Home Again: Immigrants and the Organizations Supporting Them

On the final Sunday in September, the sun blazes. It feels like mid-July, but in fact the summer weather is giving its last hurrah before autumn takes its colorful grip on New England. The cracked concrete of a small parking lot tucked in behind Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Mass. plays host to the sweating attendees of the third annual “A Taste of Bosnia & Herzegovina” festival, held by the New England Friends of Bosnia & Herzegovina (NEFBiH).

Onstage, and sometimes in the expanse of parking spots between the stage and the audience, performers take turns partaking in Bosnian traditions new and old. Young children in traditional peasant scarves and shiny blue dimije, or what one today might call harem pants, dance the Bosnian kolo, which involves quick-moving feet and constant changes in formation. A band, consisting of an accordion player, guitarist, clarinetist, and singer, plays sevdah songs from the old country, slow and mournful. One middle-aged man in a white T-shirt and jeans performs alone, singing Yugoslavian rock & roll hits from the eighties, until a balding friend joins him, beer in hand. For onlookers, the event feels a little bit like home.

In the front row sits a professor from Harvard’s Slavic studies department, watching the stage and gossiping with a friend about academic drama. To the left of the stage is a roped-off section of round white tables, each of which is occupied to its full capacity. At one, young couples lean back in white plastic folding chairs, absorbed in conversation but occasionally rising to reel in rambunctious children. At another, older red-faced men good-naturedly heckle the performers and often get up to retrieve a fresh bottle of beer. In fact, all the tables are crowded with beer bottles and the remains of the ultimate Bosnian dish, ćevapi: grilled minced meat sausages made of beef, lamb, pork, or any combination of the three are nestled in a lepinja, a flat white loaf of bread cut in half and sometimes soaked in grease. The dish is usually served with chopped raw onion and a red pepper-and-eggplant spread called ajvar or a dollop of sour cream.

The Bosnian community in New England is small, but then so is the country. Bosnians make up one small portion of the most recent wave of immigrants in the Massachusetts area, where the immigrant population has been steadily rising since the 1980s. Between 2000 and 2015, the population of foreign–born residents in Massachusetts grew by 41.8 percent. The top ten countries of origin spanned three continents, and the most common languages spoken at home varied from Spanish to Vietnamese to Arabic. The makeup of Boston and its surrounding area has been transforming since before the city we know today existed, as each new wave of immigrants finds a home here. Now, immigrant communities are found throughout Boston, often on the outskirts in spread-out neighborhoods like Dorchester and East Boston, though the downtown area still houses a significant immigrant population. Once a community is established, organizations pop up to welcome new immigrants and support those already settling in, with programs that connect people and preserve culture.

In 1881, the North Bennet Street Industrial School, today known as the North Bennet Street School, was founded by Pauline Agassiz Shaw, a Swiss-American philanthropist and social reformer. The original building – “big, nondescript brick,” according to a 1913 report published by the school, sat on the corner of North Bennet and Salem Streets in what was then a North End crowded with newcomers to the country. Now dubbed America’s first trade school, North Bennet assisted immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and a smattering of other European countries in their efforts to gain employment. “While America opens a door for any man to enter and make his way, yet serious is the struggle which those from foreign lands must often make to meet the new conditions. Many become helpless victims, an enormous expense and sometimes a menace to the state,” explains the report.

The school gained national attention for its then experimental methods and the high success rate of its graduates. “Prevocational,” the buzzword that led to the terms we use today, like “vocational school” and “trade school,” was coined at North Bennet. Today such schools are a commonplace option not just for immigrants but for many U.S. citizens, but in those early days the work was revolutionary, if problematic in its assumption that immigrants were arriving with no skills to speak of. Still, its students were accustomed to a new society and granted skills useful in the search for paid work, especially at a time when immigrants from Italy and Ireland were barred entirely from certain jobs just by nature of nationality.

