Bosnian Americans

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Author: Olivia Miller
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
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Bosnian Americans

Olivia Miller


Bosnian Americans are immigrants from or descendants of people from Bosnia-Herzegovina, a republic of the former Yugoslavia, which is located on the Balkan Peninsula in Eastern Europe. Bosnia-Herzegovina is bordered to the north and west by Croatia, to the east by Serbia, and to the south by Montenegro and the Adriatic Sea. The northern portion of the country, Bosnia, is mountainous and wooded, whereas Herzegovina, to the south, is primarily flatland. The republic has a land area of 19,741 square miles (51,129 square kilometers), slightly less than that of West Virginia.

In 2012 the CIA World Factbook estimated the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina to be nearly 3.9 million people. This figure was significantly lower than that of the 1991 census—the last census performed—which listed 4.3 million. During the Bosnian War (1992–1995), the country was devastated by ethnic cleansing and brutal warfare between Bosnian Serbs and non-Serbs. The population includes Catholic Bosnian Croats (15 percent), Eastern Orthodox Bosnian Serbs (31 percent), and Bosnian Muslims, also known as Bosniaks (48 percent), whose ancestors converted from Christianity under the Ottoman Empire centuries ago. Some historians have pointed out that the residents of Bosnia are ethnically similar but have chosen to identify as Croats or Serbs primarily for religious or political reasons. Since the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina has achieved a tenuous peace. The twenty-first century has been marked by modest economic gains due to relatively lax trade restrictions and growing exports of metals and wood products. Nevertheless, political infighting and religious tensions continue to pose major challenges to the future of the country.

Serb immigrants began to arrive in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century and helped settle the American west, working in fishing or shipping in cities such as San Francisco, New Orleans, and Galveston, Texas. Bosnian Muslims also settled in the Midwest in the early 1900s, helping to establish some of the first Muslim communities in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. For most of the twentieth century, accurate immigration figures for Bosnians were impossible to obtain. Until 1918 the U.S. Immigration Service counted Croatians from Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina separately from other Croatians, who were classified as Slovenians. From 1918 through 1992, when Congress voted to recognize Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent nation and began admitting Bosnian refugees, Croatians were listed as Yugoslavs. Since 1993 the United States has admitted more than 300,000 refugees and immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina, though many have returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina as conditions in the region have improved.

According to 2009–2011 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the number of U.S. residents who were born in Bosnia is 119,187, roughly equivalent to the population of Charleston, South Carolina. The U.S. Census Bureau has not tracked statistics for Americans with Bosnian heritage; the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina suggests that the number may be around 350,000. Cities with the greatest concentration of Bosnian Americans include New York, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco.


Early History In the first few centuries CE, the Roman Empire controlled Bosnia. After the empire disintegrated, various powers sought control of the land. Slavs were living in Bosnia by the seventh century, and by the tenth century they had an independent state. In the ninth century the two kingdoms of Serbia and Croatia were established.

Bosnia briefly lost its independence to Hungary in the twelfth century but regained it around 1180. It prospered and expanded under three especially powerful rulers: Ban Kulin, who reigned from 1180 to 1204; Ban Stephen Kotromanic, who ruled from 1322 to 1353; and King Stephen Tvrtko, who reigned from 1353 to 1391. After Tvrtko's death, internal struggles weakened the nation. The neighboring Ottoman Turks were becoming increasingly aggressive, and they conquered Bosnia in 1463. For more than four hundred years, Bosnia was an important province of the Ottoman Empire. Islam was the official religion, though non-Muslim faiths were tolerated. Indeed, in the Ottoman era, many Jews came from Spain, where they faced persecution or death at the hands of the Catholic Inquisition, and found a tolerant home in Bosnia.

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By the nineteenth century, however, many Bosnians had become dissatisfied with Ottoman rule. Clashes between peasants and landowners were frequent, and there was tension between Christians and Muslims. Foreign powers became interested in the region. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, following the end of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Austria-Hungary took over the administration of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many Bosnian Muslims, who thought the new rulers favored Serbian interests, emigrated to Turkey and other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

The Austro-Hungarian government formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. Nationalists in Serbia, who had hoped to make Bosnia-Herzegovina part of a great Serb nation, were outraged. In 1914 in Sarajevo a Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and precipitated World War I (1914–1918). At the end of the war came the creation of the South Slav state, which together with Serbia became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Bosnia's Muslim Slavs were urged to register themselves as Serbs or Croats. In 1941 Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Yugoslavia. The Nazis set up a puppet Croatian state, incorporating all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but persecuted and killed Serbs, Gypsies, and Jews, as well as Croats who opposed the regime. Yugoslav communist Josip Broz Tito led a multiethnic force against Germany, and at the end of World War II, he became premier of Yugoslavia. Under Tito's rule, Yugoslavia was a one-party dictatorship that restricted religious practice for thirty-five years.

