Two children holding the Bosnia and Herzegovina flag with the Chicago skyline in the background. Photo courtesy of Ermina Veljačić

I recently bumped into an ex-classmate at a concert, and to my surprise, she began sharing her initial thoughts about me when we first met in 3rd grade: “Look at that American girl,” she admitted thinking. My husband and I gave each other a look and made our way back to our seats. “Only thing ‘American’ about you is your white skin,” my husband said. We shook our heads laughing—I was a refugee from Bosnia, though I don’t hold it against her for being unaware. 

In the summer of 1999, my family resettled on Chicago’s far Southeast Side. Following the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995, Chicago became the most popular U.S. destination for Bosnian refugees. However, we were the only Bosnian family in the East Side neighborhood, a community of working class Black residents, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans, and Balkan ethnicities, such as Serbian and Croatian, whose emigrated ancestors worked in the major steel producing area. 

In a desperate attempt to fit in, my family would attend events at St. Simeon Mirotochivi Serbian Orthodox Church, founded in 1969, featuring a gated compound sitting on a stretch of forty-eight lots housing the church, a hall, and pavilions, located at 114th and Avenue G. 

Based on materials on file at the Southeast Historical Museum, in 1904, the South Chicago neighborhood nearby was designated as a parish district named “Serbian Orthodox Parochial District of St. Elijah.” In 1919, a formerly Danish Lutheran church was designated as a Serbian church named St. Archangel Michael. The church relocated after purchasing five lots on the 9800 block of Commercial Avenue, serving the Serbian community for over seventy-five years until relocating a third time in July 1998 to Lansing, a south suburb. 

Croatian influence is prominent on the Southeast Side and can be traced back to the early 1900s. Located at the intersection of 96th and Exchange Avenue, the Sacred Heart Croatian Church held its first service on Christmas Eve of 1913 and was operating as a full-fledged church, school and parish hall by 1914. Edward R. Vrdolyak, the son of Croatian saloon keepers, was elected 10th Ward alderman in 1971.

Growing up, I had become accustomed to being the first Bosnian person folks met. There were countless times when kids at St. Simeon picked on me, claiming I sounded “weird” when communicating in Bosnian, not realizing the dialect differences in word choices between Bosnian and Serbian, or they’d tease that I must be poor for not wearing gold cross necklaces like them. 

During my sophomore year in high school, I found myself in the same gym class as a Serbian girl I had previously met at the church. She and her sister, a year younger, were the only Serbians in the school. I understood that loneliness and put in a lot of effort to build a friendship with her, clinging to small moments of connection like singing well-known Balkan songs or sharing secret laughter and jokes in our shared language, a language unfamiliar to the rest of the class. We bonded over our shared dislike for having to run endless laps around the track behind the school building. I lost touch with her and reconnected on social media years later. 

By this time, I was informed about the Bosnian War and having volunteered with organizations to combat genocide denialism, witnessing her and her younger sister sharing Serb-nationalist propaganda was shocking. When I tried to have a conversation about the issue, they seemed indifferent, outright ignoring and showing a total unwillingness to engage in any kind of conversation about the inaccuracies of their posts and the harmful effects of sharing misinformation meant to divide. Ultimately, I recognized that in order to preserve my mental health, I needed to block them from social media. How could I possibly stay friends with anyone who shows they care more about nationalism than the truth? 

My first encounter with Croatians in the neighborhood happened when I was a high school student. It came about through friendships with students who commuted from different Southeast Side neighborhoods, like Slag Valley, to attend George Washington High School on the East Side. It was then that I also met friends of friends who went to Catholic schools such as Mother McCauley, Brother Rice, and Mount Carmel. In those early memories, I recall Croatian boys who were upfront about flirting and “kicking it”—slang for hooking up—with me, but their mothers had clear expectations for them to date Croatian girls. They made it clear that pursuing a relationship with me wasn’t an option.

Even within the Balkan community, I felt a sense of isolation and gradually distanced myself. We didn’t have a Bosnian džámija, a place of worship, that we attended for prayer services like other Bosnian families did. My father worked as a long-haul truck driver, often spending weeks on the road, while my mother, who didn’t start driving until I was an adult, had no means of transporting all seven children from the far Southeast Side to the Bosnian mosque located on the North Side. This meant we had no choice but to miss out on being in community with other Bosnians.

