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Bosnians find home
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
March 26, 2002
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There's another wave of immigration in Rochester. Two decades ago, a couple thousand southeast Asians came to the city. More recently, Rochester became home to the second-largest Somali population in Rochester. This time it's Bosnians.

Ajla Heldovac and her son Armin
Ajla Heldovac stands in front of her house with her son Armin, 4. She and her husband bought the house with the help of two Bosnians who work in the local real estate business.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

The housing market is tight in Rochester. Finding an affordable house is work, but for immigrants it's especially difficult to get a mortgage. For Rochester's newest immigrants, Bosnian refugees, housing in the U.S. is completely different than the system they've been used to. In Bosnia, there's no such thing as a real estate agent. But now, many Bosnians are navigating their way through the system and buying homes.

Ajla Heldovac, 23, is one of those new homeowners. She gives a tour of her new house, and points out the highlights.

"We got a fenced yard. That's what we love about this house," she says.

The transition to life in a new culture has been tough. But now, Ajla can add buying a home to her family's list of accomplishments.

When she was 16, she and her family fled the war in Bosnia and moved to Rochester. She got a job and supported her family.

"My mom went to school, but it was much harder for her to learn English," Ajla recalls. "My sister is younger than I am, so I was the one who had to learn English to help support family."

Her father died of a heart attack in Bosnia at the beginning of the war. Ajla says the doctors wouldn't treat him at the hospital because he was Muslim.

Ajla Heldovac and her son Armin
Moving from the war in Bosnia to Rochester has been a tough adjustment for Ajla and other Bosnian immigrants. But she told MPR's Laurel Druley she now considers Rochester her home. Listen to the interview.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

Ajla completed high school in Bosnia, but didn't have papers to show for it. So school administrators in Rochester enrolled her in the ninth grade. She was the first Bosnian to attend her high school in Rochester. The public school system and all its rules were baffling.

"It was hard, especially because people don't know anything about war or Bosnia. It was hard to just get along with other kids, because they wouldn't understand most of the stuff that was going on," she says.

Ajla got her GED before the end of her sophomore year and met her husband Uzair. They got married and rented an apartment.

About 300 Bosnians live in Rochester and they're a very close community. Ajla says word travels fast. So when she heard other Bosnians were buying homes, she became interested.

Ajla works for Rochester Public Schools as a paraprofessional. Her husband builds truck cabs on an assembly line. Together they make $55,000 a year. A Bosnian friend told them that was enough to buy a house if they got a mortgage.

"In Bosnia you don't pay monthly payments for house. You don't have mortgage," Ajla says. "So they are scared here. Here it's very strict - if you are a day late it goes bad for your history. They can come and take your house if you are late on payments. People don't get comfortable until they see other people own house (sic)."

She says people in Bosnia build a home and then keep it in the family. So the American real estate market is a new concept.

Sanela and Amir Dzamalija
Sanela and Amir Dzamalija have helped more than 30 Bosnians in Rochester become homeowners. Sanela is a loan officer assistant and Amir is a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Burnet.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

One Bosnian couple, Amir Dzamalija and his wife Sanela, have learned the real estate market in Rochester. They've helped more than 30 Bosnian families buy houses in the last year. Amir Dzamalija is a loan officer, and his wife works as a loan officer assistant. Sanela translates real estate terms, policies and procedures into Bosnian.

"I think it's more convenient for them to come to talk to me, and I can explain everything in our language," says Sanela. "They can understand what they are signing. And we include them right away in a good program with good interest rate."

The biggest hurdle for immigrants is establishing a credit history. Amir Dzamalija helps Bosnians understand what kind of a house they can afford, and how to determine the type of loan they would qualify for.

"The expenses and qualifications for certain amounts for buying a house is different," he says. "It depends how much money you make, and houses in Rochester are pretty expensive. And of course, if you make less money you can't afford expensive houses."

Rochester doesn't have many housing options. Most Bosnians live in northwest Rochester - a part of town where there are a lot of new affordable housing projects.

More than 500 rental units are part of a subsidized housing program in Rochester. And a new affordable housing project promises another 40 units. City planners say it will help ease the housing shortage, but still won't be enough.

More Information
  • BBC Coverage of Bosnian immigrants
  • BBC Profile of Bosnia-Hercegovina