Modern Era After Tito's death in 1980, the presidents of the six republics and two autonomous regions ruled Yugoslavia by committee, which led to political instability and fragmentation, as well as a weakened economy that persisted throughout the 1980s. This institutional and economic weakness helped create a rise in nationalism during the 1980s among Yugoslavia's component republics. The Muslim-led government of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992. The following month, the United States and the European community recognized the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Interethnic fighting began when the Yugoslav National Army, under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, attacked Sarajevo. Milosevic, the leader of Serbia, sought to unite all Serbian lands and to purge the regions of non-Serb populations. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims fought to expand or keep their territories within Bosnia. By mid-1995 most of the country was in the hands of Bosnian Serbs who were accused of conducting “ethnic cleansing”—the systematic killing or expulsion of other ethnic groups—which resulted in the deaths of around 200,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million more. In December 1995 the war was officially ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement, which stipulated that Yugoslavia recognize and respect the newly independent countries of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as sovereign nations. At that time, more than one million Bosnians remained displaced within the borders of the republic. At least one million more were living as refugees in twenty-five other countries, primarily in the neighboring Yugoslavia and its former republics but also throughout western Europe.

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United Nations maintained a peacekeeping force of 60,000 troops and arbitrated disputes in Bosnia. The European Union assumed these duties in 2004 with a contingent of 7,000 troops, which was reduced to 2,500 in 2007. The international community also sought to bring the Serbian leaders responsible for the atrocities in Bosnia to trial for war crimes. Milosevic was arrested in October 2000 and eventually underwent a four-year trial at The Hague in the Netherlands before dying in his cell in 2006. A total of 160 other political and military leaders, including Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadžić and top general Ratko Mladić, were indicted and subsequently arrested under the auspices of the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. As of 2012 many of these trials were still ongoing, but the sight of such reviled figures in shackles helped many Bosnian refugees achieve a small sense of closure to a devastating period of destruction and upheaval.


There were six waves of Serbian/Croatian immigration to the United States. The earliest occurred from 1820 to 1880. The largest wave of Yugoslav immigrants took place from 1880 to 1914, when approximately 100,000 Serbs arrived in the United States. Most were unskilled laborers who fled the Austro-Hungarian policies of forced assimilation. Croatian and Serbian immigrants were largely young, impoverished peasant men. In the United States they settled in the major industrial cities of the East and Midwest, working long hours at low-paying jobs, like other industrial laborers of the era.

The third wave happened between World War I and World War II. From 1921 to 1930, 49,064 immigrants arrived in the United States from Yugoslavia. These interwar years were times of Serbian nationalist fervor. The Yugoslav regime became increasingly dictatorial, ruling provinces through military governors. Immigrants sought freedom from ethnic oppression by coming to the United States. The number of immigrants dropped to 5,835 in the decade from 1931 to 1941, and then decreased to 1,576 in 1941, when Germany took control of Yugoslavia. Immigration was further reduced during the postwar years when the Communist Party under Tito took over the country and restricted emigration. The fourth wave was made up of displaced persons and war refugees from 1945 until 1965.

The fifth major surge began in the 1960s, when 20,381 Yugoslavians immigrated, a surge that

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continued into the next decade with 30,540 more immigrants. During the years of Tito's rule, Yugoslavia received economic and diplomatic support from the United States, which aimed to use the anti-Soviet Tito to stem the spread of Soviet-style communism. In the 1970s U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger stated that the United States would risk nuclear war on Yugoslavia's behalf. From 1981 to 1990, 19,200 Yugoslavians immigrated to the United States. These Croatian and Serbian immigrants were intellectuals, artists, and professionals who adapted easily to life in the United States.

The sixth wave came as a response to disintegrating political stability after Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992. These immigrants were primarily Muslims who had been pushed out by Serbs fighting to create a Serb-only region. From 1991 to 1994, 11,500 immigrated. The number fell to 8,300 in 1995, then rose to 11,900 in 1996. In 1994, with the U.S. Census records listing Bosnians as a separate category, 337 refugees were granted permanent residence. An additional 3,818 refugees were granted permanent residency in 1995 and 6,246 more in 1996. From 2001 to 2009, another 88,000 Bosnians received permanent resident status. Bosnian refugees settled into communities all over the United States, with the highest concentration in the Midwest. Most received help from charitable organizations as well as aid from the immigrants who preceded them.

