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by Milina Jovanovic

Context for Bosnian Immigration

History and Government

All parts of the former Yugoslavia were under the Roman Empire during the first centuries of the Christian era. By the 7th century Slavs formed a number of countries and duchies in the Balkan region. Around 1200 Bosnia gained its independence from the Roman Empire. In the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks conquered most of the Balkans. The Ottoman rule continued throughout the end of 19th century. After five centuries, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria gained full independence. Subsequently Bosnia was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until World War I.

The first Yugoslavia was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and existed between 1918 and 1941. The second (usually referred to as former) Yugoslavia was a socialist federal republic (SFRY). It was formed right after the World War II and consisted of six republics and two autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina, parts of Serbia). After president Tito’s death (1980) there was a collective presidency with a president from all republics and autonomous provinces, rotating every year.

The Yugoslav crisis and wars started in 1990. Slovenia was the first to proclaim independence in 1991, followed by Croatia. War conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina continued through the first part of the decade (1991-1995). The most recent conflicts (1999-present) include the war around Kosovo, and the destabilization of Macedonia. The Dayton Agreement, signed in 1995, created a Bosnian government composed of the Bosniak and Croat Federation and the Bosnian Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). The Chief of State is Alija Izetbegovic.


The former Yugoslavia was a country with significant economic growth, receiving economic support from both East and West. In 1985, for example, Yugoslavia’s gross domestic product was similar to that of Hungary and Portugal. Until the 1980s, the standard of living in the former Yugoslavia was the highest in all of Eastern Europe. However, the war and economic crisis negatively affected all parts of the former Yugoslavia. High inflation occurred in the early 1990s. Also, for example, UN data for the income per capita in Bosnia-Herzegovina of $938 from 1997 shows the impact of war and its impact on the economy and living standards. Questions related to the international debt of the former Yugoslavia are still unresolved among the former Yugoslav republics.

Immigration from the Former Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina

There have been many waves of so-called “old immigration” from the former Yugoslav republics. Serbs and Croats have been coming to the U.S. since the 1820s; other groups continued immigrating throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the past decade “new immigration” from Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia came to Santa Clara County mostly as “economic immigrants”, seeking better economic opportunities. Significant numbers of them, including Bosnians, are computer specialists and their families. Populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina came to Santa Clara County almost exclusively as refugees, and to a lesser degree as asylees.

Politicians emphasize political and ethnic conflicts inside the former Yugoslavia to explain the wars and immigration. On the other hand, social scientists often focus on the actual process of disintegration of the larger country, the role of international forces, and geo-political interests in the Balkan region. Global economic inequalities, international loans, and policies of the IMF and the World Bank are some of the most important elements for the economic context for immigration.

The majority of the Bosnian public assistance survey respondents replied that the war was the most important reason for their immigration to the U.S. However, 42% of respondents also checked economic problems, and 48% political conflicts, while 37% emphasized ethnic problems. A smaller cited family reunification and educational opportunities. This is understandable because the Bosnian community is new and just recently established in Santa Clara County. The first Bosnian refugees started coming to Santa Clara County in 1993. Most Bosnian immigrants first found refuge in European countries, such as Germany and Austria.

Social Characteristics of the Bosnian and Yugoslav People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

The population of the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina is very diverse. More than 25 national and ethnic groups have been living in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. According to their self-identification the largest groups include Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians, Slovenians, Albanians, Slovaks, Romanies, Hungarians, Romanians, and others. A very substantial number of people living in the former Yugoslavia identify themselves as Yugoslavs. According to a 1998 UN estimate made after the war, the following national groups lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Serbs 40%, Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks): 38%, and Croatians 22%. Major religions were Slavic Muslim (44%), Orthodox Christian (31%), Catholic (15%), Protestant (4%) and others (6%).