Now located at 150 North Street, the North Bennet Street School offers specialty classes on everything from bookbinding to jewelry making, with no particular mission regarding immigrants. The North End, once an immigrant enclave avoided by high-class Bostonians, is now cramped with tourists and local suburbanites looking for an authentic Boston experience.

Back in present-day Cambridge, the New England Friends of Bosnia and Herzegovina facility is a centralized spot for Bosnian families all over Massachusetts and beyond, with some traveling from New Hampshire or Connecticut for events. The modest, one-story building juts out from the back of an office complex containing a dentist’s office, martial arts school, and bridal shop. Entering from the parking lot, through the door you’ll find an open space, almost like a living room, that serves multiple purposes: classroom, café, library, and more. A few offices and another seating area make the space comfortable, but not enormous. It doesn’t need to be.

For NEFBiH, retaining cultural traditions and memories is important, even as families adjust to raising children in a very different society from the one they grew up in. During the sixties, seventies and early eighties, former Yugoslavia was a relatively peaceful country with low unemployment rates and a good economy. Most never imagined that they would raise a family anywhere else. The rise in nationalism and religious hatred that revealed itself in the late eighties and culminated in the early nineties outbreak of war came as a shock to many, and the subsequent horrors of violence and genocide were incredibly destructive to the formerly unified country—particularly to Bosniaks, who were targeted by ethnic cleansing campaigns.

In December of 2012, soon after the center first opened, NEFBiH founder Ria Kulenovic worked with Bosniak artist Sejla Holland to put up “Bosnian Born,” an exhibit of almost fifty works of art by twenty-seven artists born in Bosnia, in a rented office space on Boston’s busy Newbury Street. “Each one of these artists – their story is related to Bosnia,” Kulenovic told the Boston Globe at the time. “The war is part of that, but it’s also about survival, and staying human.”

Every year, the center participates in a worldwide movement called “Što te nema?” (“Why aren’t you here?”). Those who choose to participate collect traditional Bosnian coffee cups, small and without handles, called fildžani. Participants lay out the fildžani on the ground in a public place, like a park or a square, and bring full pots of traditional Bosnian coffee to fill them with. The temporary public monument, started in 2006 by artist Aida Sehovic, takes place every year on July 11th in commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre of July 11th, 1995, the largest act of genocide that took place during the war. The cups represent Srebrenica victims and the many other lives lost in the Bosnian genocide. The coffee, thick and steaming, is a comfort for many, and a reminder of hours spent in cafes and living rooms with loved ones.

Every Saturday morning, Alma Jeleskovic takes an hour-long drive with her older daughter, Tara, from her home in Reading, Mass. to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design on Huntington Ave. in Boston for art class. In the bright, spacious lounge area, she sits down to wait for Tara, a talented artist with an interest in animation. Today is the final class of the semester, and later she will proudly view Tara’s work – comic book illustrations depicting the lives of two cats – in a crowded gallery exhibiting everything from installation art to figure paintings.

Tara is a graduate of the NEFBiH Bosnian language class taught by Ellen Elias-Bursac, a translator and retired Harvard professor. Tara’s younger sister, Zana, is a current student. Jeleskovic first became involved with the center when she heard about the Bosnian language school in the fall of 2013, its founding semester. “We live in a community where there are no Bosnians around us,” says Jeleskovic. “I was excited about my kids being surrounded with kids from Bosnia.”

Jeleskovic immigrated in 1996. She was 25, single, and spoke not a word of English. She knew no one except for her cousin, who sent over the paperwork and affidavit to get her into the country. Soon, though, she was introduced to Bosnian friends, who became roommates when she found a job food running at a hotel and could afford to live independently. The work was a far cry from the business and economics classes she was taking at the University of Sarajevo when war broke out, but she had to start somewhere. “It was a very intense period, for me and for all of us,” she says. “We all have very similar stories, and that’s what connects us. We like to get together and talk about how we got here.”