Most Bosnian immigrants have settled quickly into long-established ethnic enclaves. Bosnian Serbs tend to settle with other Serbs and Bosnian Croats in local Croatian communities. Until the war in the 1990s, Bosnian Muslim immigrants had been so few in number that there was no Bosnian Muslim community into which they could integrate. They concentrated in urban areas, some of which now have significant Bosnian Muslim populations. In the Astoria section of New York City, for instance, Bosnian Muslims built a mosque that was dedicated in 1997.

Of the 258,000 Americans of Yugoslavian ancestry living in the United States in 1990, 37 percent lived in the West, 23 percent lived in the Northeast, 28 percent lived in the Midwest, and 12 percent lived in the South. Cities with large Yugoslavian American populations included Chicago, New York, Newark, Detroit, St. Louis, Des Moines, Atlanta, Houston, Miami, and Jacksonville. According to the 1990 Census, the highest concentration of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims lived in a neighborhood near 185th Street in eastern Cleveland. After 1992, Bosnian Americans who came as refugees began to settle increasingly in fast-growing enclaves in cities such as New York, St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. In St. Louis, for example, the Bosnian population had been smaller than 1,000 in the early 1990s, but by 2011 it had reached 70,000; of these a great majority are Bosniaks (Muslims).

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About 15,000 Bosnian refugees settled in the Queens borough of New York City in the mid-1990s, though that number has since been cut in half, with a number of refugees moving elsewhere or returning to Bosnia. As is true of other immigrant populations, Bosnian refugees in the United States are especially attracted to established ethnic communities because many refugees are separated from immediate family members. It often takes several years to reunite families, so the Bosnian community provides needed social support.


The official language of Bosnia-Herzegovina is Bosnian, also called Serbo-Croatian. The language goes by different names because of the country's ethnic differences and rivalries. People in the Muslim-controlled sector call it Bosnian, whereas those in Croat areas call it Croatian, and those in Serb areas refer to it as Serbian.

Bosnian belongs to the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family and more specifically to the group of South Slavic languages, which includes Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Slovenian. A few Bosnian words are recognizably related to English. The Bosnian word sin means “son,” and Bosnian sestra means “sister.” Bosnian has many borrowed words from other European languages, including English, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian.

Bosnian is written in either the Cyrillic or the Latin alphabet. Its letters are generally pronounced as they are in English, with certain exceptions. The letter c is pronounced “ts”; the letter ć is pronounced similarly to “tch” but with a thinner sound, more like the thickened “t” in “future”; č is pronounced “tch” as in “match”; dj is pronounced roughly like “j” in “jam”; j is pronounced “y,” as in “Yugoslavia”; s is pronounced “sh”; and z is pronounced “zh” as in “Zhivago.”

Bosnian Americans generally have little difficulty pronouncing English, although the “th” and “w” sounds may give some trouble. They may also find some English verbs hard to understand. Bosnian uses fewer auxiliary verbs, such as “be” and “do,” than English, and Bosnian speakers may be puzzled by questions in English, in which the auxiliary verb comes before the subject, as in “Did you eat?”

Greetings and Popular Expressions During the war, one of the most frequently asked questions was “Sta je tvoje ime?” (pronounced stah-yeah-tVOya), which means “what is your name?” in Bosnian; name was a major clue to ethnicity.


Many Bosnians treat their religion the same way as many Americans do, as something restricted to weekly church attendance and major religious holidays. The Yugoslav government discouraged religious fundamentalism, as did the religious community itself, reflecting

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Iver ne pada daleko od klade.

A splinter doesn't land far from the trunk.

Tko drugome jamu kopa sam u nju pada.

Whoever digs a trap for others ends up in it himself.

Uzdaj se u se i u svoje kljuse!

Trust yourself and your horse!

years of accommodation between religion and the communist state. Religious affiliation in Yugoslavia, however, was closely linked with the politics of nationality. Centuries-old animosities among the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, the Roman Catholic Croats, and the Bosnian Muslims remained a divisive factor in the 1990s and 2000s, though the basis was more economic power than religious fervor. There also was lingering resentment over forced conversions of Orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism by ultranationalist Croatian priests during World War II.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 122 Serbian Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada with a total membership of around 69,000. Serbian Orthodox churches serve as a social center as well as a place of worship. Serbian Bosnian Americans celebrate a family's religious anniversary, the krsna slava (“christening celebration”), each year. Slava, as it is commonly called, commemorates the conversion of the family's ancestors to Christianity in the ninth century, and on this day families feast and receive the visit of a priest. Bosnian Serbs also celebrate Easter with feasting and special ceremonies.


