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Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Bosnian refugees gather weekly at the Hamdard Center on Devon Ave. The center is a place for the Bosnian community to gather and spend time together. A Bosnian man plays chess as others look on.    

Language barrier and lack of citizenship hinders Bosnian community from voting; many still support Obama

by Mariam Khan
Oct 25, 2012


Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Asja Dizdarevic speaks with a Bosnian woman about President Barack Obama. The woman prays for him every day, despite her inability to vote on Election Day. She is not an American citizen.


Mariam Khan/MEDILL

Dizdarevic, a Loyala University undergraduate student, works as a mental-health intake worker for the Hamdard Center.     

Mariam Khan/MEDILL    

Dizdarevic recounts the horrors of war she and her family experienced.


She can’t speak a word of English nor can she vote, but she still prays for President Barack Obama every single day.

The woman, a Muslim, recites the “Fatiyah”— or prayer – every morning and night for the president, hoping he will win the election, says Asja Dizdarevic, who translates for the woman and many others like her.

The refugees Dizdareric works with can only talk about who they would vote for. She said if they could vote they would vote for Obama. “Obama isn’t a Muslim, but they still look at him as a Muslim,” Dizdarevic says, citing Obama’s Muslim roots.

“They’re not very educated on the issues, but they like to be involved. Every one of them has said if they had the opportunity to vote, they would vote,” said Dizdarevic, who works as a mental-health intake worker at the Hamdard Center on Devon Avenue.

Dizdarevic herself is one of an estimated 100,000 refugees living in the Chicago area. The U.S. Census does not count Bosnians.

Hamdard is a non-profit, multicultural center that serves the Bosnian, South Asian and Middle Eastern communities in Illinois. A second center is in suburban Addison.

Dizdarevic, 21, is now an American citizen, but she came to America as a refugee. She came at a time when her countrymen were being butchered during the 1992-1995 ex-Yugoslavian, or Bosnian, war.

Chicago played an important role during this time, as the city saw the biggest influx of Bosnian refugees who were granted political asylum in the United States, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago’s website.

The ethnic war between Bosnians, Serbians, and Croatians, was a religious war. Its main purpose, according to Dizdarevic, was to exterminate Muslims. She is Muslim, as are the vast majority of Bosnians here.

The mass murder and genocide of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys took place during the violent war. Two million people became refugees out of a population of around 4 million people. In the 3 1/2 years of conflict, more than 100,000 were killed, according to

Ninety percent of the war’s atrocities were inflicted by Serbians, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s website. The CIA said that the acts of “ethnic cleansing” were carried out by Serbians, and that many Serbian politicians were aware of the events, and may have played a role in the crimes. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, is currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in the Netherlands for genocide crimes. His trial is expected to last several years.

Dizdarevic and her family fled their home in the Republic of Serbia during the early stages of the conflict and did not suffer to the extent thousands of others did. They came to the United States as refugees in 1995; she was 7.

Now fluent in English, she spends her days with older refugees, who, for the most part, are illiterate. She said most of them have a fourth-grade level education. Many have seen their brothers, sisters and parents raped, tortured, and killed. Almost all of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and see a psychiatrist at the Hamdard Center.

She works with the refugees in weekly group therapy, and they often talk about social issues and politics. They avoid discussing their pasts, she said, as it leads to anger and resentment, and oftentimes breakdowns and many tears. Dizdarevic also works as a translator for the in-office psychiatrist.

Because many of them are not American citizens, all they can do is discuss the politics of the presidential candidates, Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Dizdarevic said she presents them with facts. “This is what Obama thinks; this is what Romney thinks,” she said.

The biggest issue facing the Bosnian community, Dizadarevic said, is the language barrier.

Because of the nature of their move to America, not only are they still suffering from culture shock and emotional problems, but they have a hard time communicating their needs, she said. Even those who are citizens and can vote are still left feeling disenfranchised because they don’t know English.

Although there are many thousands of Bosnians living in Chicago, they haven't yet crossed the threshold that would then require the Board of Elections to add the Bosnian language to the ballot.

"Language assistance is provided based on Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act, which in turn is based on Census and American Community Survey data," said James Allen, communications director for the Chicago Board of Elections.

However, he said they do offer "basic voter assistance in numerous languages, linked directly off our homepage. We also have, in every Election Day polling place, a "We Speak Your Language" book that offers this same basic voting information in multiple languages."

Dizdarevic, who interned at the U.S. Dept. of Justice in Bosnia last summer, is graduating in June from Loyola University with degrees in political science and criminal justice. She plans to go to law school.

“I want to heal internal conflicts within society and allow justice to prevail as a result,” she said.