasn’t alive when her parents fled Bosnia.
“But then you kind of think about it, and you're like, ‘Well, I did kind of live it in a way,’” she said. “You see your parents have these debates and these heated conversations with other family members. … They have experienced extensive trauma that has changed them for the better or for the worse.
“So you learn to listen, and it makes you more empathetic. It makes you stronger,” Prevljak said. “And that is the beauty of our people.”
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