Bosnia-Herzegovina's population comprises three main groups: Serbs, who are Eastern Orthodox; Croats, who are Catholic; and Muslims (or Bosniaks). Each group has its distinct beliefs, traditions, and customs. Bosnian American communities have informal networks of communication such as places of worship, which provide a gathering spot for religious activities as well as weddings, baptisms (for Croats and Serbs), and funerals.

Like many immigrant groups, especially refugees, Bosnian refugees face many challenges in the United States. They must start over, learning a new language, new customs, and new skills. One Bosnian American refugee described this adjustment to the St. Petersburg Times as “in some ways like being a blind man who wants to take care of himself but is powerless to do so.” Because their immigration was not necessarily Page 335  |  Top of Articleby choice, they often find the experience more overwhelming in comparison to immigrants who were eager to come to the United States. Learning English is the first step that Bosnians take once they reach the United States, though many Bosnians speak several European languages, especially German, as many Bosnians took refuge in Germany during the war and learned the language. Established Bosnian communities offer services such as English-language classes; computer training classes; no-cost legal aid; and instruction on understanding health insurance, buying a home, and managing other complicated aspects of American life. Established communities also usually provide a place for worship.

In the 2000s more than one million Bosnian refugees remained in the United States even though the war ended in 1995. Many cannot return to Bosnia because the boundaries of territories have changed and their homes are in a divided country. Although they are usually forced to take lower status jobs to make ends meet, Bosnian Americans often seek higher education and better employment opportunities, as most Americans do. Many also Americanize their names, which are difficult for Americans to pronounce. Earlier immigrants often discovered with surprise that immigration officials had Americanized their names on the documents that admitted them to the country.

A number of Bosnian American organizations have encouraged cultural crossover through public festivals and gatherings celebrating Bosnian and Herzegovinian heritage. In Salt Lake City, home to more than 5,000 Bosnian immigrants, an annual Living Traditions Festival includes Bosnian dance and music performances by the American Bosnian and Herzegovinian Association of Utah. Likewise, since 2003 the United Bosnian Association and the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce in St. Louis have held an annual Bosnian Day/Bosanski Festival featuring Bosnian cuisine, music, and folk dancing.

Cuisine The cuisine of Bosnia reflects influences from central Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. One popular traditional dish is cevapcici (kabobs), which are made from ground beef and spices that are shaped into little cylinders, cooked on an open fire, and served on somun, a thick pita bread, along with grilled onions. Another meat dish is pljeskavica, a patty made with a mixture of ground meat (lamb, beef, or pork). Bosanski lonac is a slow-roasted mixture of layers of meat and vegetables eaten with chunks of brown bread. It is usually served in a vaselike ceramic pot. Serbian meat and fish dishes are typically cooked first and then braised with vegetables such as tomatoes and green peppers. A condiment called ajvar, made from red bell peppers and garlic, often accompanies meat and bread dishes.

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences are evident in aschinicas (pronounced ash-chee-nee-tsa-as), restaurants offering various kinds of cooked meat, filled vegetables called dolmas, kabobs, and salads, with Greek baklava for dessert. The filling for dolmas most often consists of ground meat, rice, spices, and various kinds of chopped vegetables. Containers can be hollowed-out peppers, potatoes, or onions. Some dolmas

In Clearwater, Florida, Mija Kazazic, who lost part of her leg in the Yugoslavian War, and Winter the dolphin, who lost his tail in a fishing accident, swim together. Both Kazazic and Winter have prosthetic limbs.

In Clearwater, Florida, Mija Kazazic, who lost part of her leg in the Yugoslavian War, and Winter the dolphin, who lost his tail in a fishing accident, swim together. Both Kazazic and Winter have prosthetic limbs. BARRY BLAND / BARCROFT MEDIA / GETTY IMAGES

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A young Bosnian immigrant makes Bosnian pita, which is a phyllo pastry filled with either ground beef, cheese, potatoes, or spinach and cheese.

A young Bosnian immigrant makes Bosnian pita, which is a phyllo pastry filled with either ground beef, cheese, potatoes, or spinach and cheese. BARRY CHIN / THE BOSTON GLOBE / GETTY IMAGES

are made from cabbage leaves, grape leaves, kale, or some other leaf large enough and softened enough by cooking that it can be wrapped around the little ball made of the filling. When enough pieces are made, they are stacked in a tureen that is then covered with its own lid or with a piece of parchment tightly tied around its neck. The dish is then cooked slowly on a low, covered fire.

