By Grayson Hester
Our country has never been more divided. Or, so our recent public discourse would have us think.
Discounting the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s, it seems that our political camps have never been more firmly entrenched, our ideologies never more diametric. And while this may be true, we may also be in need of some perspective. For one point of view, we can turn to Mira and Sasha Zivanov, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel serving in St. Louis, Mo., the heart of the contiguous United States.
The Zivanovs know in their marrow what it means to live in a divided country. Both were Bosnian refugees from the former Yugoslavia—which now comprises Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. They have seen with their own eyes the disastrous consequences of division.
The ethnic wars that devastated their home country in the 1990s literally divided their borders, their families, their histories and their life trajectories. Like millions around the world, they came to the United States—in Sasha’s case, as a refugee and in Mira’s, as an immigrant.
“Bosnians first started coming to St. Louis after 1994,” Mira said. “It seems that the government was very helpful to them, offering assistance with opening businesses and with many other things.”
While St. Louis may not seem at first glance the obvious or most accessible choice, the Zivanovs explain that it is similar, geographically and architecturally to their homeland. Familiarity, after all, is often what migrant peoples seek in a new place. It’s one reason why St. Louis has become a Bosnian hub in the United States. More than 70,000 Bosnian people live in the city, which is precisely why the Zivanovs live and minister there. As CBF field personnel, it is their mission to provide hope, hospitality and, in Sasha’s estimation, a smile.
“I came as a refugee, and I always wanted to see the smile and the welcome in the people that I was going to meet,” he said. “I needed to have people willing to listen to my story and willing to accept me as I am, to open their door to me so I could come in and feel comfortable and be loved.”
The Zivanovs carry the migrant experience in one pocket and the Gospel in the other. This confluence of narratives has led them to work directly with the Bosnian population in St. Louis since 2004, when they were under the employ of Kirkwood Baptist Church. It wasn’t until 2011 that they were commissioned as CBF field personnel and, since 2017, they have sustained their vital work with funds from the CBF Offering for Global Missions.
For the past 16 years, Mira and Sasha have provided indispensable services to up to two percent of the Bosnian population (14,000 people), as well as to other refugee populations (Iraqi and Afghani, for example) whom they serve. They do this now through the recently established International Fellowship Center.
“When we open the doors for friends, they open the doors for us. Usually we will drink coffee or have tea with a family. When we visit Iranian or Afghanistan families, we don’t understand each other,” Mira said. “But the smile means a lot, and we share that cup of coffee or tea—something huge for the people that are here.”
Moving to and integrating into a new society often proves hugely difficult for people, even if they speak English. For those who are non-native English speakers, it can be nearly impossible. The bureaucratic maze of paperwork and fees and appointments, mildly annoying to those who grew up here, can be an existential nightmare for people trying to make a new life here.
“You’re not going to always be accepted. Actually, most of the time, you’ll hit the blank walls really,” Sasha said. “Some people will try to help you, but others will just ignore you.”
Having experienced this for themselves, Sasha and Mira want as few people to go through it as possible.
The Zivanovs offer translation services, in addition to facilitating a huge network that can assist with finding affordable housing, completing paperwork, securing appointments, and navigating the kind of red tape Americans all but take for granted.
But they don’t stop there. The Zivanovs’ ministry isn’t simply about getting people settled; it’s about finding people family. That’s why a central feature of their work in St. Louis revolves around a food pantry. After all, there’s no better way to share life than to share a table.
“Food pantries are a big opportunity for us to meet with the families and help with their needs,” Mira said. “We share the food; we share love; we share prayer; we share understanding—all as we meet the families.”
Started as a collaborative effort among several St. Louis-area churches, the service eventually became defined by the Zivanovs’ presence, chiefly because they spoke the language and understood the experience of those with whom they were working. This knowledge has led them to be just as interested in filling stomachs with food as they are with filling heads with knowledge; to this end, they also provide a tutoring service.
Study after study demonstrate the importance of a good education in the life of a family, regardless of nationality or immigration status. Many Bosnian parents, therefore, insist that their children work tirelessly for that which they never had—education.
“My biggest hope is for my kids to go to school and to finish school. I lived in Bosnia where I never had the opportunity to go to school,” said Mirsada, who met the Zivanovs through the food pantry ministry.
But a major roadblock for Mirsada’s children, and many Bosnian children like them, comes in the form of language and cultural differences. Hard work yields few results when the system is not able to accommodate those who are working.
Faced with this pervasive problem, Mira put it simply: “We need to do something about that.”
“She did figure out a way we could do that,” Sasha said. “Back in 2014, we started working with the kids in the community, helping them.” The Zivanovs initially helped with education by way of home visits, where they could sometimes find themselves helping five different kids on five different levels and subjects of schoolwork. And while that particular effort has changed, what hasn’t changed is the care with which they serve and the family they have created along the way.
Indeed, for all the services the Zivanovs and International Fellowship Center provide—and there are many—what remains most important are the relationships they’ve nurtured.
“I consider them to be my second mom and dad. Mira and Sasha are the best; everyone knows that—both as friends, and as people,” said Sanela, whom the Zivanovs have walked alongside throughout her time in St. Louis.
For Mira and Sasha, the feeling goes both ways. A couple they met through the food pantry, Milan and Kata, remain vitally close even as they no longer visit the food pantry due to age and Milan’s advancing dementia.
“I feel like they’re really part of me and my family. Both of them are very concerned about what we feel. They always want to help us out in any way because they want to return the favor,” Mira said.
This experience is not uncommon among refugee and immigrant populations—a people group that’s the largest it has ever been (and only getting larger). Torn asunder by war, washed away by climate change, or caught in the crosshairs of political dispute, these peoples often don’t choose to leave. They’re forced to seek a better life, any life, elsewhere.
And what a better life looks like isn’t simply help with food and housing and tutoring and paperwork, although those are important. A better life looks like community and family, wherever they may be found.
“What do I want? For my kids to have it better than I did,” Sasha said. “For us to have peace, to be good, to be well, to live well, to have a normal life.”
As long as they have the funds and support to do so, Mira and Sasha fully intend to continue fighting for their refugee families to have that normal life. It’s not merely a directive—it’s a Gospel calling, etched in bones that have walked across borders, traversed vast seas, and endured incredible burdens.
“Well, once you are an immigrant, you try to help those who are going through the same process that you went through,” Sasha said. “It’s a common brotherhood, I guess, or a common need. We come together either to celebrate something or to fight for something or to share something.”
And, to hear Mira tell it, there are few better places to share that ‘something’ than in a welcoming church or larger Fellowship.
“If you can find your place with the people who are around you, and you feel you are safe in that place, and you feel that, ‘Okay, this is my country now,’” she said, “this is something that we’re all looking for—security, stability and peace.”
Watch a video story about the Zivanovs’ ministry below:
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This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.