When Fedja Buric arrived in Louisville in 1995, the first things he noticed were the smiles. Walking down Bardstown Road as a newly enrolled sophomore at Atherton High School, the 16-year-old Buric was caught off guard by the casual kindness of strangers.
“Back then, I was really kind of taken back,” he said, recalling his first days in the States after emigrating with his family from the war-torn nation once known as Yugoslavia. “The openness of people was a shock.”
Buric’s family were among the two million people forced to flee the Balkans during the ethnic civil war in Bosnia in the early 1990s. His parents—one Muslim, the other Croat—had no choice but to uproot their family in search of a safer destination. After two years in a Turkish refugee camp, that place turned out to be Louisville, Kentucky.
“There was really no space for my family,” Buric said of the experience. “It was a country falling apart.”
Bosnia’s loss became Bellarmine’s gain, as Buric would spend four years on campus, graduating in 2002, before moving on to pursue a doctorate in modern European history with a focus on nationalism at the University of Illinois. He returned in 2012, joining the history department as a full-time instructor, where he has remained ever since—teaching courses on World War II, nationalism and the Western World.
Today, Buric is known around campus as an affable professor with a quick wit, a wide subject knowledge and a relatable teaching style, as well as a deep-seated disdain for actor James Franco. Now, ironically enough, it’s rare to catch him without a smile.
“Dr. Buric is able to take difficult topics and teach them in a way that doesn’t lessen their significance or impact but makes them digestible for students,” said junior Kate Lamb, a history double-major who has taken several classes with Buric. “He always comes to class with a smile, interacting with his students and cracking jokes.”
This sentiment is one shared by Dr. Timothy Welliver, Buric’s colleague in the history department and his former adviser in his undergrad years.
“I have always been impressed with his intelligence, his good humor, and his humility,” Welliver said. “He has overcome some very wrenching experiences in his life and apparently come out the better for them.”
Buric’s experiences as an immigrant and refugee have informed his teaching as well as his outlook on humanity.
“I always tell students, ‘don’t take anything for granted,’” he said.
The recipients of this advice are students like Lamb, who said, “He was able to share his own experiences in our Balkans class specifically and provide insight that could never be conveyed through a textbook.”
Since 2017, following the election of Donald Trump, Buric has also been a periodic guest contributor for the Courier Journal. The correspondence began in January of that year, when the newspaper published an open letter he penned to Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, pleading for a return to human decency in modern American immigration rhetoric.
In the letter, he described his experience coming to the U.S., the abiding kindness he felt from Kentuckians, and how McConnell’s office actually helped his father visit an ailing aunt in France before he could obtain a green card.
“Not once, did my foreign heritage, or my refugee status, hinder me in Kentucky,” Buric wrote at the time. “On the contrary, Kentuckians from all walks of life, and of all generations, urged me to keep telling my story… And as a result, I became a historian, and a proud American.”
As the national narrative regarding immigration has turned increasingly divisive in recent years, spurred on in part by Trump’s polarizing campaign rhetoric, Buric has become disillusioned with the very institution that once gave his family a home.
“I had this anger,” he said, referring to the first letter. “I also realized what was happening in this country… comparing it to my experience when I came to Kentucky in ‘95, it’s completely different.”
Although currently on a brief sabbatical, Buric does his best these days to impart the importance of monitoring the social climate to students, noting that “political moments can change very quickly”—but still, in times of doubt, he reminds them to be kind above all else. After all, a simple smile can go a long way.