Little Bosnia Booms

May 5, 2006
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With grit and ambition, the thousands of Bosnian refugees who now call West Michigan home have become an integral part of the local economy. Boasting dedicated factory workers, aggressive entrepreneurs, and professionals ranging from dentists to bank managers, it is remarkable that this group barely existed here a decade ago, and where it did was defined by the horrors of the homeland.

When the former Yugoslavian state of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared itself an independent nation shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, it launched Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II, a three-year war resulting in an estimated 250,000 deaths before peace was declared in 1995.

Nearly a fourth of the country — roughly 1 million people — fled to other parts of the world, with many of them setting their sights on the U.S. The State Department admitted 145,000 Bosnian refugees from 1993 to 2004, making the group the nation's third largest refugee population of the last quarter-century.

While only anecdotal evidence exists, it is widely believed that southern Kent County is home to the nation's second largest Bosnian population, with as many as 16,000 people spread between Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood. Only St. Louis, Mo., has more.

Roughly 8,000 Bosnian refugees came to West Michigan through Catholic Human Development Outreach or one of the region's other two refugee settlement organizations. But unlike the incredible influx of East Asian refugees here in the previous two decades, the Bosnians did not disperse to other parts of the country. Instead, a secondary migration occurred that all but doubled the local population.

"Five or six years ago, the unemployment rate was low, and it was a great business environment," said Ruzmir Kovacevic, a former Catholic Human Development Outreach case worker. "There wasn't a factory in the city that wasn't hiring."

Many came to West Michigan for family connections, familiar weather or the high quality of life. But most were lured by "opportunity and better-paying jobs."

Kovacevic is a stellar example of Bosnian business. A former gym teacher, he came to Grand Rapids directly from Bosnia in 1997. His first job was as a bagger at Meijer, his second as a press operator at Davidson Plyform. As his English improved, he was offered a position at Catholic Human Development Outreach, where he helped thousands of his countrymen assimilate into the community, and even received some short-lived fame as a mentor to the Lost Boys of Sudan.

His wife, Amra, worked her way through the ranks at Fifth Third Bank, while he consistently worked two or three jobs to send money to his family in Bosnia. Though the refugee center closed its doors last month, he has established himself as a Bosnian culture consultant, conducting seminars for The Employers' Association and the Kentwood Police Department.

He even launched two companies: The Healing Touch, as a medical massage therapist, and Peta Strana Svijeta, "The Fifth Side of the World," a 5,000-circulation Bosnian-language newspaper of 40-plus pages distributed bimonthly to Bosnian population centers across the country. Four years in the making, the newspaper has finally grown into a viable business, recognized as the primary point of access to the Bosnian consumer. His largest market is St. Louis, but the advertisements paint a reliable map of the local community. Lake Michigan Credit Union, which boasts a Bosnian branch manager, shares a page with Kentwood dentist James Vincelj, opposite Radio Behar, the WYGR-AM Bosnian language radio show.

"We're not talking about a small number," Kovacevic said of the Bosnian-American market. "Everybody is looking for a car, for banking, a house or medical services. Americans are going to want to reach them."

If the newspaper is any indication, Bosnian business remains isolated by language.

"I've found there are two groups of Bosnians," said Rob Miller, director of God's Kitchen and 15-year veteran and former director of the refugee program. "Those that are able to communicate in English integrate quite well. Those that don't stay closer together. … Both groups are highly motivated, and they take their opportunities and maximize them."

Many Bosnians enter the work force for minimum-wage jobs with a company like Meijer or the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, possibly through one of the remaining settlement agencies. They then seek entry-level manufacturing jobs, where language skills are not as important.

Lacks Enterprises Inc. counts approximately 150 Bosnians among its 2,100 employees. A full 70 percent of the hourly workers (85 people) at Plastech Engineered Products' Talon Creek facility are Bosnian. Jackson Products, SUSPA Inc., and Davidson Plyform are a handful of other popular Bosnian employers.

