In 1993, the first Bosnian refugees arrived in St. Louis and began to lay the social and economic groundwork for what has become one of the largest Bosnian communities outside of Bosnia. Refugees arrived from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a small southeast European country the size of West Virginia, escaping a war that ended up claiming over 100,000 lives and displacing more than two million from their homes.
Most Bosnians came the U.S. with little to no English, money, and belongings. In St. Louis, most found early work and housing through the International Institute, Catholic Charities, or family or friends that were already living and working in the St. Louis area. After enormous efforts and overcoming a multitude of obstacles, the Bosnians interviewed for this research found better employment, housing, and school access relatively quickly; in many ways, as quickly as local banks, elected officials, schools, and other St. Louisans noticed their presence.
The stories collected for this research sought to understand how interviewees transitioned into new and better work, housing, and educational opportunities. Staged in the context of St. Louis’ own municipalities recognizing the benefits of immigrants and national debates on federal immigration reform, this master’s project peeked into the social and economic transformations of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis since their arrival nearly two decades ago. 16 semi-formal interviews with former Bosnian refugees inquired about experiences of finding new housing, employment, access to credit, and social support from arrival in St. Louis to the present.
An additional 12 interviews heard perspectives from both Bosnian and non-Bosnian community and religious leaders, politicians, and academics who work within the community. Qualitative interviews, although limited in their transferability, are valuable for their integrity and depth. 2013 is an important year to study former Bosnian refugee mobility and integration in St. Louis because it marks not only the twenty-year anniversary of the arrival of the first Bosnians to come to St. Louis from the 1990s war, but it is also a year that will mark a political shift in attention to St. Louis’ foreign born and their contributions to the region.
Similarly, on the national scale, the U.S. Congress is moving towards Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Although there are differences between immigrants and refugees, both face some of the same hurdles to long-term social and economic integration. For this reason, the Bosnian community first resettled nearly two decades ago, provides an instructive model from which advocates, planners, and lawmakers seeking to facilitate refugee and immigrant integration can learn.
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