When I had the opportunity to attend Bosnian events with my parents, like once a year for concerts or weddings, I couldn’t help but notice the strong bonds that were present among others my age in the community. They were childhood friends, had shared experiences, and saw each other regularly. I felt like I was on the outside looking in, and that was solidified when I was called a “ghetto Bosnian” for hosting a weekly teen radio show called True Star Radio, powered by a youth media organization, True Star Foundation, on Power 92.3FM, and for being from the far South Side—what might as well have been a different planet to them for speaking slang they weren’t accustomed to and not having the same socioeconomic accessibility to travel back to Bosnia every summer. 

The rejection I faced was confusing because many of the teenagers in the community eagerly embraced elements of urban culture, such as fashion trends and hip-hop music. So I wondered why I was excluded and outcasted for just being myself. Because my parents hardly ever spoke about the war that had shaped our voyage to America, my understanding of my own existence was very limited. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon two measly paragraphs in my 6th grade social studies book that I got a glimpse of the breakup of Yugoslavia, the independence of its republics, and the chaos that followed. 

I found solace in the friendships I formed with a few Mexican peers. They welcomed me with open arms, without prying into my origins or demanding explanations of cultural differences. And honestly, that was a relief. I didn’t have to answer questions about where I came from, and it was easier to just blend in and be accepted for who I was without the weight of trying to fit in. 

Fast forward to 2021, at thirty years old, I finally found a sense of belonging within a community of Bosnians called JednaBiH, an independent coalition of activists and organizations working to preserve the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and championing for a united and multiethnic country. Members were kind, welcoming, and empathetic to my unique life experience of growing up away from Bosnian traditions and community. I finally found a space where I could truly be myself and feel a deep connection to my roots—something I had never imagined possible.

Together we planned the largest direct action event in BiH Diaspora history, the March for United BiH, held in February 2022. Although it was of historic significance that the Bosnian flag was raised at Daley Plaza for the first time, the event received no media coverage in Chicago. Despite our best efforts to engage with local outlets and share the importance of this moment, it seemed that the media overlooked or neglected to recognize its significance. This lack of coverage highlighted the ongoing challenges of visibility and representation faced by Bosnians, who are only a generation removed from surviving war. Nevertheless, we persisted in our work to amplify our voices and ensure that our stories and experiences were heard and acknowledged.

As a result of our continued efforts, for the second year in a row, Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a proclamation recognizing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence day, happening March 1, as Bosnian American Day. “Bosnian Americans migrated to Chicago in the late 19th century as a community that still  embraces multiculturalism as a fundamental principle of Bosnian and Herzegovinian culture,” the proclamation declared. 

It reads: The Bosnian American community has contributed their rich culture to the American way of life; and the contributions in research, technology, medicine, architecture, sport, literature, art, film, music, and customs of Bosnia and Herzegovina [expressing] creative interaction between different religions, ethnicities and traditions.

Walk to Remember attendees gather for a group photo at the end of the walk in front of Lake Michigan. Photo by Belma Ramic.

On Sunday, July 9, supporters and members of the diaspora joined in a walk to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide in which, on July 11, 1995, 8,372 Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), mostly men and boys, were brutally killed with remains scattered into numerous mass graves in the city of Srebrenica, a United Nations (UN) Security Council-marked safezone. 

The Bosnian war that unfolded from 1992 to 1995 was part of a deliberate attempt to annihilate non-Serbs under the direct order of Bosnian Serb forces led by commander Radovan Karadžic, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army under Serbian president Slobodan Milošević—via methodical torture, imprisonment in concentration camps, rape, forced birth, and land theft. Twenty-eight years later, graves are still being uncovered and bodies identified. 

According to the International Commission of Missing Persons, of the 8,372 who were murdered in Srebrenica, 7,017 have been identified, while there are still over 1,000 missing. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a UN court tasked with prosecuting war criminals, reported that the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole displaced two million people and ended the lives of over 100,000 people, eighty percent of whom were Muslims. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women were sexually assaulted and over 30,000 people, primarily men, were imprisoned in concentration camps across the country

Heightened political and cultural tensions rising in BiH today are a result of ethno-nationalism and rampant genocide denialism enabled by the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords peace treaty signed in 1995, essentially rewarding genocide perpetrators by establishing two separate entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina: a Serb-led Republika Srpska and the Bosniak and Croat-controlled Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s worth noting that Republika Srpska is left untranslated in the peace treaty, which was written in English, a significant acknowledgement of the genocide-created entity. 

