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Bosnian Refugees Find a New, and Satisfying, Life in the Heartland

In the 1990s, as civil war and brutal "ethnic cleansing" tore the former Yugoslavia apart, thousands of Bosnians were driven from their homeland. Many were granted political asylum in America and found their way to a resettlement center in Utica, New York. Others found jobs in cities like Chicago. And soon, Bosnian refugees were invited to move to Waterloo, Iowa, in the heart of the American Farm Belt.

One of Waterloo's two big employers, a meatpacking house, was desperately searching for skilled workers. Young Iowans were leaving the state or had no taste for the unpleasant work of a slaughterhouse. Many Bosnians had meatpacking experience -- especially those who'd fled from the small city of Velika Kladusa in a cattle-rich farming region near the Croatian border. So the Waterloo plant recruited them and other skilled Bosnian craftsmen from Utica and Chicago.

"They were looking for Bosnian workers to hire because they heard they were very good workers," says Semso Beganovic, a former nurse in Bosnia, who now works for Lutheran Services in Waterloo, helping Bosnian refugees find employment. "When I got this job," he says, "my phone was ringing every day."

Lutheran Services has helped Muslim Bosnian immigrants like Zulfeta Rizvic, who was an elementary-school teacher, make a new life while struggling with traumatic memories.

"I couldn't believe that I actually spent one winter in a tent, that I could actually survive that," Ms. Rizvic says. "Each year, I hoped that this is the last year of the war, that this has to stop. Finally when it stopped, we ended up here."

Semso Beganovic says most of the Bosnian refugees' neighbors in Waterloo opened their hearts and made the refugees feel welcome. "We thought when we came here we would stay maybe a year or 2, earn some money, and go back to Bosnia," he says. "But we've been here, now, more than 8 years, and I don't see any Bosnians going back. We have almost 4,000 Bosnians in this community."

In his former country, Fikret Kudic helped run a shoe store. Now -- taking note of the proverb that an old tree, once uprooted, does not easily take root somewhere else -- he works for an agency that helps elderly Bosnian refugees make difficult adjustments: "A language barrier. Different culture. Different style of life. Different traditions. Different neighborhood."

Mr. Kudic says his work includes offering English lessons, nutritional information, help with U.S. citizenship requirements -- even classes on how to deal with Iowa's deadly tornadoes, a weather phenomenon that is unknown in Bosnia. "When these old people came over here," Mr. Kudic says, "they were, like, lost in space. But today, we got the smiles back on their faces."

Nearly unknown, too, in Waterloo, was Islam, the religion of most of the Bosnian refugees. Zulfeta Rizvic says curiosity briefly turned to suspicion after Muslim terrorists crashed airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center in 2001: "It was on T-V that they said something about terrorism, and they said, 'Of course, they were Muslim.'"

These days in some school classes in Waterloo, more than half the students are immigrants -- from Bosnia, Sudan, Indonesia, Mexico, and elsewhere. It's a shocking change for a city that was once nearly all-white, English-speaking, and Christian.

Sefika Sarkic is an interpreter at West High school. Leaving her country, she says, broke her heart. In fact, she says, "My heart's still broken."

She came to Waterloo to work in the meat plant but soon used her language skills to get the translator's job. Her two children, now teenagers, quickly adopted American tastes in clothes, music, and speech.

Ms. Sarkic's transition hasn't been so easy. "I'm a citizen," she notes. "I passed the test. The ceremony was in September. But I don't feel like I am American." In part, she says, that's because Bosnians traditionally keep tight family ties, while Americans seem to move endlessly and often change jobs and spouses.

At Café Una -- named for the majestic river that separates parts of Bosnia from Croatia -- Waterloo's Bosnians gather to drink strong coffee and beer, share their joys and sadness, and dance. Next door to the café, some of the community's boys, especially, spend afternoons after school in karate class -- running in a circle at full speed before intensive instruction begins.

Zinaida Alagic-Kadic, a supervisor at the meatpacking plant, says she'll never forget the day that Waterloo's Bosnian girls' dance group was invited to Governor Tom Vilsack's inauguration party in Des Moines: "He introduced all those kids as Iowans. And they were so proud that finally somebody, publicly recognized them as a part of something that's American."

One of the dance group's longtime members, Nermina Salkic, 20, is now a college student. She says she's learned to live with Midwest Americans' generally limited understanding of other cultures. "Sometimes Americans think that if you have an accent, you're not smart enough," she says. "Well, I always say I speak with an accent. I don't think with an accent. Bosnians have a culture -- something beautiful and valuable. The main thing is tolerance. We need to tolerate each other."

Over time, many of Waterloo's Bosnians have saved money, left their first apartments, and bought homes throughout the city. But they stay in close touch. And they are counting the days until August 19, when 7,000 Bosnian-Americans from across the nation are expected in Waterloo for the start of Kraiski Teferic -- a reunion and celebration of Bosnian culture.