“Whether you’re from Small Town, U.S.A. or from Bosnia, each of us has a unique cultural identity.”
Ajlina Karamehic-Muratovic, an assistant professor at Saint Louis University, can confidently say she knows what it means to be Bosnian in St. Louis.
“It means having a cultural home that is both American and Bosnian. It gives a home to both my cultural identities,” she explained. “As much as I love each one, I also like the opportunity to step out of each identity.”
Having what Karamehic-Muratovic calls “the best of both worlds” is something that’s unique to St. Louis – and she has it on good authority. Karamehic-Muratovic, who teaches sociology and anthropology, works within the local Bosnian community, most of whom were refugees placed in St. Louis through the government’s resettlement program in the mid-1990s.
“When you’re placed, often you don’t have much say in where that is,” she said. “You come to this new host country, and within months, you need to find a job, a place to live, furniture. You only have a few months to repay the government for your airline ticket. Even though St. Louis has been great, it’s been hard for refugees.”
St. Louis is home to the largest population of Bosnians in the world, outside of Bosnia, but Karamehic-Muratovic said that wasn’t initially a factor in her decision to come here. She came by way of the University of Kentucky, where she studied health communications (her mother is a retired physician), pursuing her master’s in the same field, and finishing in five years.
“I was 22 or 23,” she said. “I had a great mentor at the university, Dr. Philip Palmgreen, who told me I should stay on and get my doctorate in health communications, so I did.”
Six months before she was due to graduate, she was recruited by the School of Public Health at Saint Louis University to do some outreach work.
“One of the first projects I had was Komen-funded, and it was to promote breast cancer education among Bosnian women,” she said. “I also got pulled into other related projects – outreach with Hispanics and African-American women – and while I was doing all this health outreach, there was an elephant in the room: mental health.”
The realization helped guide her to her current field of interest.
“How do you talk to someone who survived a war about a mammogram, when they are dealing with PTSD and depression? There are a lot of mental health consequences connected to relocation, to being a refugee – and with that comes mental health baggage,” she said.
She explained that in many cases, the struggle is different for refugees compared to immigrants.
“Immigrants voluntarily leave their homes. They’ve had time to prepare; they have some kind of a plan in place. Refugees, on the other hand, usually only have a couple of hours to pack up their belongings – like my husband did – when they are forced out. Then you live in limbo for a few months.”
Karamehic-Muratovic’s husband, Murat, came to the U.S. with his immediate family in 1995. The two met in St. Louis in 2005 through one of the projects she was involved with at the time. While both hail from the same part of Bosnia, their journey to America could not be any different.
Karamehic-Muratovic was born in Visoko, a small town about 12 miles from Sarajevo. Her family left Bosnia in 1988 to move to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
“My father was a diplomat. He was sent by the Yugoslavian Trade Center in Serbia to open a branch in Dubai. I was 12, and it felt like the worst thing my father could do to me. I was sorry to leave,” she said.
Her father was contracted to work in Dubai for four years, but lost his job after three years.
“My parents had to make a decision whether to stay,” she explained. “From their standpoint, it was better to stay to help our relatives in Bosnia. They could send them packages; they could send money. They were able to find jobs in their own profession, so they stayed in Dubai for the next 20 years.”
The family was in Dubai when war broke out in Bosnia in 1992.
“I was a teenager, so I did not pay attention. I didn’t understand why it was happening,” she said. “I grew up in what was Yugoslavia, and my friends and I were all the same. We didn’t know there were religious differences. I didn’t know which of my friends were Muslim like me, which ones were Christian, or Orthodox.”
But for Karamehic-Muratovic, the war’s impact hit home in a very painful way.
“I lost my 17-year-old cousin, who was killed in 1995, just weeks before the war ended,” she recalled. “She was one year younger than me. She was coming home from volleyball practice and was killed by a shell that fell and shattered. When I think of war and loss, I think of that the most. It was such a tragedy.”
In the years following the war, much of the displaced Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) community was relocated to St. Louis.
“Little Bosnia – everyone knows that it’s in St. Louis. It’s a hub for Bosnians. Artists, performers, politicians from Bosnia, they always stop in St. Louis. This is the place,” she said. “If you read about Bosnians in St. Louis, they’re hard-working, resilient, friendly, they’re a model of refugee integration. They’re associated with a group that’s made a positive impact in St. Louis.”
But she is quick to add that it’s not always easy for the Bosnian population to find their place in the community – and that’s where the significance of her work comes in.
“I have always said that knowing who you are and what your cultural identity is, is very important. Whether you’re from Small Town, U.S.A. or from Bosnia, each of us has a unique cultural identity,” she said.
And for many Bosnian-Americans and foreign-born Americans, in general, there’s a period of “cultural homelessness,” according to Karamehic-Muratovic.
“It’s a sense of not belonging anywhere culturally. For people like me, when I go to Bosnia, they tell me, ‘You’re American,’ and when I’m here, they say, ‘You’re Bosnian.’ Sometimes this can be stressful for those trying to adjust,” she said.
In her area of mental health expertise, she said it’s actually a good thing to identify with one’s collective identity.
“My kids are encouraged to speak Bosnian, and one of them has a Bosnian babysitter,” she said. “I also make it a point to take them to Bosnia every summer, where they can get a sense of their cultural background and interact with relatives.”
Karamehic-Muratovic said she spent a good amount of her college years in search of her identity until she had a revelation.
“At the University of Kentucky, despite looking like I fit in, I was worried. How was I going to get accepted? How could I get rid of the accent? Then I turned a corner,” she said. “I realized I had an advantage! I began to embrace my cultural identity. I began to embrace the fact that I had an accent. We are so quick to judge people by their appearance, by the color of their skin, but it’s much more than that. It’s about having an identity and knowing who you are – that’s what’s important.”