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Bosnian Refugees Find a Home in Fargo, North Dakota


Refugees have been trickling into the United States ever since the September 11 attacks led to a slowdown in resettlement. Some of the immigrants are starting their new lives in the northern Great Plains, in Fargo, North Dakota, where they join the thousands of refugees who are already there. The largest refugee group in Fargo is finding both successes and challenges settling into its new community.

"It's the best day of my life," Bosko Curic said.

Bosko Curic said today is the best day of his life. The Bosnian Serb has waited four years to be reunited with his two sons in the United States, and to see for the first time, his youngest grandchild.

"Just waiting and hope someday they'll allow you to come to US and see rest of closest family," Radimir Curic said.

Translating for his father, Radimir Curic said the trip was delayed twice -first because of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The nationwide slowdown in refugee resettlement that followed delayed Mr. Curic's arrival for more than eight months.

"So finally that's happened so we are all happy and thankful for the government and for people in North Dakota," Mr. Curic said.

Kathy Thoreson said, "North Dakota has been a very welcoming place for refugees. They have used the terminology that the people are so warm, even if the weather is cold." She heads the refugee resettlement program for Lutheran Social Services in Fargo. The organization has brought hundreds of immigrants here from around the world, but the largest group more than 1,300 came from Bosnia. Ms. Thoreson says while some of the Bosnian refugees have moved out of the area, most have stayed.

Many refugees talk about staying in North Dakota and being here for the same reasons many of us do the low crime rate and the family emphasis that they come so strongly with and they see in North Dakota and people have been able to find jobs here, and they've been able to keep jobs.

And some have created jobs. Akrem Sabanovic opened the Bosnian House restaurant in Fargo nearly two years ago. He said business can be a bit slow in the summer. But on Saturday nights, the place is packed, thanks to live Bosnian music.

"If you have a band here, a lot of people enjoy dancing and having fun. We are so far away, you know, we need something like that," Mr. Sabanovic said.

This Saturday night, the band draws more than 150 people, both young and old. A few Bosnian men with gelled black hair generously fill parts of the room with cigarette smoke. They sit at round tables dotted with beer bottles and plates of kebobs and salads. Meludin Fazlovich, a frequent customer, said nights like this show how Bosnians are contributing to the community.

"I think we find a place for us here because today we have about five or six own businesses, two restaurants, stores and our children go to school," Ms. Fazlovich said.

Both Muslim and Christian Bosnians now call Fargo home, and some said their communities get along better here than they did in Bosnia-Herzogovina. Others say there's still tension. But for the most part, the larger Fargo community doesn't recognize the ethnic distinction. Residents like Andrea D'Elessandro dining at the Bosnian House with her Bosnian co-worker said they welcome the added diversity.

"It's a change you know, it's pretty humdrum around here, but they introduced a new culture, the food...I think it's nice to have them here, because the language too, and their customs," Ms. D'Elessandro said.

But the integration of those customs and language hasn't been completely smooth. Misunderstandings between refugees and law enforcement officials prompted the Fargo police department to add a new refugee-liaison officer.

And some local apartment owners and managers worry about unsightly trash, vandalism, and reckless driving in neighborhoods where many refugees live.

"The problem is disturbances and damages," said Jeanne Meagher, manager of apartments that are home to about 40 refugee families. "Things just like using the appliances and cooking, using the windows and screens, just general things that maybe they didn't have in a refugee camp that they don't know how to use," she said.

Ms. Meagher joined other property managers at a recent housing meeting sponsored by Lutheran Social Services, to discuss ways to understand and deal with the situation. L.S.S explained that partly in response to complaints, it has begun a mandatory class for new refugees on how to be a responsible tenant. Resettlement Case Manager Ermina Jelovac, a Bosnian refugee herself, works with new arrivals for their first three months in Fargo.

"We do the orientation with them on a lot of things we do here in the U.S. It's very important so they can become self-sufficient and resettle here in Fargo," Mr. Jelovac said.

Self-sufficiency is becoming a reality for at least one family Ermina has helped. Since arriving 14 months ago, Ramo Hodzic has found a job he enjoys at a local bakery and is sending his three children to school. He said they've learned English faster than he has, so he asks Ermina to translate.

"Of course we all had questions and concerns...what's it going to be, what's Fargo or the whole United States. They'd never been here before, so they didn't know what to expect once they came here but so far everything has been good," Mr. Hodzic said.

His Shimsudin, 13, said he enjoys his new life in Fargo. He plays soccer at school and has made friends both from Bosnia and within the native Fargo community.

"It's big and I like it and I have here many friends," he said.

Shimsudin is on the track his father wants all his kids to follow. Mr. Hodzic wants them to finish their education and live happily in their new country, where someday they won't be called Bosnian refugees, but simply Americans.

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