That’s exactly what she and other parents used to do, converting painful experiences into funny stories over coffee after dropping their kids off for the two-hour class. These days, busier schedules have prevented that particular tradition, but they all get together over holidays such as Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the most celebrated holiday in former Yugoslavia. New traditions arise when the two cultures merge.

Elias-Bursac, a warm woman dressed smartly but sensibly in a fine black top with jeans and sneakers, fiddles with wires and cables as her students, a small group of girls ranging in age from five years old to ten, wiggle in their seats. A pair of glasses, grey-blue and skinny-framed, complement her square-jawed bone structure, and a small lemon pendant made of colorful gems glints on her neck. She speaks the language like it’s her mother tongue, although she was born and raised in Cambridge. She spent years living and working in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, after falling in love with her now-husband – and the Balkans – during a yearlong study abroad program.

After some difficulty, she gets her laptop connected to the TV; like in all of her classes, she starts with a video screening. The last few students trickle in as a dubbed over version of 2015 cartoon film All Creatures Big and Small, about animals who sneak onto Noah’s ark, plays. “Can I turn the lights off?” asks one student, getting up and flipping the switch as soon as she gets an affirmative nod. The last fifteen minutes of the film entrance the kids with a dramatic rescue sequence, and the Bosnian dialogue poses no challenge, at least not until after the movie, when they have to fill out a worksheet in the language.

The classes are usually structured in a pattern: first a video, then comprehension and discussion, followed by grammar and vocabulary building. Students get a fifteen-minute snack break, then do a few more worksheets until everyone’s favorite part: learning and singing songs. Today, they sing “Guske,” a nursery rhyme of sorts about two geese who can’t seem to get along with gusto.

During the snack break, five-year-old fraternal twins Hana and Azra dance around in matching Oshkosh sweatsuits, while the oldest student, Medisa, brushes the hair of her new American Girl doll. Jeleskovic’s daughter, Zana, wears tall black boots and a cat-ear headband. She eats from a Tupperware container of pomegranate seeds and watches the other girls’ antics: jumping, dancing, singing, laughing, talking – usually, in English.

It’s easy for the children of Bosnian immigrants to lose the language, especially at the critical ages between toddlerhood and preteen age. That’s because at school, kids are constantly expanding their English vocabularies, learning more and more words. At home, the Bosnian vocabulary can often stay small and basic, only pertaining to household utility like food and furniture. After learning Bosnian songs and nursery rhymes in class, some of Elias-Bursac’s students were able to communicate with non-English-speaking grandparents for the first time, a proud moment for both their parents and their teacher.

The Jeleskovic family usually visits Bosnia every other year, though sometimes an extra year sneaks into the gap between trips; tickets are pricy, and vacation time is short. But spending time in a country is the best way to learn its language, and Jeleskovic wonders if her kids are old enough to spend a summer without her in Bosnia. Tara and Zana have a solid base in the language, but they still lack vocabulary and practice. Elias-Bursac’s class has made a real difference, though. “I think they have enough base to really catch and grab on more language while they’re there,” says Jeleskovic.

This semester, for the first time, Jeleskovic stood in for Elias-Bursac, who was traveling, and taught a class herself. Though it wasn’t easy to keep everyone focused, Jeleskovic says it was a fun experience that helped her better understand how the class is run.

Across the river and down the Orange Line, in Roxbury, lies another cultural center, though much larger and with a different focus. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) is a sprawling complex, covering a short block of land at the intersection of Malcolm X Boulevard and King Street. The center is home to the largest mosque in New England, as well as a café; a small shop that sells Qur’ans, traditional Islamic clothing, and other items that might otherwise be difficult to come by in Boston; classrooms and offices; and multi-functional halls that can be rented out for events.

