Elvir Ahmetovic, (right), a survivor of the genocide in Bosnia and direct witness to atrocities in Srebrenica, answers a question from an audience member after a speech at the International Institute on Tuesday, July 7, 2015, with Patrick McCarthy, (left), who wrote a book about the 1995 massacre. The event is the first of three recognizing of the 20-year anniversary of the mass killings. Photo by Christian Gooden.
When Bosnian refugees arrived in St. Louis in the 1990s, their positive effect on neighborhoods was quickly apparent: neglected areas stabilized, new businesses opened and vitality returned to South City blocks.
Less apparent was the fact that the vast majority of these refugees from Bosnia were Muslim. Today, St. Louis is home to an estimated Bosnian community of 50,000, the largest such population outside of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who now worship at one of three mosques they developed.
The conditions that brought so many Bosnians to St. Louis are similar to those faced today by the displaced civilian populations of Syria: indiscriminate bombardment of urban centers and the intentional destruction of a societal infrastructure — including hospitals and schools — that has resulted in the death of thousands and has foreclosed future survival for the rest.
Indeed, many in the Bosnian community in St. Louis are survivors of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, the former United Nations “safe area” in Eastern Bosnia where European Christians slaughtered thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys in just a matter of days.
The United States is a party to international conventions that guarantee rights for refugees and protections for those with a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries based on race, religion, ethnicity and membership in particular social groups.
Thanks to the International Institute, we have a nearly 100-year track record of successful refugee resettlement in St. Louis that has brought the integration of large numbers of immigrants of all backgrounds and faiths into our community.
Rather than detract from the safety and stability of our community, these thousands of new Americans have enhanced and improved the civic life of St. Louis.
Muslim Bosnian-Americans are now our valued neighbors and co-workers. Within the Bosnian community, we have attorneys, physicians, engineers, educators, business owners and police officers on whom we depend for our collective well-being and safety.
No one disputes the need for proper vetting of refugees for security purposes in order to prevent a terrorist attack that might come from an individual posing as refugee. In reality, this would be a very inefficient path for a would-be terrorist because of multiple layers of screening that take years to complete.
These checks are performed by the FBI, the Department of Defense, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been resettled to the U.S., no terrorist has come from the ranks of refugees subjected to this existing screening process.
We are a nation of immigrants. Except those descended from Native Americans, our ancestors all came here from somewhere else for a new beginning. My own roots are Irish, German and Dutch. My wife is the daughter of an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia. My son is married to a woman whose parents are from Central and South America. We are, in other words, a typical American family.
Since last summer, my daughter has spent her off hours assisting a family of Muslim refugees from Syria as they make a new home in the United States, just as I helped welcome Bosnian refugees to St. Louis in the 1990s.
Regardless of the current political climate, we must reject exaggerated fears of those in need who are not like us and instead lend a helping hand to them. By doing so, we can not only continue to look at ourselves in the mirror, but also into the faces of today’s refugees and see ourselves.
Patrick McCarthy is the co-author of “Ethnic St. Louis” and “After the Fall: Srebrenica Survivors in St. Louis.” He is associate university librarian at St. Louis University.
By Patrick McCarthy