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Enjoy a bit of Bosnia in Utah

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Watch the girls and their grandmothers dance, heads held high, and you might not guess they're refugees.

On this summer night in Liberty Park, the members of the Bosnian folk group Kolo seem to have moved past that label. Without a glance down at their feet, the dancers form a line, throw arms across each other's shoulders, and laugh at their family members whooping and clapping on the sidelines.

"It feels good to remember your culture," says Alisa Kokic, a Yugoslavian-born 19-year-old who came to live in West Valley City five years ago.

Kokic represents one segment of Utah's multiethnic, multigenerational wave of 10,000 refugees from the protracted war in Yugoslavia. She learned English at Highland High School, works at an airport restaurant while attending Salt Lake Community College, and plans to become a teacher.

"You can learn this dance," she says, green eyes flashing. "Come and learn."

That same encouragement comes as easily from Sanita Sladojevic, only the time and place are more specific: "Bring your dancing shoes," she says, to the Bosnian & Hercegovinian Festival, 2-11 p.m. this Saturday at the Columbus Center, 2531 S. 400 East.

An evening at the Atlantic Cafe, under the care of owners Miro and Anka Bako, provides a taste of Bosnian generosity. The aromatic dishes keep coming, like toboggans down a hillside: seasoned ground beef, freshly baked pitas, olives, cheeses, sweet-pepper spreads and baklava so rich it commands a blissful pause after each bite.

"We feel so well taken care of, just like at home with Mother," remarks Mladen Maric, one of the Bosnian community's leaders.

Maric came to Salt Lake City as a teenager in 1973, when the other Slavic people in Utah were mainly miners, not refugees. He's watched the state's capital diversify and watched Yugoslavian refugees start their lives over again.

"There have always been things happening in Utah," in terms of cultural celebrations, Maric says. "But they were happening behind closed doors. Now those doors are opening."

Sladojevic lived in a refugee camp before a resettlement agency brought her to Utah in 1995. She was 20 then.

"It's really hard to go through a war. It leaves marks on you," she says. "They drop you here and that's it. It's a struggle.

"We don't take life for granted."

Refugees typically start out in lower-wage jobs and small apartments, yet Bosnians have refused to shrink their sense of hospitality.

"We offer you everything we have," Sladojevic says. "You cannot leave (a Bosnian home) without eating and drinking."

Adjusting to life in Utah hasn't been entirely smooth, of course.

Sladojevic, having lived in a refugee-camp tent, wasn't eager to go camping here until recently. But she adores skiing, saying she can scarcely wait for real snow. She quit smoking, finally; Maric says many other Bosnians haven't managed that yet. He's working with a refugee organization with the hope of offering smoking cessation classes.

Bako, the Atlantic's owner, has re-created a meeting place for Bosnians and anyone hungry for European atmosphere. He doesn't say much about whether he'll ever return home, or whether he misses the place where he grew up. Then his 5-year-old son, Loren, bursts in the restaurant's door.

"His home is my home," Bako says.

Saturday's festival, Maric adds, is a celebration of the new start Bosnians have made in Utah. Whatever their background, "We want people to come and celebrate life with us."

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com


What: Bosnian & Hercegovinian Festival

When: 2-11 p.m. Saturday

Where: Columbus Center, 2531 S. 400 East