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Kentucky by Heart: Refugee couple from war-torn Bosnia adds to richness of life in Bardstown

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Ed. Note: This story is reprinted from the 2008 first volume of Steve Flairty’s Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series and appeared previously in KyForward.

The couple lived a charmed life. Dzevad won renown as a member of both the Bosnian national soccer team and later as a professional player. Living in a place where a fledgling democracy had many economic challenges, Dzevad and Merima Kreso owned a popular and prosperous restaurant in a large city, one where a former Yugoslavian president had dined.

They had three healthy and well-adjusted children, and the family was well-connected socially. It was, for the Kresos, a happy existence. Then, the war came.

The Bosnian War (1992-1995), is often referred to as a civil war. Merima Kreso disagrees.

“It was a criminal war,” her strong voice asserted. “People were stealing houses. Soldiers were coming, stealing pictures and cash…taking everything you had.”

Their restaurant in Bana Luka was taken from them. For a while, the Kresos remained in Bosnia, trying to hold on to the best life they could in a land they loved and were deeply rooted. In the end, they decided to seek a better life elsewhere, away from imminent danger and a place where, Dzevad said, “there was an opportunity to succeed if you were willing to work hard.”

Kresos Restaurant (Photo Provided)

Through an international program to help refugees, the Kresos were given a choice of three countries to enter: Australia, Canada, and the U.S.

“We wanted to come to a place that didn’t have a socialistic government, a place where we could work hard and move up. We chose the United States,” said Dzevad.

An interesting thing happened in the process of the Kreso’s change of locations. A Bardstown minister, Ken Thompson, became a bit of a personal angel to the Kresos.

“He chose us out of a list of people to be sponsored by his church when we came,” said Merima. “He talked with his congregation about us and today we have had a great friendship with him.”

On July 21, 1995, the Bosnian family arrived in Bardstown—a long distance away from the war-torn Balkan region of Europe. The Kresos were looking only for a little help to get them started while they oriented themselves to new, and much different, surroundings. They got it, as the family was placed in an apartment and treated warmly by both the church congregation and the Bardstown community.

It was appreciated, indicated Merima.

“In the two months we arrived as refugees, these people gave us what we needed-and for life,” she said.

Uplifted by the show of support, the couple began to master the English language and soon leased a downtown restaurant at 114 North Third Street. The customers came — and they kept coming.

The Kreso children, all girls and ages eight, twelve, and fourteen, became a part of the school system and did well in their classes. In time, Dzevad received the opportunity to share his gifted soccer skills as nearby St. Catharine College’s soccer coach, and later at Bethlehem High School.

Merima and Dzevad Kreso (Photo Provided)

Merima worked hard with Dzevad at the restaurant, often 60-70 hours per week. In short, the Nelson County community had gained five new members who worked hard and contributed.

The Kresos were now established transplants in another country, happy and admired by many who knew them. But there were more dreams to chase. Down the street from their restaurant, there were a couple of empty, adjacent buildings that had seen no life for more than 30 years.

They were, at one time, the Arco and Melody movie theatres, formerly thriving entertainment centers in Bardstown. For Dzevad and Merima, memories of their fine dining establishment in Bosnia began to stir them. Could these remnants of another era, these almost forgotten representations of local history, be turned into something special for the Kresos—and, something unique for the good people of Bardstown?

“Dzevad was afraid about it at first,” said Merima, “but I really wanted to do it.”

“I told her that if she really wanted to do it, we would,” answered Dzevad.

The decision was made. The Kresos would buy both buildings and renovate them into a large, exquisite restaurant and café. That is, if they could obtain a loan.

“We were not able to get the loan from the first bank we tried,” said Dzevad, “but the second bank did. They are very happy about it now.”

After purchasing the real estate in 2002, what seemed an almost daunting project became an invigorating adventure that motivated them, according to their web site, “to preserve the original features of the structure as well as enabling themselves to suit the needs of the restaurant.“

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Dzevad remarked, “We began to remove the many layers of flooring. It was hard work and we got down on our knees using a knife to clean it. We found a treasure of terrazzo flooring there.”

The process of renovation took about two years. What’s more impressive is that the Kresos continued to successfully operate the other restaurant during that period.

Today, Kresos Family Restaurant and Mozart Café is one of the most popular fine dining establishments in the area. And, it looks to be around for a while.

“People from other cities have asked us about moving our business there, but we love it here,“ said Merima.

Mary Casey, a friend who renovated another building next door, praised the Kresos.

“What remarkable people they are! Up early every morning, a full day at the restaurant, and more often than not their heads don’t hit the pillow until after midnight. And they have been doing this since they have arrived in the U.S.”

Betty Seay traveled with the Kresos to Bosnia a few years ago. They shared an emotional experience as they revisited the former restaurant.

“Instead of feeling bitter about their financial loss, they have chosen to look at life in a positive view and count their blessing everyday. They are also loyal to friends and family and are very generous,” she said.

Speaking of loyalty, Dzevad’s former soccer players at Bethlehem High “always touch base with him when they pass through Bardstown. There is a tremendous bond between him and his players,” said Bethlehem colleague, Tommy Reed.

Mayor Dick Heaton has known the Kresos since they arrived in Bardstown.

“They came here with nothing,” said Heaton, “and became a big part of our community.”

Heaton also talked about the cosmopolitan nature of the restaurant the Kresos have influenced.

“I noticed one day that we had, sitting around my gathering, representatives from five different ethnic groups.”

Hard work, appreciation, a creative spirit. In truth, Bosnia’s loss has been a fabulous, inspiring gain for the people of Bardstown, and likewise for all Kentuckians.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. His new book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” has recently been released and is available for purchase here. Flairty is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, as well as a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his past columns for excerpts from all his books. him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or friend him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

To read more of Steve Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart columns, click here.

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