Congregant Fawaz Al-Hasban moved to Boston three years ago from his native Kuwait, in search of a better life for his three sons, who are all deaf, blind, and autistic. In Kuwait, Al-Hasban was an activist for the rights of people with disabilities. He helped pass laws that made his country and others in the Middle East more accessible. Change, however, came slowly, and Al-Hasban wanted his sons to have every opportunity to succeed. They weren’t receiving the opportunities and education in Kuwait that he felt they deserved. Today, Al-Hasban’s children attend Perkins School for the Blind, where he also volunteers.

In October, the ISBCC hosted a Sunday-morning hike at the nearby Blue Hills reservation, a family-friendly community event. Al-Hasban arrived at the meeting spot with his three sons and a red cart he intended to carry throughout the two-hour hike, but soon became concerned.

The trails weren’t exactly accommodating for Al-Hasban and his children. Other community members rushed to help, though; someone held the hand of his oldest son. Another helped his middle son get across the obstacles. One attendee at the hike even took Al-Hasban’s cart and lugged it the entire way so that he was able to enjoy the hike, taking care of only his youngest son. It was one of the first times, since his move to Boston, that Al-Hasban felt he really had family.

At the summit of the hike, the contents of the mystery cart were revealed: coffee, tea, and dates for everyone in attendance to enjoy.

Al-Hasban tells this story the next Friday evening at the halaqa, a religious gathering led by one to a few primary speakers on a topic relating to Islam. The ISBCC holds one every Friday night, following evening prayers, and calls the event “Friday Nights at the Mosque,” open to anyone who is interested. Shaykh Yasir Fahmy opens this week’s conversation, entitled ‘Caring for the Disabled.’ “I felt that we as a community have fallen short,” he says, “that this is the first time that he feels this genuine sense of family. We should know that there is access to help in our community.”

Al-Hasban, a tall, thin man whose hands and voice are equally expressive, speaks first in English, to apologize to the audience of Muslims with various native tongues: “I feel more comfortable speaking in Arabic,” he says, before launching into his story. Fahmy translates. Al-Hasban, dressed up in a purple button-up and soft grey suit jacket, often smiles as he speaks of his children. Their cries, to him, sound like the most beautiful music.

“It’s nice to hear what other people are going through. I get to hear perspectives of people with whom I do not share much,” says Bushra Haque, who lives in Tewksbury, Mass. and attends Friday Nights at the Mosque as often as she can. The ISBCC has been a favorite destination of hers since she got married and moved from Toronto, Canada about a year ago. In Toronto, she was in a community of Muslims – a minority, but a well-represented one. Haque finds comfort and familiarity in being around Muslims at the mosque now that she lives in a town where she and her husband are the only Muslims she knows, but she also has learned a lot. Though everyone who attends the mosque is bonded by a shared religious practice, the ISBCC community is unlike other mosques in terms of the diversity of its congregation.

It has a parking lot, which is unusual as mosques are traditionally a central location, walking distance from those who attend. The Muslim community in the area has grown since the ISBCC’s founding, but many, including Haque, are further away and need to drive or take public transportation.

Omar Lotfy Rashed, who has attended the mosque since he moved to Boston just over a year ago, says, “It gives the entire community a place to congregate, and to share and reflect on their cultural background. They have a shared space and they have a safe space.”

At any given ISBCC gathering, you might find between forty and seventy different nationalities and ethnicities. Samer Naseredden, the center’s youth program director, says that because so much of the center’s community is made up of immigrants and/or the children of immigrants, the institution of the mosque itself has supported Muslim immigrant communities in Roxbury and beyond. Serving fellow Muslims and outside community engagement efforts are, for Naseredden, intrinsic Islamic values. “Our relationship with God is both vertical and horizontal,” he says. In the vertical sense, Muslims have a direct relationship with God and must nourish that through prayer and following the five pillars of Islam. “The other half is entirely about our horizontal relationship with God, and that my relationship with God is dependent on how I treat others, how I work to lift vulnerable and marginalized communities up and be good to [my loved ones and neighbors].”