The recognition of genocide holds a powerful significance this year as we witness the alarming spread of genocide denialism, misinformation, and the recent illegal attack on Ukraine by Russia, whose disregard for sovereignty echo the haunting memories of the brutal siege that unfolded in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A crowd, estimated by Chicago police onsite as approximately 1,000, came out to the fourth annual Walk to Remember at Foster Beach on the city’s North Side. The purpose of the event was to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide co-organized by Lilies of Hope, a not-for-profit whose mission is to uplift families across the world by providing financial assistance through the strength of Bosnian communities in the United States, and JaBiH, a non-profit organization working to build and strengthen the Bosnian American Chicagoland community. “We actually [had] a lot of young people [come out]. And when I say young, I mean ages of five to twenty [years old], said Semir Delić, founding member and president of Lilies of Hope. “It means people care, people do want to come and support community efforts.” 

Delić’s family resettled in Chicago in May 2002 from Srebrenica. What brings him joy is the diversity of attendees, including folks from all across Bosnia who were eager to participate and contribute to the cause, demonstrating the significance of this day to the entire community. A gentleman who traveled from Fort Wayne, Indiana for the walk connected with Delić regarding sponsorship for next year. “This is open to anyone, whoever wants to be part of it. Hey, come on. Join us,” said Delić. 

Thanks to sponsors, the event was free of charge and folks who registered in advance received a commemorative T-shirt, a drawstring bag filled with sunscreen, sunglasses, a fan, a map of BiH in Bosnian and English outlining the genocides that took place and treacherous terrain labeled “death road to freedom” that Bosniaks were forced to walk to retrieve food, medicine, and other supplies. People also got arm bands that resembled the white arm bands Muslims in Prijedor and other cities had to wear as identifying markers, and a Srebrenica crocheted flower pin made in Bosnia. The flower’s shape represents burials of genocide victims and has eleven petals representing the date the genocide took place in the color white symbolizing innocence with a green center representing hope. 

Banners across the lawn area of the beach featured the names of the 8,372 victims, and signs posted along the walking course listed milestones after every 2,000 steps. Attendees were provided with refreshments, snacks, and encouraged to rest when necessary. After welcoming remarks, the names of thirty Srebrenica victims were read out loud, whose remains have been identified and will be properly buried this year, followed by a moment of silence. 

“This is why we’re doing this,” said Delić as he reflected on the moment. “People [cried] in the crowd and you [could] see the sadness in their faces… that’s kinda when it hit me… So let’s just keep pushing, let’s keep doing this. Let’s do even better next year,” said Delić. 

“[Genocide commencement] is important because we’re still burying our family members,” said Tea Sefer, a Walk to Remember volunteer and founding member of JednaBiH and the BiH Diasporic Conference, who has dedicated their efforts to genocide education for over a decade. “There are still people missing from my hometown in Bosanski Novi, while war criminals are glorified with plaques in our police station.”

“I hope attendees feel community. I hope young people will learn from what happened. I hope survivors will know we stand in solidarity with them and are here to heal with them,” Sefer told South Side Weekly. 

Sanela Ovnović, a member of the Bosnian diaspora living in Chicago, and founder of local non-profit organization Helping Hearts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said she felt a mix of emotions, including a deep sense of pride seeing her community come together to pay tribute to the victims. “It was heartwarming to witness the unity and solidarity among the people. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by a wave of emotions. The event served as a powerful reminder of the war and the atrocities I personally witnessed and endured. Each step I took carried the weight of the innocent lives lost.”

“By educating and informing people about these atrocities, we can work towards preventing similar occurrences and fostering a more compassionate society,” she added.

Having attended the event, I am filled with even more gratitude for now having the community support I lacked growing up.

Ermina Veljačić is a writer, improviser, and somatic scream facilitator who was born in Bosnia and bred on Chicago’s Southeast Side. She last wrote about the East Side and South Chicago for the Weekly’s 2021 “Best of the South Side” issue.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your honest and well summarized story of reality of our people in this country, and probably relevant to other Bosnians abroad. Picture your story painted is accurate, touching and inspiring. I appreciate you so much! 💜

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