Before the war, it was very common in Bosnia-Herzegovina to have a single street where Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and others lived together. Typical Bosnian towns had mosques, Catholic and orthodox churches, and synagogues next to one another. In general, the socialist Yugoslavia was a secularized society. However, throughout the socialist period, it was not uncommon for all groups to celebrate their religious holidays in religiously and ethnically mixed circles that shared traditions and joy. During the 1990s the revival of all types of religious influences was observed throughout the region.

Family Life

Throughout the former Yugoslavia, mixed marriages were common. According to a 1990 estimate, in most urban centers in Bosnia-Herzegovina over 1/3 of all marriages were those between spouses of different ethnic and religious origins. The mix between traditional patriarchal and modern elements was generally observed in most families. However, in big urban centers modern families were very likely to be predominant. In general, modern laws and socialist ideology changed many gender roles throughout the former Yugoslavia. Many women were likely to be economically independent, to pursue non-traditional careers and to participate in the political life, including at the highest political levels. High percentages of educated population significantly influenced the process of redefining gender roles.

Health Care Practices

The health care system was efficient throughout the former Yugoslavia. Universal health care existed for everyone. During the socialist period, medications were available at no cost. A small number of people believed in alternative medicine. In general, many Yugoslav people developed a certain level of pain tolerance and would rarely take pills for minor health problems.

Mothers gave birth in medical facilities, most often without fathers being present. Most mothers believed in natural process of birthing and would not take pain relievers. Younger generations were more likely to take pregnancy classes and birth preparation classes. All mothers and fathers were entitled to a year-long, paid maternity leave.

Mental health patients were treated in special mental health facilities. In urban settings many people worked on de-stigmatizing mental health and mental illness.

Educational System

In the former Yugoslavia education was free of charge, including colleges and elite schools. All schools were public. One of the main characteristics of the school system was solidarity among students. Collective values predominated even though individual success was valued. Competition existed, but was not emphasized. Students’ achievements and grades were public information. Overall achievements, rather than test grades, determined students’ opportunities for further education. Students were required to study foreign languages, starting in primary grades and sometimes in preschools or kindergartens. Besides mathematics, native languages, history and social studies, elementary school education included daily courses of geography, biology, chemistry, physics and European and world history. In high schools students typically took advanced levels of all courses taught in elementary schools. In addition, they studied philosophy, logic, sociology, psychology and Latin. It was emphasized that every intellectual should speak at least a couple of foreign languages.

Significant numbers of people in the former Yugoslavia were college educated. At the same time, illiteracy did not disappear. In the 1989/90 school year there were 261,161 university students enrolled in many programs. There was almost an equal number of male and female students, and female students were slightly more likely to graduate than their male counterparts. Women obtained their bachelor’s and master’s degrees and specializations at almost the same rate as men, according to statistical data for the former Yugoslavia in 1990. The only area where women were somewhat disadvantaged in comparison to Yugoslav men was the doctorate level. Women were very likely to get educated in the medical, legal and economic fields.


Bosnians in Santa Clara County


The survey respondents were all public assistance recipients. Their average age was 39.5 years, and in 98% of the cases they used Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian in their communication. Differences between these languages are minor – similar to distinctions between British and American English. On average they lived two years in Santa Clara County. Nine out of ten reside in San Jose and Santa Clara. About 18% of the survey respondents completed more than 15 years of schooling, 35% more than 12 years of schooling and 92% more than 10 years of schooling. The average number of people living in the households of Bosnian immigrants was four. In 54% of the cases 2 family members were employed, and in 18% of the cases 3 or 4. However, none of them reported a total family income of $90,000 or more. On average, our survey respondents worked around 41 hours per week. Still, 31% of them reported earning less than $10,000 and 44% earned between $10,000 and $30,000. Thirteen percent had a family income between $30,000 and $50,000, and the same percentage earned $50,000 to $90,000 per year.


Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

People coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina are open and friendly. The level of openness varies and is definitely influenced by experiences shaped by the horrors of war. In general, Bosnian as well as other Yugoslav people are proud, hospitable and family oriented. There is a significant level of “westernization” that took place in the former Yugoslavia and many former Yugoslavs communicate more like Western Europeans than the stereotype created in the media and public discourse about people coming from the Balkans. At the same time, most Bosnians and former Yugoslavs tend to be direct and sincere, and do not necessarily follow the patterns of politeness and rules of conversation created in the Anglo-Saxon world. Among Yugoslavs, it is common to have direct eye contact, to shake hands firmly, and to hug and kiss in public.

Emotional Support

According to our survey respondents, they talk to spouses, friends or relatives if they have emotional problems. Only 7% of the respondents talk to no one. They rarely talk to doctors, teachers, community leaders and religious advisors.

Mothers and fathers are most likely to take care of their children. Many of them experience difficulties with preserving parental authority, since they often depend on their children’s better English skills. About 21% of our respondents reported that older children took care of their younger siblings. Only 16% of them reported that grandparents were child care providers. Because of immigration extended families, neighbors and old ties are less likely to exist. However, friends are still likely to help with child care. Only 7% reported their children being enrolled in child care centers. However, 26% of the survey respondents would prefer institutional care for seniors and the disabled. Around 55% of them prefer in-home care by family members or trained care providers for seniors and the disabled.


It would be hard to say that there are dominant clothing styles. However, many people follow fashion trends. Being close to Rome and Paris as “fashion capitals,” especially urban population from the former Yugoslavia was often recognized in Europe as “well dressed.” Even the war and economic hardships did not influence a lot of people to change their attitude toward emphasizing the importance of clothing and following fashion trends.


Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian and other cuisines from the region are products of many cultural influences. Turkish, Islamic and Mediterranean influence are clearly recognized. Also, many Hungarian, Austrian and German foods became transformed into typical Yugoslav foods. Many Yugoslavs and Bosnians are used to drinking a lot of coffee. In most parts of the former Yugoslavia, it was considered rude to have a visitor and not offer any food or drink. For example, many athletes and visitors of the Winter Olympic Games organized in Sarajevo (1984) still remember their Bosnian hosts and their hospitality. Coming to Santa Clara County, many Bosnians and Yugoslavs preserved some elements of the original cuisines and eating habits. Even though only a few restaurants in the area serve the foods from the region, many families produce dishes, such as boureks or kebobs, with the taste from their homeland.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

In Santa Clara County, Bosnian immigrants organize large picnics and invite members of the community at large to these events. The goal is to emphasize more original cultural values and traditions than religious ones. At the same time, many Bosnian Americans are connected with a number of religious institutions in the area, and are greatly contributing to cultural and religious life.

In general, Bosnian people celebrate a number of religious and secular holidays. Especially in the cities, where intermarriage is very common, families might celebrate many holidays such as New Year’s and Orthodox or Catholic Christmas. Muslim festivities center on Ramadan, the month of ritual fasting associated with the lunar calendar. Exchanging household visits and small gifts is a particular feature of the three days at the end of Ramadan (called Bajram). Eastern Orthodox Christian families also celebrate the Slava, or the family patron saint.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

The top five needs of Bosnian Americans, as identified by the survey of public assistance recipients, were citizenship (69%), immigration legal services (67%), medical care (59%), ESL (56%) and dental care (55%). The focus group participants added housing, wages, transportation and dependent care. Solutions for all of these needs included a lottery for getting some land and building a house, rent control, easier procedures and requirements for verification of foreign degrees, organized help with transportation, providing better health coverage and less expensive medical services, and a community center with both child and senior care services that would be linguistically and culturally appropriate.

Participants of IBC thought that public transportation could be better utilized, or special funds for transportation expenses given to existing organizations. They also proposed special ESL classes for elderly people, and hoped for more medical doctors and nurses who speak native languages. IBC participants also emphasized that it would be good for the existing organizations to establish a “job-line” and outreach to the community with information about employee and employer rights.


