Mirhada Jasarevic was a child when she and her family became refugees during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. She became a naturalized US citizen earlier this year, in time for her to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
SOURCE: The Guardian
“I think this is probably one of the most important elections to be a part of,” Jasarevic said. “I came here just like those Syrian refugees are coming here. The same way. With no intention of hurting anybody. Just to get a chance at life. And that’s what makes America so great, and I feel like Donald Trump doesn’t understand that.”
Bosnian Americans in Missouri are expected to turn out in record numbers this November. With recent polls showing that Hillary Clinton and Trump are virtually tied in Missouri, it could be a voting bloc that swings the election.
While never a monolith, Bosnian Americans in St Louis – which is home to an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Bosnian Muslims – have near-universally been put off by Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric and are wary of the Republican candidate’s popularity among Serbian nationalists. If they are mobilized as a bloc to vote against Trump for these reasons, 2016 could mark the national debut of Missouri’s “Bosnian vote”, costing Trump the state’s 10 electoral votes.
“I know for a fact that a lot of people have gone out and registered to vote,” said Nedim Ramic, a Bosnian American attorney in St Louis who has twice met with Clinton during campaign stops in the city. “I think that the Bosnian community could really make a difference.”
Since religion and ethnic background are not recorded as part of the voter registration process, there is no record of how many Bosnian American voters are actually registered in St Louis. Anecdotally, community leaders estimate that voter registration in St Louis’s Bosnian community has surged by the thousands over the past two years.
“Right now I’m expecting to see a higher turnout than before,” said insurance agent Ibro Tucakovic, who came to St Louis from Sarajevo in 1998 and, in 2015,became the first Bosnian American to run for elected office in Missouri. “This election is really, really important, but especially for Bosnian Americans because we have seen what hate speech can do in a country. Some of the older ones are scared, because this is a similar thing going on back in Bosnia in the 1990s before the election.”
St Louis is home to one of the largest populations of Bosnian Muslims in the world outside Bosnia-Herzegovina itself. The community has its origins in the Balkan refugee crisis in the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was ripped apart at its seams, displacing millions. Bosnian refugees were resettled in St Louis by the thousands, and eventually the city became the anchor of the United States’ Bosnian diaspora.
Historically, Missouri has been a swing state, though is often assumed by pundits to be a Republican giveaway. In 2008, Republican John McCain won the state’s electoral votes by a margin of less than 1% – mere thousands of votes. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won the state by 10%, but liberal Democrat Claire McCaskill also kept her seat in the US Senate by more than 15%. The state also has a Democrat governor.
In recent years, Bosnian voters in St Louis have asserted themselves as a potent force in local politics, and politicians – mainly Democrats – have taken notice.
During 2014’s high-profile race for St Louis County executive following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Democratic candidate Steve Stenger – who visited Bosnian mosques and distributed Bosnian-language campaign literature while his Republican opponent did not – won, but by fewer than 2,000 votes. Had Bosnian voters stayed home, he probably would have lost.
Shortly after the election, Bosnians in the city of St Louis (a separate entity from St Louis County) took to the streets themselves as protests continued region-wide after the August 2014 police killing of teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson. Following the brutal murder of Zemir Begic – a Bosnian immigrant visiting St Louis to meet his future in-laws – in the heart of the city’s Bosnian neighborhood that December, hundreds of protesters shut down a main thoroughfare in the city’s south side over the span of two nights, demanding increased police patrols and a voice in local affairs.
Bosnian voters in St Louis, home to a substantial number of Srebrenica widows and survivors, took note of Seselj’s endorsement.
“Some people reacted in a silly manner – ‘monkey see, monkey do’,” Tucakovic quipped. “But some people are actually concerned. You see people like [Seselj] that are supporting Trump, and that’s not a really good sign.”
The political clout of the St Louis Bosnian community has only increased as more Bosnian immigrants like Jasarevic become naturalized citizens, and as the first generation of children born to Bosnian immigrants reaches voting age.
“Just this year, three of the buddies I hang out with have actually become devoted to politics,” said Haris Bihorac, who just turned 18 and plans to vote for the first time in November. “They’re nonstop reading what they can to catch up on the politics. Even myself – before I didn’t really care this much who the president was or anything, but [I do] now that I have a say in it.”