Pita, pastry filled with meat or vegetables, is another distinctive Bosnian dish. In other parts of the former Yugoslavia, pitas that are meat-filled are called burek. Pita meat pie is often the final course of a meal or is served as a light supper on its own.

Orthodox Bosnians and Bosnian Americans include special dishes in their Easter celebrations. In Orthodox tradition, after the midnight service, the congregation walks around the church seven times carrying candles, then goes home to a supper that includes hardboiled eggs that have been dyed and decorated, and pasca, a round, sweet yeast cake filled with either sour cream or cottage cheese.

Homemade brandy, known as rakija in the former Yugoslavia but exported to the United States as slivovitz (plum brandy) or loza (grape brandy or grapa), is the liquor of choice for men on most occasions. Women may opt instead for fruit juice. Other popular nonalcoholic beverages include Turkish-style coffee (kahva, kafa, or kava), a thin yogurt drink called kefir, and a tea known as salep.

Bosnian Americans have successfully incorporated much of their native cuisine into their diet and have introduced a number of traditional foods to the rest of the population in areas with high concentrations of Bosnian immigrants. Although Bosnian Americans, particularly younger generations, are typically eager to assimilate and often give foods more familiar-sounding names in restaurants—calling lepinja, a puffy flatbread, “white bread,” for example—entrées such as dolmas; lamb, beef, or veal kabobs; cevapcici with ajvar; pljeskavica; and smoked sausages known as suho meso have become popular throughout the Midwest, along with Bosnian coffees and desserts such as baklava.

Traditional Dress For centuries Bosnia was well known for having the widest variety of folk costumes of any region of the former Yugoslavia. Today these outfits serve as stage costumes rather than street wear. Traditionally, older men wore breeches, a cummerbund, a striped shirt, a vest, and even a fez, a felt hat that was usually red. These garments were often colorful and richly embroidered. The typical women's costume was a fine linen blouse embroidered with floral or folk motifs worn under a vest called a jelek that was cut low under the breast and made of velvet, Page 337  |  Top of Articleembroidered with silver or gold thread. A colorful skirt was covered by an apron and worn on top of a white linen petticoat that showed beneath the skirt. The baggy trousers worn by women, called dimije, spread to all three ethnic groups as a folk costume, though each group wore different colors as specified by the Ottoman Empire. Dimije were rare on the streets of cities before World War II, but they were common in rural districts and among the older women within the cities. Traditional fashion lore dictated that you could tell how high in the mountains a woman's village was by how high on the ankles she tied her dimije to keep the hems out of the snow.

The devout Muslim women of Bosnia have not traditionally worn the chador familiar in fundamentalist Muslim countries. The chador is a garment that covers women from head to toe. Bosnian Muslim women instead wear hijabs (head scarves) and rain-coats as symbolic substitutes for the chador, particularly on religious holidays.

Most Bosnian Americans have adopted the typical American style of dress. Because Bosnians typically view their religion more as a cultural or political identifier, many Bosnian American Muslim women no longer wear a hijab in public.

Music and Dance Music and dance reflect Bosnia's great diversity. During the years of Tito's rule, Bosnian amateur folklore groups, called cultural art societies, flourished throughout the region. They were required to perform the folk music and dances of all three major ethnic groups. Some such troupes also performed contemporary plays, modern dance, choral works, and ballet.

Bosnian music can be divided into rural and urban traditions. The rural tradition is characterized by such musical styles as ravne pjesme (flat song) of limited scale; ganga, an almost shouted polyphonic style, and other types of songs that may be accompanied on the shargija (a simple long-necked lute), the wooden flute, or the diple (a droneless bagpipe). The urban is more in the Turkish style, with its melismatic singing—more than one note per syllable—and accompaniment on the saz, a larger and more elaborate version of the shargija. Epic poems, an ancient tradition, are still sung to the sound of the gusle, a single-string bowed fiddle. Although Bosnia's Jewish population was decimated by World War II, its influence remains apparent in folk songs sung in Ladino, a dialect descended from fifteenth-century Spanish.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the influence of Western pop music and of new native pop music in a folkish style, played on the accordion, became apparent. For instance, pop singer Dino Merlin (Edin Dervišhalidović) incorporates elements of Western dance and pop music into his songs and has become extremely popular among Bosnians around the globe, touring the United States in 2009 to the delight of many Bosnian immigrants. But modern influences have not displaced sevdalinka. With a name derived from the Turkish word sevda (love), sevdalinka songs have been the dominant form of music in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and have served as a source of comfort for displaced Bosnians everywhere. Incorporating both Western and Eastern elements, these deeply emotional songs speak metaphorically and symbolically of love won and lost, much like American country western music. Sevdah North America, located in Seattle, Washington, encourages Bosnian Americans to maintain an emotional connection to their home country through the lyrics and melodies of sevdalinka and hosts an annual “Evening of Sevdah” concert to provide all members of the local community with an opportunity to experience one of the most popular forms of Bosnian music.