"We hired some when we first opened the plant," said Nancy Oberlin, Plastech's West Michigan human resources director, of the first hires in 2000. "They were grateful to have jobs and as a group were such dedicated, hard-working people. When they referred someone, we hired them."

As a result, she said, that plant boasts turnover and absenteeism rates of less than 1 percent. As their language skills improve, they are promoted.

"From my work with the refugee program, I know how hard people are working to get here," said Kovacevic. "But they are not going to just wait in line for food stamps. Our people are used to suffering to make a better future."

Ironically, the employment opportunities that attracted many Bosnians to West Michigan dried up shortly after they arrived. At Behr Industries, for instance, which in 2000 employed 40 Bosnian refugees at its Comstock Park plant, head count shrank from 700 to 325.

Fortunately, the upper half of the Bosnian community had already decided it could do better than manufacturing.

"What is going on in the Bosnian community business-wise, it just amazes me," said Miller. "These people, in general, are business savvy."

Miller, a one-time transportation worker, was impressed by the Bosnians' willingness to enter the trucking field.

"You would never have seen me go out and buy a truck," he said. "But they're risk-takers, and they are reaping the benefits of that."

Edin Sprecic, a former soldier, left Bosnia for Germany in 1995 with his wife, now a teacher at East Kentwood High School. He came to Grand Rapids in 1997, where he eventually became a plant manager at Davidson Plyform. Three years ago, he left the company and bought a semi tractor. His firm, Cobra Transportation, today owns 20 trucks as part of a 37-tractor fleet of employee-drivers and owner-operators.

"You can be your own boss and make four times what you would in manufacturing," he said. "That's why it's becoming more and more popular."

Like Cobra, Sigma Transportation provides only over-the-road, long-haul trucking. Nearly all of the company's 45 independent-operators are Bosnian.

"People see the success their friends have had, and it makes them curious," said Sigma President Edin Beslagic, a former accounts payable clerk. "They want to better themselves, but they don't have the means to go back to school to acquire new skills. This is an easier way to enhance themselves."

Equally significant is the rise of businesses that introduce Bosnian culture to West Michigan.

Barely five-years-old, combination grocery store and restaurant Bosnian Express has already expanded. Its proprietor, Damir Duratovic, moved to Grand Rapids in 2001 from California. He owned a restaurant in Bosnia, and had hopes to introduce his cuisine to his new home. He recently expanded his business into a larger building at 128 28th St. SW with 36 seats and an espresso bar. Half of his clientele are U.S.-born, the rest are a mix of European cultures.

The Paris Coffee & Pastry Shop at 2281 44th St. SE has had similar success. Like Duratovic, owner Suad Okic brought his business to Grand Rapids. For two decades, Okic was a pastry chef in Bosnia.

Capitalizing on the European café culture, it has become a favorite meeting place of local Bosnians.

"In Europe, that's what people do," said Erna Okic, a café worker, speaking for her father. "They get together for coffee and cake and discuss important topics before going about their day." The French-style cakes are just as popular among long-time residents, especially first- and second-generation Polish and Russians.

The younger Okic, a Davenport University student, represents a trend of which Miller and Kovacevic, the former settlement workers, are particularly proud.

"Our kids are going to school," said Kovacevic. "They're getting degrees, they're making opportunities."

Miller cited the Alibasic family, one of his most successful cases.

The eldest of three brothers, Haris Alibasic came to Grand Rapids in 1997 on a federal scholarship to Grand Valley State University, sister school to Sarajevo University. After completing his graduate studies, he returned to Bosnia to work in the Office of the High Representative, the United Nations agency formed to rebuild the country.

In 1999, Alibasic returned to Grand Rapids with his family. He is today director of the city of Grand Rapids Neighborhood Enterprise Zone program. One of his brothers graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design, the other from Kalamazoo College.

"Bosnians are no different from any other immigrant group: We're looking for the American dream," he said. "And from my experience, there is huge potential in this region. … Our people just love it here; they've found their home here."   

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