ST. LOUIS – 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.
The Bosnia Memory Project, www.fontbonne.edu/bosnia
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