In the 2000s more than one million Bosnian refugees remained in the United States even though the war ended in 1995. Many cannot return to Bosnia because the boundaries of territories have changed and their homes are in a divided country.

Bosnia has one of the richest yet least known of all the regional folk dance traditions of the former Yugoslavia. Dances range from the nijemo kolo, accompanied only by the sound of stamping feet and the clash of silver ornaments on the women's aprons, to line dances in which the sexes are segregated as they are in the Middle East, to Croatian and Serbian dances similar to those performed across the borders in their native regions. A number of dance groups in America, such as Iowa's K.U.D. Kolo dance troupe, perform traditional Bosnian and Herzegovinian dances at festivals, concerts, and other cultural events. Many such groups are open to enrollment from elementary and high school students, thereby fostering new generations of Bosnian Americans with knowledge of and appreciation for their cultural heritage.

In the United States, Bosnian Serbs' culture is centered on music. Choirs and tamburica orchestras have been a part of local communities since 1901, when the Gorski Vijenac (Mountain Wreath) choir of Pittsburgh was founded. The tamburica is a South Slavic stringed instrument similar to a mandolin. It exists in five different sizes and musical ranges. The Bosnian community in St. Louis holds an annual Tamburitza Extravaganza Festival where as many as twenty bands from all over the country perform. In Pittsburgh, the Duquesne University Tamburitzans, a dance troupe whose members are all Duquesne students, was founded in the 1930s. The group not only trains new performers but also maintains a cultural center at the university.

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Sviraj (pronounced svee-rye, with a rolled r) is a popular group of ethnic Balkan musicians who preserve their heritage through performances that celebrate the music of eastern Europe. Sviraj means “Play on!” in Serbian and Croatian. The music has its roots in Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Romania.

Holidays Bosnian Americans observe the holidays of their individual religions. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which is thirteen days behind the Gregorian one commonly used in the West. Serb Bosnian Americans follow this calendar for holidays. For example, Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7 rather than December 25. Eastern Orthodox Christian families also celebrate the Slava, or saint's name day, of each member of the family. Muslim Bosnian Americans follow Islam's holidays and calendar, including Ramadan, the month of ritual fasting. At the end of Ramadan, a period called Bajram, they exchange visits and small gifts during the three days. Croat Bosnian Americans observe Catholic holidays.


In most Bosnian American families, both husband and wife work outside the home, but the wife still has the primary responsibility for housework and cooking. In Bosnia the effects of the wars of the twentieth century and migration away from rural areas after World War II have resulted in fewer extended families living together. However, Bosnian Americans tend to live with extended family members, though this is likely to end as Bosnians acclimate to American culture and become more financially successful. Bosniaks tend to have fewer relative connections already living in the United States because prior to 1992 there were few Muslim immigrants. Polygamy as a Muslim custom last existed in Bosnia in the early 1950s, and then only in one isolated region of the country, Cazinska Krajina. Most Bosnian marriages follow the modern custom of love matches, and arranged marriage between families has largely disappeared. In recent decades, about a third of all urban marriages in Bosnia have been between partners from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Family size has been decreasing as education and prosperity have increased.

Gender Roles Traditionally, women played subservient roles in Yugoslavia's patriarchal families, especially in the country's remote mountainous regions. In the interwar period, laws codified women's subservient status. Industrialization and urbanization in the communist era changed traditional family patterns. This trend was most pronounced in the more developed northern and western urban areas. The number of women employed outside the home rose from 396,463 in 1948 to 2.4 million in 1985. As women began working away from home, they became more independent. In the 1980s the percentage of women in low-level political and management positions was equal to that of men, but this was not the case for upper management positions.

Many Bosnian American women refugees have lost everything and have become the heads of households for the first time. They face the challenge of rebuilding their lives in a new country and adapting to a new culture and language while providing food, shelter, and education for themselves and their surviving relatives. Many were financially dependent on their spouses before the war and consequently have no marketable skills or entrepreneurial experience. By 2011, however, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimate for 2009–2011 indicated that among Bosnian-born U.S. residents, a greater percentage of women (19.6 percent) than men (15.8 percent) were working in management, business, science, or arts occupations, a gender balance similar to that of the total U.S. population (33 percent of males and 39 percent of females work in these professions).

