By Sara Lenz
Kenan Sahbaz and Vildana Omeragic, recent graduates from Bayless High School, remember little about their early years in Bosnia.
Sahbaz was just a year old when his home and village were burned, his grandfather and uncle were kidnapped by the Serbian army and his grandmother took her own life in grief.
He only knows this because his parents tell him about it. But he can still recall crossing a Serbian barricade when he was 3, maybe 4, and seeing a Serbian guard. He blurted out, “Dad, he has a gun like yours.” His parents shushed him and walked faster.
“I remember gunfire,” he said. “I remember it was dangerous.”
Omeragic remembers less of the war, but the image of leaving Bosnia in 1999 at age 7 remains ingrained in her mind. Her grandpa was crying as her family of four pulled out of the train station.
“I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a better life out there. But when I got here, I remember thinking, oh wow, kids have it so much better over here.”
These two graduates were among the thousands of Bosnian refugees who came to St. Louis after the war. While many Bosnian children are enrolled at Bayless and other area schools, the class of 2010 may be the last with memories of the war and of living in Bosnia.
That is part of the reason why Sahbaz and Omeragic, along with four of their Bosnian classmates at Bayless, made a 20-minute documentary of some of their parents’ memories of the war.
Their film, called “6 Words from Bosnia,” goes through their parents’ strongest memories of pain, helplessness, joy, hardship, regret and hope â€” the six words at the heart of the film. Their first public showing was Tuesday.
Parents and relatives sat in the first two rows. Then came school administrators, local Bosnian leaders, community members and a few dignitaries â€” 75 in all sat in the school’s auditorium.
After a short introduction, the light dimmed and the audience went silent. Before the climax of the first story, many were sniffling. Emotions were high and soft sobs could be heard from the front row.
Edina Ademovic, one of the students who created the film, said she can’t watch it without crying. In the first scene, her mom, Sadeta Bobaj, tells her most painful memory, that of her husband and Ademovic’s father being killed when Ademovic was 2 years old. Bobaj recalled through tears how she had no food for her daughter for days at a time.
At first, Bobaj didn’t want to tell her story on camera because every time she tells it, she weeps and so does her daughter. But she said she realized it was important for people to know how hard life was during the war to understand what her daughter and many of the 70,000 Bosnians in the St. Louis area have been through.
Sulejman Uvalic’s parents couldn’t bring themselves to go on camera. Uvalic’s dad was a doctor during the war and saw many friends die.
“What they experienced was too horrible to talk about,” Uvalic said. He has only heard a few stories from his parents about the war, so making the documentary taught him more about his heritage and “was a big eye-opener,” he said.
Other parents found speaking on film as a way to express thanks to the American government and people for opening up their arms to the Bosnian people in a time of crisis.
The students had heard their parents’ stories many times before, but not like this.
“Watching this makes us realize they did this for us,” said Nesmira Muratovic, whose father spoke about hope in the film. “We appreciate even more what we have.”
And they are passing on this appreciation of America to others with their video, said Mike Hawkins, the teacher who encouraged them to tell their story for a project in his video production class.
“The video brings foreign policy and domestic policy to the human level,” Hawkins said. “It makes me proud to be an American.”
Still, the classmates and friends didn’t expect the emotional and solemn reaction they got from those who viewed it.
In the auditorium, the lights came back on and the students filed to the front for questions. The crowd gave them a standing ovation. (The sixth student involved in the production, Amela Turnadzic, was unable to attend the showing.)
Some in the auditorium asked them why those six words, others asked how it felt to make the film, but more stood up and congratulated the six for what they had accomplished.
“It’s not just a story about them, it’s a story about all of the Bosnian community,” Hawkins said.
As this class moves on to college, one of the biggest changes the community will see is fewer children and teenagers who speak Bosnian fluently, said Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis. Crosslin said it is common for the next generation to lose complete fluency.
Maureen Clancy-May, superintendent for the district, said Bayless will try to create more opportunities for Bosnian parents to share their memories to the younger generations who don’t remember the war or who never lived in Bosnia.
Sahbaz’s younger sister, Naida, 14, was born just two days before coming to America. She and her Bosnian friends don’t discuss Bosnia and the war as much as her older brother and his friends. She feels this film was made for them.
“It will help people my age and younger know what happened,” she said. “It’s just as important for us to know this as it is for us to learn about the Civil War.” (stltoday.com – 05/30/2010)