Being Bosnian-American

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Being Bosnian-American

By Elizabeth Hise Brennan | Tableaux, Summer 2016

Since 2006, Fontbonne University has been home to the Bosnia Memory Project, an endeavor dedicated to establishing an enduring record of the experiences of Bosnian-Americans in the St. Louis area and beyond. What began as a course taught by Fontbonne professors Dr. Ben Moore and Dr. Jack Luzkow has, a decade later, morphed into an internationally recognized effort. Moore has made the project his part-time job and full-time passion, and innumerable individuals and families benefit from the project’s mission.

Over the past two years, the Bosnia Memory Project has inspired others to explore Bosnian-American identity in St. Louis, the largest Bosnian community outside of Bosnia itself, first established after the Bosnian war and genocide between 1992 and 1995. Two new projects, both affiliated with Fontbonne, have recently evolved, and in the midst of a global refugee crisis, their themes of immigration, identity and belonging resonate all over again with new audiences and in new ways. Tableaux takes a look at how a high school class and an original play explore what it means to be Bosnian-American.

Back to School
If you wind your way past the front office, through the halls and down the stairs to the basement of Affton High School, you’ll find Brian Jennings’ classroom, which feels more like your favorite college professor’s office. Jennings, who teaches English and language arts, has papered the walls with student projects, stuffed the shelves with books of all sizes, and lined the defunct chalk rail with VHS tapes.

Here, on Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings of the spring 2016 semester, the Bosnian-American Studies class met. Its mission: Improve students’ critical reading, writing and thinking skills while they study the history and culture of Bosnia and Bosnian-Americans. Students have an option of earning college credit from Fontbonne as well. On this day, they’re exploring the work of writer Ivo Andric. But whether he’s Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian, the class can’t quite determine. And that’s the point of the lesson.

“His parents are Croatian,” explained Jennings, as a student pointed out that yes, Andric’s parents were Croatian, but he himself was actually born in Travnic, part of Bosnia that was occupied by Austria at the time. “But he writes about Bosnia and he lives in Bosnia,” Jennings prompted, encouraging further discussion throughout the room.

This theme of identity permeates the class, which is only in its third semester. Is your identity defined by where you’re born? Where you choose to live? Or is it something you’re allowed to determine? Some of the students are of Bosnian descent and decided to take the class because their parents and grandparents talk — or don’t — about the horrors of the war and genocide in Bosnia. Other students were simply curious about their Bosnian friends and neighbors.

“We have a lot of Bosnian students here. I wanted to get to know where they came from and get a better understanding of their history,” said Lindsey Kierkes, a senior heading to St. Louis Community College – Meremac this fall. “I’m not usually interested in history, but this is more interesting. People are still living this, still telling stories about it.”

Jennings envisioned the class as an opportunity to connect neighbor to neighbor, peer to peer.

“This class validates that the Bosnian-American community is an integral part of St. Louis,” explained Jennings, who began exploring its possibilities after meeting Moore three years ago at a Bosnia Memory Project event featuring Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon. He continued his conversations with Moore, put together a plan, and shopped it around to his principal and superintendent. The class would pull elements from the Bosnia Memory Project, even giving students the opportunity to do their own interviews and contribute to the project’s archives.

“This is a very collaborative project. Every time I’ve reached out, the answer has been yes,” said Jennings, who has significant support from his school and district, and also from members of the greater community. A number of local and international experts have spoken to and worked with his class, including writer Hemon, members of the International War Crimes Tribunal, local restaurateurs, filmmakers and scholars, and representatives from the International Institute.

Perhaps no one appreciates the collaboration quite as much as Moore.

“I consider Brian a full colleague of the Bosnia Memory Project,” he  said. “Without him, this class would not have been as successful or even done at all. He’s an example of what one teacher can do.”

For Moore, connecting people is imperative to his work. The Bosnian- American Studies class serves as another bridge, a connector between the project and the community, as well as between generations.

“The students themselves seek out interviews, bridging the generational divide,” Moore said. “It gives people who do want to talk about their experiences a reason for doing so and affirms the value of who they are and what they’ve experienced.”

The class is also an affirmation for students, who connect to their friends, neighbors and family, but also to their own heritage — their own identity.

“My parents came from Bosnia and are hesitant to talk about the war,” said Malik Mehmedspahic, an Affton High School senior. “This class gives me a larger window into my culture. It helps me understand my family — who they are and where they came from.”

