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Catholic college preserves memories of Bosnia in St. Louis, where exiles settled after war

  • a99ab7282b9c3e29450f6a706700a544.jpg

    In this photo made Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, Bakir Avdagic, left, sits down to dinner with his wife, Mirha, top, daughter Selma, 22, and son, Amer, 18, bottom right, at their home in O'Fallon, Mo. The Avdagic family are part of an estimated 60,000 Bosnians who live in the St. Louis metropolitan area, making it the largest such settlement outside the country now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)The Associated Press

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    In this photo made Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, Bakir Avdagic sits in a chair surrounded by art and other memories of his former Yugoslavian homeland inside his current home in O'Fallon, Mo. Avdagic was nearly killed before fleeing war-ravaged Sarajevo about a year after sending the rest of his family to the states and safety. Now his daughter, Selma Avdagic, has taken part in the Bosnian Memory Project at Fontbonne University outside St. Louis to help preserve the stories of the Bosnian exiles like her family. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)The Associated Press

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    In this photo made Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, the Selma Avdagic, 22, works at a computer as her mother Mirha, right, prepares dinner at home their in O'Fallon, Mo. Selma Avdagic was only an infant when her Bosnian family fled Sarajevo two decades ago as war ravaged the former Yugoslovia. In an effort to keep her own story alive for herself and her family, Selma Avdagic has taken part the Bosnian Memory Project, an effort by two American scholars at Fontbonne University in suburban St. Louis to preserve the stories memories of the Bosnian exiles displaced by war. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)The Associated Press

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    In this photo made Monday, Oct. 21, 2013,  Mirha Avdagic, left, talks with her daughter Selma, 22, while cooking dinner at their home in O'Fallon, Mo. Mirha Avdagic was a doctor back home before being forced to leave a war-ravaged former Yugoslavia with her family in the 1990's and worked a succession of low-wage jobs in the St. Louis suburbs until she could obtain a U.S. medical license. Now her daughter, Selma, has has taken part the Bosnian Memory Project, a historical preservation effort at Fontbonne University outside St. Louis, to help keep her family's immigration story alive. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) The Associated Press

Selma Avdagic was only an infant when her Bosnian family fled from Sarajevo to St. Louis two decades ago as war ravaged the former Yugoslavia.

The college student knows her parents' immigration story well. How her mother, a doctor back home, worked a succession of low-wage jobs in the St. Louis suburbs until she could obtain a U.S. medical license. How her father, who remained behind for another year, was nearly killed by a Serbian soldier.

Avdagic thought little of her own story, figuring few people would be interested in the perspective of an American college student with only the faintest of eastern European accents. But then she stumbled upon the Bosnia Memory Project, an effort by two scholars at Fontbonne University, just outside St. Louis, to collect oral histories about the Bosnian war.

"I always thought my story wasn't important, because I got out early, and I grew up here," said Avdagic, a 22-year-old senior at St. Louis University who shared her story as part of the project. "The truth is, my family went through the same struggles, the same battles."

An estimated 70,000 Bosnians live in the metropolitan area, making it the largest such settlement outside the country now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina. The St. Louis settlement initially grew due to U.S. State Department referrals and then increased rapidly through word of mouth.

Fontbonne professor Ben Moore, an expert in 17th-century British literature, teamed up in 2007 with a colleague in the school's history department to create a class on the local Bosnian experience, and the oral history project grew from that. Students assist Moore with interviews.

Most of the Bosnians in St. Louis are Muslim. Many arrived after the war that broke out in the early 1990s when Bosnia joined several republics of former Yugoslavia and declared independence. A Serb minority in Bosnia opposed the move and took up arms in its attempt to carve out parts of the country by expelling and killing non-Serbs, in Europe's worst act of mass killing since the Holocaust. Some 100,000 people were killed in the war.

Moore and his students have recorded nearly 60 interviews in the oral history project but eventually hope to have 1,000 entries. It's a familiar approach, from the Depression-era Federal Writers' Project to the contemporary efforts of StoryCorps, a nonprofit whose mission is to promote "an understanding that every life matters."

He said the project provides a vital historical record for younger Bosnians who grew up in the United States and know little about the country their relatives fled.

"We want to capture these stories for historical preservation."

And in a city with a rich history of previous immigrant influxes, from the Irish and German in the mid-19th century to post-World War II exiles from Hungary, Moore feels an obligation to document Bosnian history and culture.

"I don't want to happen to the Bosnians what's happened to so many other previous immigrants," he said. "Which is, simply, those memories being lost."

It's a sentiment shared by Avdagic's parents. Dr. Mirha Avdagic, 50, said she continues to primarily speak Bosnian when both her children are home. Selma's brother, Amer Avdagic, 18, is a St. Louis University freshman.

"So many people have roots from somewhere, and they don't have a clue," Mirha Avdagic said.

For Selma Avdagic, the oral history she shared with Moore and other researchers over several hours this fall has highlighted her own search for identity. She grew up and attended high school in an outer-ring St. Louis suburb, far from the Bosnian neighborhoods of south St. Louis and south St. Louis County. Summer trips to visit her grandmother and other Bosnian relatives are fleeting, and fraught with what-ifs.

"It's hard for us to fit in," she said, gesturing toward her younger brother during an interview at her parents' St. Charles County home. "Here, we're Bosnian. In Bosnia, we're Americans."

Moore acknowledged that the lengthy interviews have dredged up some unpleasant memories for some, including those who continue to fear for their safety or worry about relatives who remain in Bosnia. Participants can sign confidentiality clauses that require Fontbonne to seal the recordings for 30 years. Among those who have chosen that option, Moore said, is a local woman who spoke under her maiden name because her Croatian husband did not approve of her participation.

At the same time, the interviews can provide catharsis, Moore said.

"I'm not a therapist. And this isn't therapy," he said. "But what happens when we make these recordings, it gives them a place to put it. It allows them to see that something constructive can come from such a difficult experience."

Avdagic said her participation has provided a similar lesson: Remember, but don't live in the past.

"You can't forget, but you can't hold on either," she said.

___

Online:

The Bosnia Memory Project, www.fontbonne.edu/bosnia

___

Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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