ST. LOUIS – Ibro Tucakovic did not expect to win when he entered the race for a local school board seat in January. He filed at the last minute and assembled a miniscule campaign budget – hardly a recipe for success in politics.
But the fact that Tucakovic was running at all was historic. Two decades after the first refugees began fleeing Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the city’s fast-growing Bosnian community had finally produced a candidate for elective office.
“That’s embarrassing to say. We have a really nice community,” said Tucakovic, 37, an insurance agent from Sarajevo who immigrated to St. Louis in 1998. “But we are all really asleep right now.”
The Bosnian population of St. Louis is one of the largest in the world outside the Balkans. Since the police shooting of Michael Brown last summer sparked unrest in nearby Ferguson, Bosnians, too, have begun to rise up in protest against violent crime, spotty police patrols and a lack of representation in state and local offices.
In December, hundreds of people marched in the “Little Bosnia” neighborhood of south St. Louis to protest the murder of Bosnian Zemir Begic, 32, who was brutally beaten by a group of teenagers. In January, community leaders launched a voter registration drive. And earlier this month, a delegation of Bosnians visited the state capitol, where several lawmakers were surprised to learn they represented sizeable numbers of Bosnian voters.
Alija Dzekic, president of the board of the St. Louis Islamic Center, said the community’s lack of visibility in politics is its own fault and is rooted in skepticism towards politicians.
“We had a hard lesson in politics before [we came] here,” he said. “Politics cost a lot of people their lives.”
An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Bosnians live in St. Louis, which became an unlikely haven when Bosnians began fleeing Serbian genocide during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Wide availability of low-cost housing made St. Louis an easy place for aid organizations to resettle thousands of Bosnian refugees. The city’s reputation as home to a growing diaspora quickly spread by word of mouth.
Initially settled in the crime-ridden south side of town, Bosnians set about revitalizing the area. They started businesses, built mosques and wove the fabric of community in places where hope had been shattered.
As they prospered, Bosnians moved across the city line to the middle-class suburbs, but Little Bosnia’s heart remains in south St. Louis. The main thoroughfare in that part of town is lined with a collection of Bosnian, Albanian and Roma-owned restaurants, cafes and businesses. A Bosnian food truck will take to the streets of St. Louis later this year.
The community has erected a minaret outside a bank-turned-mosque, as well as a replica of Sarajevo’s iconic Sebilj fountain, dedicated last year in honor of the 250th anniversary of St. Louis’ founding.
Despite those successes, however, crime in Little Bosnia has persisted. Simmering frustrations boiled over in December with the murder of Begic, who was engaged to be married and had just moved to St. Louis from Iowa before he was killed. Begic was attacked while heading home from a bar when he encountered a group of black and Hispanic teenagers, who then beat him to death with hammers.
The murder intensified already enflamed racial tensions in St. Louis, though police concluded the attack had nothing to do with race. And for some Bosnians, it summoned painful ghosts of the past.
“We moved from Bosnia to escape things like that,” said Samir Halkic, 34, who joined the protest in December when more than 100 Bosnians marched down a main thoroughfare in south St. Louis, demanding increased police presence in their neighborhoods.
As he tried to calm the protesters, St. Louis police Chief Sam Dotson promised increased patrols in Bosnian neighborhoods. “You got my attention,” Dotson said at the time. The march also got the attention of Tucakovic, who cites the protests as the moment he decided to run for his local school board.
“I hope that my actions will encourage someone in the city or county to run for school board or alderman, so we can finally have people active in American political life,” Tucakovic said.
Since then, the number of registered Bosnian-American voters has surged by more than 1,000 people, Cogo said, bringing the total to more than 9,000 – a little less than half of those eligible to vote, he estimates. He hopes to increase that number to 15,000 by the 2016 presidential election, a goal made more attainable because the first American-born children of Bosnian immigrants are now reaching voting age.
The Bosnian vote may already have made a difference. During last year’s election for county executive, Democrat Steve Stenger heavily courted the Bosnian community, visiting mosques, appearing on Bosnian radio and TV shows and distributing Bosnian-language campaign literature.
Stenger even delivered donations for the victims of last year’s floods in northern Bosnia. “Bosnians see that kind of thing,” said Dzemal Bijedic, a Bosnian police chaplain with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Stenger’s outreach may have cost his Republican opponent the election: he won by less than 2,000 votes.
Now Bosnian leaders are trying to extend their influence to Jefferson City, the state capitol. Earlier this monthApril, a small delegation of Bosnian religious, business, and civic leaders, including Cogo and Tucakovic, met with state officials to discuss the community’s history as well as its growing involvement in local politics.
“We are hopeful,” Tucakovic said. “But it will take some time.”
Ryan Schuessler is a freelance writer.