Providing safe spaces for our neighbors seeking asylum

Elvira enjoyed a nice, peaceful life growing up in her home country of Bosnia. She grew up living with her parents, grandmother, and sister in a small tight-knit community where everyone knew each other. Elvira loved the geographic landscape that surrounded her community – the beautiful rivers, mountains and greenery made for fun activities for her and her family such as swimming and skiing. 

At an early age, Elvira realized that she loved cooking and dreamed of opening her own restaurant someday, crediting her family and friends for getting her involved in cooking when she was a small child.

“I always had a special passion for the dough that you use to make the pizza, so one of my neighbors would make me a small table and give me a little bit of dough, and I would make my own pizza,” said Elvira. “We would bake it, and my mom would have me go around the neighborhood and try to get people to eat it.” 

As Elvira got older, her passion for cooking grew and she started learning more complex recipes. When she was 15, her passion for cooking compelled her to enroll in culinary school to perfect her craft. But as her love for cooking blossomed, the peaceful life she knew growing up as a young child in Bosnia began to fade. 

Tension and war began to grow throughout the country. Eventually, terrorist attacks and deadly combat began to decimate areas surrounding her community. As Bosnia became increasingly more dangerous for civilians, Elvira and her family realized they had to leave. 

“As they were attacking us, the United Nations were trying to get us out,” said Elvira. “My grandma was not mobile, so they had to leave her. A grenade hit our house while she was in it, and she passed away two days later.”

Searching for a place to call home

After fleeing Bosnia, Elvira and her family eventually landed in the St. Louis area and found an organization that could give them safety and hope. 

“My mother-in-law had family here in St. Louis and they told us to come here, go to the International Institute and see what they can do.” 

United Way partner agency, International Institute of St. Louis is an organization that helps new immigrants and refugees get settled in St. Louis and adjust to American life so they can have the opportunity to live here and thrive. United Way has been supporting the International Institute since our inception in 1922. This century-long partnership has allowed them to help millions of immigrants and refugees.

The International Institute helped Elvira’s husband learn English, obtain a driver’s license, and find a job, and were even able to help Elvira when she was caring for her newborn baby and unable to attend their classes in-person. 

“They paired me with a student-volunteer, and she was coming to me during her summer break in school to teach me some English,” said Elvira. “She had me read a lot of books which really helped me a lot with learning some words.” 

She eventually began taking more complex language, computer, and interpretation classes, and within a few years, she was speaking fluent English. 

Blake Hamilton, senior vice president for programs of the International Institute of St. Louis, said they have numerous programs and services that help immigrants and refugees learn English as well as help them address a wide range of challenges they may face when they get here.

“The process of understanding [American] culture to the point where you can navigate it takes a while, so we have programming that is designed to support folks on that journey,” said Hamilton. “We’re providing case management assistance, helping people connect to community resources, we help kids enroll in school and adults take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and participate in job readiness programs. We’re looking at the whole family and laying the foundation so that they can be incrementally more successful with each month that passes.”

The International Institute gave Elvira the resources she needed to participate in American society. She began working various jobs, but she never lost sight of the dream she had for herself as a young girl in Bosnia.

The American Dream

Elvira’s passion for cooking re-emerged as she began to settle into American life. She used the money her and her husband saved to rent a small kitchen to start a catering and delivery service called Taste of Bosnia. 

They started off getting small, sporadic orders, but as more St. Louisans got a taste of how delicious their food was, their business began to become more popular. As word spread and more orders began to come in, Elvira knew it was time to manifest her childhood dream – it was time to open her own restaurant. 

Taste of Bosnia has become one of the most popular Bosnian restaurants in St. Louis. Despite the chaos Elvira and her family had to endure when they were forced from their homeland, her passion for cooking and opening her own restaurant someday never wavered.

“The dream was always there. When we had to leave Bosnia and my parents told me I could only take one bag with necessities, I brought my cookbooks,” said Elvira. “It was always in the back of my mind that somewhere down the road, this would happen for me.”

Hamilton said the International Institute takes pride in helping immigrants and refugees like Elvira reach their goals and aspirations. They are determined to make sure all their clients have the opportunity to realize the American Dream.

“To be able to work with someone like Elvira and help her live her dream is the reason why we are here doing this work and have been doing it for more than 100 years,” said Hamilton. “Over the time that we have engaged in this work, we see the transformative power that immigrants have on our community. Their humanity and culture that they bring here enriches all of us.”

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Rodney Humphries
Rodney Humphries

Rodney Humphries is the Communications Specialist for United Way of Greater St. Louis and a proud graduate of Webster University where he developed his passion for writing. In college, he combined his love for writing and sports, serving as the primary sports writer for his school newspaper while also developing his own sports blog. After graduating, he continued his love for writing as he served as a freelance writer for various publications. Rodney continues to be a fan of Webster athletics, you will often see him sitting courtside at a lot of their basketball games.