Only half of the respondents who were stopped by the police reported feeling respected. About 60% of them felt scared, 40% had communication problems, 30% did not know their rights, and 20% expressed lack of knowledge about laws. Also, 20% of the respondents reported being mistreated by the police. The survey respondents felt discriminated against mostly by social or eligibility workers, co-workers and school officials.

Barriers to Education, Services and Benefits

The most often mentioned barriers were lack of time, lack of English, lack of information, lack of affordable child care, and scheduling ng public assistance. About 67% of the respondents thought that the amount for CalWORKs was not adequate, and 40% of respondents shared this opinion regarding food stamps. They knew the requirements for food stamps and MediCal much better than for all other forms of assistance. Only 32% of public assistance recipients indicated they knew the requirements for CalWORKs; 9% for CAPI, and 9% for General Assistance. More than 80% of the respondents felt respected by county workers. The majority of respondents thought that their culture was respected as well. Fifty-three percent of the CalWORKs recipients said that they did not understand written materials well, and 90% did not understand phone calls or orientations. All of respondents said that they did not understand food stamps orientations, while 79% did not understand phone calls and 56% did not understand written materials. Regarding MediCal, 53% of the respondents did not understand phone calls, 63% did not understand written materials and 79% did not understand orientations.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

Seventy-five percent of the survey respondents have children under 18 in school. Over 70% of these parents would prefer school instruction offered in both English and their native language, while fewer respondents prefer their children to be taught exclusively in English. The most frequently used services at school were lunch and breakfast programs and parent meetings. About one quarter of the respondents said they were using counseling services or after school activities and 39% tutoring programs. Only 19% of parents reported getting information from their children’s schools in a language they understand. About 14% reported that their children were using on-site child care.

Employment Training

About 33% of the Bosnian Americans who responded to our questionnaire received vocational or professional training in the U.S. Most often they took ESL, GED or training for assemblers, technicians and transportation workers. Smaller numbers of them reported receiving training in the area of education. When asked about where they received their training, they responded that it was in institutions for adult education (30%), private businesses or institutes (25%) and community colleges (15%).


Forty-six percent of the survey respondents evaluated their English skills as poor and 32% as average. About 21% said that their English skills were good or excellent and 2% of them reported “no English skills.” However, it should be noted that in the former Yugoslavia, modesty was promoted as a value in connection with self-evaluations. The greatest number (87%) of respondents reported that English was needed for everyday situations, 75% said that they needed English for employment, 57% for filling out applications and for participating in their children’s schools, and 55% emphasized the importance of English to be able to read literature and continue education. It seems that having friends fluent in English was perceived as the most important factor to learn English quickly. Also, 46% of the respondents thought that using TV for English classes was important.


Only 2% of the survey respondents reported that they were naturalized U.S. citizens. Most Bosnian Americans are permanent residents. Those who were not U.S. citizens reported that they needed the following help: legal advice (45%), disability waiver information, (36%), citizenship classes (32%), help with filling out the application or paying or waiving the $250 INS fee (23%), and English literacy classes in their own language (21%).

Communication and Outreach in the Bosnian Community

Most of the survey respondents reported that they are best informed by talking to friends (63%). They are also very likely to get information from TV in English (44%), the Internet, and radio in their native language (40%). Other important ways to get information are through the San Jose Mercury News, family members, radio programs in English, and newspapers in the primary language (in order of priority). Most of the surveyed public assistance recipients reported that they had modern appliances in their homes. For example, 98% of them had a TV, 93% a radio, 91% a telephone and 61% had a computer at home. In addition, 50% of them reported having both Internet access and email accounts, and 46% of them had a VCR.

Bosnian communities have a need for dialog, circulation of information and community response. However, some infrastructure already exists. The EMINA Publishing Company publishes the newsletter called NASE SAD (translated – Our USA, Our “Now”, or Our Presence) and the entertainment magazine OSMIJEH (Smile), in the native language. In addition, every Sunday evening the Eastern European Services Agency (EESA) broadcasts in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian, including various music selections from the homeland.