Education The literacy rate in Bosnia was 92 percent prior to the civil war that began in 1992. Education through the eighth grade was compulsory for both boys and girls, after which a student could opt for either a vocational trade school or a more academically oriented route. There were university faculties in the larger cities, along with a community college-type option called “workers' universities.”

The first wave of Bosnian immigrants and refugees to arrive in the 1990s found it difficult to succeed in American schools due to the language barrier, poor economic situations in the cities in which they settled, and a lack of supportive organizations that could address some of the problems they faced. Many of these young immigrants left school to pursue jobs that would support their families, which often lacked a primary breadwinner due to the devastation caused by the war. However, younger Bosnian Americans have fared increasingly well as students, garnering undergraduate and advanced degrees often with the help of various cultural organizations. Still, there remains some concern that educated Bosnian Americans are leaving their communities for wealthier communities elsewhere, leaving less educated Bosnian Americans without strong role models to encourage them to remain in school.

Courtship and Weddings In 1992, when the war started in Bosnia, approximately 40 percent of the registered marriages in urban centers were between ethnically mixed Bosnians. Bosnian American wedding ceremonies often reflect this mix, including traditions from both ethnic groups involved and often eschewing the traditional customs of their religions for a more secular approach. The bride usually wears white and is attended by bridesmaids. Men wear suits, Page 339  |  Top of Articlesometimes accompanied by capes. There are many flowers, and there is much drinking and dancing. The food includes Bosnian biscuits, a coffee-cake-like bread with walnuts, raisins, and chocolate.

An Islamic tradition of giving handwoven carpets (kilims) and knotted rugs as wedding gifts lasted for centuries. The custom of giving a personally woven dowry rug, with the couple's initials and date of marriage, disappeared only in the 1990s. Bosnian Americans do, however, typically adhere to the tradition of the groom and his family providing gifts for the bride as a kind of symbolic dowry.

A traditional dance called kolo, in which participants join hands and form a line that winds its way around the dance floor, is commonly performed at Bosnian American weddings. Sevdah music is usually played, and traditional foods such as pita are typically served, but in many other aspects Bosnian American wedding ceremonies resemble the typical American-style wedding.

Relations with Other Americans It is important to understand that the contributing basis of hostility among twentieth-century Bosnians has largely been due to economic reasons, not religious ones. As all three groups became more secular, religious-based conflict actually diminished. But economically and politically, Bosnian Muslim landowners were resented by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Christian Serbs. American Bosnians do not face the same political pressures, so the different ethnic communities coexist relatively peacefully in American cities. Bosnian Americans often marry across ethnic lines, which gives them a powerful reason to stay in the United States. If people in a mixed marriage return to Bosnia, they are not usually accepted by either person's ethnic group.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many Bosniaks were faced with increased suspicion from other Americans, who associated all followers of Islam with Muslim extremism and terrorism. In 2007 an eighteen-year-old Bosnian Muslim refugee, Sulejman Talović, went on a shooting spree at Trolley Square Mall in Salt Lake City, Utah, killing five people and reigniting fears concerning Bosniaks and terrorism. Subsequently, many Bosnian Americans were forced to either hide their religious affiliation or to speak out against violence despite the fact that Talović was not motivated by religious or political beliefs.

Surnames Almost all Bosnian family names end with the suffix ic, which essentially means “child of,” much like the use of the suffix “son” in English names such as Johnson. Women's first names tend to end in the letter a or ica, pronounced EET-sa. Family names are often an indication of ethnicity. Sulejmanagic, for example, is a Muslim name, as are others containing such Islamic or Turkish roots as hadj or bey, pronounced “beg.” Children receive their father's last name. Hence, someone with an Islamic-sounding root in his or her last name may be presumed to be, at least by heritage, a Muslim.


Croatian and Serbian Americans organized labor unions and strikes for better working conditions as early as 1913. The oldest Croatian fraternal associations, Slavonian Illyrian Mutual Benevolent Society, founded in 1857 in San Francisco, and the United Slavonian Benevolent Association of New Orleans, founded in 1874, provided financial help to families of injured immigrants. Croatian and Serbian Americans formed many groups dedicated to influencing policies of their homeland. In the United States, Croatian Americans have traditionally been strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

Bosnian Americans speak out about conditions in their former homeland. For example, in an interview on CNN's Larry King Live, professional basketball player Vlade Divac of the Sacramento Kings said Americans have been misled about the situation in Yugoslavia. Divac reported that his relations with some NBA players had been affected by his Serbian heritage.