“We must never forget that part of the purpose behind the war and genocide in Bosnia was to destroy not only people, but also memory, culture and dialogue. This production and the people who perform it stand as testament to the power of both community and theatre to transcend hatred and death and find life and love in new places.” —Dr. Ben Moore

The Dance for Life
In South St. Louis, there is a restaurant nestled between South Grand and Chippewa streets, anchored among the rows of small brick homes that characterize the neighborhood. Called Grbic, the restaurant has become a meeting place for the Bosnian community, a place to dine, of course, but also a place to celebrate — a banquet space hosts countless parties, weddings and events each year. It is an anchor for that community, which settled in this area of St. Louis beginning nearly 25 years ago.

For Mustard Seed Theatre’s Deanna Jent and Adam Flores, both professors of theatre at Fontbonne, Grbic is also the starting point for an original new play Jent wrote and Flores directed called “Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life.” There, they first introduced the play’s concept to the Bosnian community. And there, the play itself is set and was performed this spring during opening weekend, with subsequent productions on Fontbonne’s campus taking place on a nearly exact stage reproduction.

“The idea is that this is the beginning of a relationship that we will continue,” Flores said of Mustard Seed’s connection with the St. Louis Bosnian community.

“As we continue to do projects for and with this group, we hope that this will open our eyes to plays that we didn’t even know about,” Jent added. “It becomes an integration.”

Now that Mustard Seed has worked with the Bosnian-Americans of St. Louis, she and Flores want the people and histories they’ve encountered to meld into the very fabric of the theatre company.

“It’s the same way Fontbonne integrates its international students,” said Flores, a 2007 Fontbonne theatre graduate. “They start out as international but eventually, they simply become part of the student body.”

The play originated when Mustard Seed decided to expand the breadth and depth of the stories the company tells. Flores, who earned a master’s degree from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, brought back to St. Louis his experiences with community engaged theatre,a concept through which a theatre company collaborates with a specific community to tell a story. Mustard Seed’s performances already regularly grapple with issues of faith and social justice. Engaging a local community takes this mission a step further.

“What community do we want to focus on and how uniquely positioned are we to tell their story?” Flores recalled asking. The answer was directly in front of them. “All of Ben Moore’s connections with the Bosnia Memory Project made it possible for us to begin to do our work.”

Jent, who is Mustard Seed’s artistic director, and Flores held “story circles” and hosted coffee hours, where Bosnian-Americans could come and talk about their experiences. They pulled from the archives of the Bosnia Memory Project, and they read countless news articles and first-hand accounts of war, immigration, assimilation and experience. And

once the play was written, they also held community auditions, hiring Bosnian-Americans alongside veteran actors for a variety of roles within the production.

“Usually when I write something, I have all of the material beforehand,” said Jent, whose original play, “Falling,” was produced off-Broadway in 2012. “For this project, I didn’t have enough information until the end of December. I needed a script by Jan. 15. This play is truly the spirit of all of the stories we heard.”

One of those stories was that of Arnela Bogdonic, Fontbonne’s residence hall director, born in Slovenia and raised in Detroit. She joined the Fontbonne community in the fall of 2015 and soon became part of the Peace and Justice Committee on campus, where she met Flores. Never before had she acted in a stage play, but when Flores suggested she try it, she took a chance.

“I tell my students to do more than they can,” she said. “I wanted to try something new and help out my buddy Adam.”

As she became more familiar with the play and her own character, Mirsada, she began seeing similarities between the stories featured and her own. When the character of Ariyana faces discrimination because of her father’s religion in the play, Bogdonic likens it to a similar experience that occurred in her own childhood. When the immigrants grapple with their Bosnian-American identity, she understands their struggle.

“Growing up, we never talked about it,” Bogdonic said. “I think my parents wanted to protect us from prejudices. I didn’t fully understand until I was 13 or so, and then it blew my mind — I was essentially a refugee in this country.”

It is this dual identity — heritage in one country, coming-of-age in another — that Jent and Flores explored in the “Dance for Life,” and perhaps more importantly, introduced to wider audiences.

“We must never forget that part of the purpose behind the war and genocide in Bosnia was to destroy not only people, but also memory, culture and dialogue,” wrote Moore as an introduction to the play. “This production and the people who perform it stand as testament to the power of both community and theatre to transcend hatred and death and find life and love in new places.”