English language barrier impacts young St. Louis Bosnians

At the age of 12, Faruk Mustafic helped his family refinance it’s home. As the oldest child, Mustafic was the only member of the family who spoke English fluently.

By Emily Craig

Standing in line at the grocery store, young Faruk Mustafic watched his mother thumb through a yellow pocket-sized Bosnian-English dictionary. That book, given to them by immigration services, was essential for navigating their new life in America.

The Mustafic family left their home in Srebrenica, Bosnia, an area recovering from genocide, to start anew in St. Louis in 2001. In the pursuit of their own “American Dream,” they ran into a daunting language barrier.

“We came to the country unexpectedly,” Mustafic said. “We didn’t know the culture or language, and [my parent’s] education didn’t count for anything.”

Mustafic was forced to learn English proficiently. Being the oldest son at 5 years old, he was his family’s translator. He helped decipher bills and bank statements.

During elementary school, he helped his parents refinance their home.

The Mustafic family in Sarajevo, Bosnia; less than a year before their move to St. Louis. Photo contributed by Faruk Mustafic.

In a 2011 study, four St. Louis-area professors found that older Bosnians are more reluctant to seek help learning a new language. Like Mustafic’s parents, they tend to rely on younger community members for translation.

“At the time, I was really frustrated and would try to pressure my parents into learning English,” Mustafic said. “I didn’t realize how difficult it actually is. I wasn’t able to comprehend their situation.”

Mustafic described his childhood as a sort of dual life. He went to school and spoke English with his American friends but came home to the Bosnian lifestyle.

“Being able to see both of those worlds helped me relate to other people,” Mustafic said. “All of our parents in the Bosnian community understood that and pushed for [the culture] to be preserved.”

As the community continued to grow, so did the lack of urgency for Bosnians to learn English. People can easily access information in their native dialect, socialize within their respective communities and work with other Bosnians.

Mustafic poses with his younger brother in St. Louis in 2001. They lived near Webster University, his alma mater. Photo contributed by Faruk Mustafic.

The Bosnian community has become a strong, independent presence in the city.

“I would say it’s possible to live in St. Louis, only speaking Bosnian at this point,” Ron Klutho, a refugee services coordinator at Bilingual International Assistant Services, said. “We’ve got Bosnian doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, you name it.”

Klutho connected with Bosnians during the first refugee influx in the 1990s. Back then, he could not speak Bosnian so he opted for Russian and lots of hand gestures.

“Gradually, I was able to communicate more in Bosnian,” Klutho said. “I’m sure I made a lot of mistakes, but a sense of humor helps a lot.”

According to Mustafic, Klutho played a vital role in the community’s growth, having helped people obtain mosque permits and access to mental health resources. Klutho even made sure Mustafic and his brother had beds to sleep in.

Today he is considered an “honorary Bosnian” and bears the nickname “Amir Amerikanac.”

Before they came to the U.S., the Mustafic family went to Split, Croatia. The education course they took helped prepare them for life in a foreign country. Photo contributed by Faruk Mustafic.

“[Klutho] was instrumental in tying the Bosnian community together,” Mustafic said. “He dedicated so much of his life towards helping us.”

Klutho worked with families in similar situations to the Mustafics’. Parents came to the United States to find new opportunities for themselves and their children. They can not jump back into their profession immediately after arrival.

It takes time to learn English, re-enroll in education programs, and find jobs in the field. Older refugees realize that they may never have the career they did back home.

“Faruk’s mother and father are working hard, physical jobs, and have been for a long time,” Klutho said. “They came here for their kids.”

That hard work paid off when Mustafic graduated from Webster University in May 2020. The day was a testament to their sacrifices.

“My graduation from Webster was a huge thing for [my parents],” Mustafic said. “In a way, it validated all of their reasoning for moving to the U.S.”

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