Relations with Former Country The United States supported Yugoslavia under Tito's rule because Tito had broken with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The United States provided economic and military assistance to prevent Soviet aggression in the area. But with the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia lost its strategic importance to the United States. When the war broke out in 1992, James Baker, secretary of state under President George Bush, was quoted as saying, “We don't have a dog in that fight.” Eventually, however, the United States became involved in finding a peaceful solution to the civil strife in Bosnia. On November 21, 1995, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Dayton-Paris Agreement) was concluded as a result of a U.S.-led peace initiative after three years of peacemaking efforts by the international community. When the Dayton Peace Accord was signed the following month, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali thanked U.S. president Bill Clinton for his role. The last U.S. troops left Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2004 but, although many Bosnian refugees desire to return to their homeland, most are skeptical of the continued political gridlock in the country and have put off returning until the prospects for peace and prosperity improve.


Film Karl Malden (Mladen Sekulovich; 1912–2009) was born in Chicago to a Serbian father from the Herzegovina region and a Czech mother. Following a lengthy stage and screen career spanning from the 1950s to the Page 340  |  Top of Article1980s, in which he won both an Oscar and a Prime-time Emmy Award, Malden was named the head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1988. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and received a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2004.

Literature Aleksandar Hemon was born in Sarajevo and began living in the United States in 1992; he had been on a visit to Chicago when the Bosnian War broke out, and he was unable to return home. Hemon was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2004. His acclaimed novel The Lazarus Project (2008) was a National Book Award finalist, and his short fiction has been published in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, and the prestigious anthology Best American Short Stories.

Music Tomo Miličević is a guitar player for the band 30 Seconds to Mars. Born in Sarajevo in 1979, Miličević and his family immigrated to Troy, Michigan, in the late 1980s. He joined 30 Seconds to Mars, which is fronted by actor Jared Leto, in 2003, and has recorded two albums with the group, A Beautiful Lie (2005) and This Is War (2009).


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Bosnako-Americka Televizija (Bosnian-American Television)

The first Bosnian American TV station, founded in New York in 1999. Has been available in the United States and Canada since 2000.


RTV BosTel

A Bosnian American television station founded in Chicago in 2001. Broadcasts twenty-four hours a day throughout North America.


A major weekly newspaper founded in 1997 that serves the Bosnian immigrant community in the United States, with a circulation of more than 20,000 readers, primarily in the Midwest.

Sukrija Dzidzovic, Founder and Publisher
5003 Gravois Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63116
Phone: (314) 351-0201
Fax: (314) 351-0297


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Bosnian-American Cultural Association

Works to preserve Bosnian culture and teach Americans about Bosnia.

Dr. Hasim Kosovic
1810 North Pfingsten Road
Northbrook, Illinois 60062
Phone: (312) 334-2323

Congress of North American Bosniaks

An umbrella organization for a number of Bosnian American Muslim (Bosniak) cultural groups that presents a yearly convention of Bosniaks in different cities throughout North America.

P.O. Box 651
Skokie, Illinois 60076
Phone: (847) 677-9136

Jerrahi Order of America

Bosnian cultural, educational, and social relief organization affiliated with a traditional Muslim Sufi order and made up of Muslims from diverse backgrounds. The Jerrahi Order has branches in New York, California, Indiana, Seattle, and Bosnia.

884 Chestnut Ridge Road
Chestnut Ridge, New York 10977
Phone: (845) 352-5518

New England Friends of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Grassroots organization that aims to support Bosnian Americans through cultural and other activities as well as to promote a long-term and just peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Organizes speaker series, interviews, conferences, rallies, and humanitarian aid drives. Originally focused on serving western Massachusetts; now provides resources to organizations and individuals all across the United States.

2400 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02140
Phone: (617) 714-4641


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Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center

Sanja Seferovic Drnovsek
6219 North Sheridan Road
Chicago, Illinois 60660
Phone: (773) 941-2824

Bosnian American Library of Chicago

Selena Seferovic
Bosnian American Library of Chicago at Conrad
Sulzer Public Library
4455 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Phone: (773) 831-1942

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Clark, Arthur L. Bosnia: What Every American Should Know. New York: Berkley Books, 1996.

Kisslinger, Jerome. The Serbian Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.

Malcolm, Noel. Bosnia: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Puskar, Samira. Bosnian Americans of Chicagoland. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2007.

Shapiro, E. The Croatian Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

Silber, Laura, and Allan Little. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. New York: Penguin, 1995 and 1996.

Tekavec, Valerie. Teenage Refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina Speak Out. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1995.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300036