Bosnia, Bevo Mill and Mehlville: where do refugees call home now?

Bevo Mill offered Bosnian refugees cheap housing, vacant buildings and English classes at the International Institute of St. Louis. Now, however, members of the Bosnian community are moving to St. Louis County.

By Alexandria Darmody

After fleeing Bosnia in 1994, Ibrahim Vajzovic and his family moved to their small apartment in Bevo Mill, a neighborhood in South City in St. Louis. On one of the family’s first nights eating dinner in a new country, Vajzovic made a promise to himself: he was going to own a building like this someday. 

Ten years later, he did. He bought the same apartment building his family first lived in on Holly Hills Avenue.

Vajzovic is now an owner of many businesses in the Bevo Mill area and a management professor at Webster University. He’s an example of the upward mobility the Bosnian community—an estimated 70,000 people—has achieved in their past 30 years in the St. Louis region. 

 “As we adapted to the American culture, as we became more comfortable with doing [business] and getting better jobs, our people started buying houses in that area.” Vajzovic said.

With masses of people leaving the area for better schools and larger homes, the area is reported to be losing its Bosnian community to South County. A popular theory in the press points to the uptick in crime in Bevo Mill the past few years. 

“If it bleeds, it leads,” Bevo Mill Alderwoman Carol Howard said. “[The Bosnian community] started leaving before the crime was this bad. It is a consideration when you’re raising a family, but I don’t think it’s the main reason people are moving away.”

Adna Karamehic-Oates studies the Bosnian community in St. Louis and is the Director of the Center of Bosnian Studies. Her research is primarily in the integration of the Bosnian community, which she believes was successful in St. Louis.

“We’ve seen that with the Bosnian community . . . they really got settled quite well,” Karamehic-Oates said. “Once people had established themselves, then they felt comfortable with buying bigger houses. They wanted more. They recognized that they deserved more.”

Karamehic-Oates studies Bosnian immigration and integration in the St. Louis region. She said that Bosnian refugees largely chose to live in Bevo Mill due to applications from local agencies for the neighborhood to be the Bosnian refuge of the U.S. 

Karamehic-Oates said Bevo Mill was the perfect place: cheap housing, vacant buildings and English classes at the International Institute of St. Louis just a few blocks away. The area provided opportunities for Bosnian refugees to have easier housing loans to pay back and locations to kickstart potential businesses. With the older European architecture and construction skills many Bosnians already had, they made it an area full of prospective growth. 

“With any kind of immigrant community, you need to have some kind of business that’s targeted at that immigrant community,” Karamehic-Oates said. “You could set up your own business with people who speak Bosnian . . . as well as stores that bring products from your native country making things more familiar.”

Bosnian coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores and insurance agencies started popping up. Bevo Mill started to feel more like home as neighbors opened shops for traditional foods. Places arose where even people not fluent in English could still smoothly conduct business. The Bosnian community flourished in Bevo Mill. 

“I think they see it as a sort of jumping off point that gave them an opportunity here in America,” Howard said. “They were able to come in, get in with the economy, find work. They made their way.”

To Vajzovic, it felt like a community, too. He remembers the walks he would take to the bank in the mornings, which he says exemplified the close community feel.

“I’d go on foot on purpose just to meet people,” Vajzovic said. “It would take me an hour and a half  to get to the bank, which is like a 17 minute walk. I’d see people, I’d see businesses, I’d have coffee with some people.” 

But with the new prosperity came a realization that Bosnian individuals in St. Louis City could do better. Houses with yards and more space were a large draw, but so were the better schools. St. Louis Public School District  lost accreditation in 2007, only regaining it again in 2017.

“[Bosnian-Americans] are becoming more established by themselves,” Karamehic-Oates said. “It’s not as obviously tightly-knit because the circumstances are different, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The ‘tight-knit’ thing was because they had no choice . . . they’re now not on the verge of losing everything.”

With such a significant loss of population, a fear arose that Bevo Mill would go back to its dilapidated former state. Articles about an increase of crime in the area and the newfound group of Bosnians in South County seemed to display this. 

“The crime may have to do with people leaving,” Howard said. “But what people don’t realize: if you’re living a life not involved with someone that’s dealing drugs or in a bad relationship, you’re probably pretty safe.”

Vajzovic points out a fact about the Bevo Mill neighborhood.

“We still have many events where we still socialize and have that feeling of community,” Vajzovic said. “We still go to those restaurants [in Bevo Mill] . . . we just don’t see as many people in the streets.”

Without the same numbers of Bosnian-Americans living in the Bevo Mill area today, a new community is developing. With the International Institute of St. Louis down the street and various Catholic-run immigrant outreach programs, Bevo Mill is still a popular area to immigrate to in St. Louis, said Howard. With the same cheap housing as 30 years ago and newly vacant buildings, a cycle of new rebuilding is coming. 

“We have younger people moving into the area . . . there’s a constant turnover,” Howard said. “[The Bosnian-Americans] have added value and drawn positive attention to the area.”

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