Young children are present during prayers, outreach events, and discussions alike. “There’s an intentionality about ‘We want this space to be for people, Muslims of all ages, including mothers and fathers with young children.’ They’re part of the fabric,” says Lotfy Rashed. “They’re not an add-on, they’re not a burden, they’re not someone we wish would just go away. It’s ‘This is our community. We have children. This is the children’s mosque just as much as it is ours.’ I think that’s a positive ethos to have, especially surrounding children.”

Family, after all, is the reason Lotfy Rashed moved to Boston—he wanted to be close to his mother and his brother, Ahmed, who teaches the ISBCC’s Islam 101 class for new converts and those who want to learn more about the religion. It’s part of the aforementioned community engagement efforts that the center promotes. Another is Neighbors for Neighbors, which selects community volunteer projects to focus on every year. For immigrants who participate, it’s a way to ease into a new community and get introduced to neighbors they may not have otherwise met.

That’s the ultimate goal for most immigrants: to settle comfortably into a new community. Organizations like NEFBiH and the ISBCC help make that happen by providing reminders of home and human connections. Project Citizenship, based in central Boston, provides a different service: assistance with becoming a citizen, one of the most difficult processes for immigrants to get through and, for most, a major factor in feeling at home in the United States.

On a Tuesday afternoon, director of programs and development Matt Jose greets volunteers on the 49th floor of a Prudential Center office building. They are attending a training for the citizenship workshop to follow. In a meeting room with sloped ceilings and grey-striped carpet, Jose’s coworkers Veronica Serrato, executive director, and Peter Haskin, citizenship coordinator, instruct them on the finer points of the 20-page application for naturalization. “These are not simple questions, and they’re not worded well,” says Haskin. A projected slideshow covers marriage and children, selective service, and “information about the applicant,” which includes questions meant to determine moral character.

Volunteers are split into teams and sent into a larger conference room to get started on the first portion of the workshop, “Application Assistance.” They will be filling out the N-400 application forms. A few, including a tall man with wavy blond hair and a silky blue shirt on, are kept back so they can assist with the second half, where they’ll review the form and have the applicant sign all documents. “That’s probably the first time in life you’ve been held back. Enjoy it!” says Serrato.

At 4 pm, the workshop starts to fill with applicants. Jose, who has been working with Project Citizenship since the nonprofit was incorporated in the summer of 2014, moves from table to table, answering questions and assisting with any issues that arise. The room is set up so that applicants face the windows, beneath which the expanse of bright lights maps out the city many of them have begun to call home. It’s dark out, so the glass reflects the busy scene inside: singles and couples, old and young, from all over the globe together in one room, taking the first steps to achieve one shared goal.

Project Citizenship has grown exponentially in the last three years: in 2014, they helped about 150 people apply for citizenship. In 2016, the number grew to 1,507. This year, the number of applicants has continued to grow. With a 95 percent success rate, the organization is able to consistently fill seats at naturalization ceremonies.

It’s a little before 1 PM on a Thursday, just a few days before the first snow of the long Boston winter to come. As on most Thursdays, Faneuil Hall is closed for tours. Clusters of disappointed would-be visitors walk dejectedly away, moving on to the next historical sight down the freedom trail. Inside, a different kind of history is taking place.

The audience upstairs in the balcony has been waiting for a while now, and children are becoming antsy. “Mama!” call a few of them, intermittently. Downstairs, their mamas are preparing to become United States citizens, part of the day’s group of 337 immigrants from a list of countries that begins on Albania and ends with Vietnam.

A giant painting of the white men who once occupied the room is mounted above the stage. After the oath of allegiance, the judge, granddaughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, congratulates the new citizens. She quotes both George Washington and the popular musical Hamilton. “Immigrants make and will continue to make our country great,” she says. After she reads out the names of home countries, newly minted citizens rise and wave their little flags to thunderous applause. “Remember your newly gained rights. Get involved in your schools. Get out there and vote. Run for office. Start businesses. I hope that I will see you all soon in court. Not as litigates or as parties, but I want you on my juries.”