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The incredible story of a Serbian refugee, a misplaced South Dakotan and a mission embodied by Nikola Jokic

Harrison Wind Avatar
May 29, 2018

One came from Serbia, the other from the rolling Black Hills of South Dakota. Together, they’re the ‘Black Serbs,’ and they’re out to bridge the gap between their two drastically different worlds. This is their unlikely story.

Meet David Brkljac

When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombed the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999, David Brkljac and his family became refugees. Brkljac (pronounced bur-kuh-yutch), who was seven at the time, lived in Novi Sad, a bustling community of a little under 300,000 people and known for its culture and laid-back lifestyle.

It was the second-largest city in the former Yugoslavia and one of the areas that bore the brunt of the bombings. The bombings targeted facilities that had military use, including oil refineries, roads, bridges, and telecommunications relay stations. The attacks disrupted water supplies to 300,000 people in Novia Sad and cut off access to water to 40,000 more.

When NATO bombed the cities’ oil refineries, 50,000 tons of crude oil burned. It contaminated Novi Sad’s groundwater and air. The Danube River, Europe’s second-longest and the body of water which Novi Sad sits on, wasn’t deemed “clear” until 2003. The city and community, which Brkljac, his twin sister Luna and single mother Milica called home, was shattered.

“The country was so devastated,” said Brkljac. “We were struggling for food. There was no water, no electricity. Everything you were accustomed to was gone. They bombed our bridges. If you wanted to go from one town to another, you had to take a boat.”

The Brkljac family fled to Hungary along with hundreds of Serbs. There, they found peace and Milica found a future husband, an American serving in the United States Air Force whose job it was to fix the same planes that were bombing Novi Sad. Brkljac and his family later returned to Serbia where Milica and Brian kept in touch by writing letters to one another. Brian apologized over and over again for his part in the war. The two eventually got married in Italy, and the family immigrated to the US.

They settled in Rapid City, South Dakota, where Brian was stationed. Brkljac enrolled at Central High School, a 3,000 student school 35 minutes north of Mount Rushmore. His English was passable at best. He had difficulty making friends. He had trouble fitting in. It was a culture shock.

“I’m coming from Italy, which was just eight hours away from Serbia. I could travel back and forth and enjoyed both places,” Brkljac said. “I went from that to a very different culture. It was odd and strange. After a while, I got really depressed. There was no culture.”

One October night during a Football game, Brkljac and a group of friends got into a fight with another group from a rival school. Eventually, the brawl escalated to involve multiple groups of students from multiple schools.

Things got out of hand.

I remember pulling up to the parking lot, it was in a soccer field,” said Jibri Bell, one of the students involved in the brawl. “There was a group of kids in a circle. My friend was fighting one of [Brkljac’s] friends, and he was getting his ass whooped. At one point he pulled his shirt over my friend’s head, and he was still swinging. So I jumped in. I’m a small dude and next thing I know I’m on the ground getting kicked in the head.”

The kick from Brkljac, which Bell now describes as “Zlatan Ibrahimovic-esque,” nearly killed him. He was in a coma for three days.

Meet Jibri Bell

Jibri Bell had a rough upbringing as an African-American child with an absent father in South Dakota. The Black Hills is home to Mount Rushmore and five other national parks and monuments, but it’s a far cry from the big-city lifestyle where Bell feels like himself. 82 percent of the population in South Dakota is caucasian. Just two percent are black. Bell routinely got into fights. He didn’t take school seriously. He felt like an outcast.

“There’s obviously not a lot of black people in South Dakota,” Bell said. “I just didn’t have a place to fit in. I was an African-American kid who grew up in the Black Hills with Native Americans and Cowboys. It was lonely.”

After Brkljac put him in the hospital, Bell’s mother had enough. She sent Bell to boot camp in Custer, South Dakota for what was supposed to be six months. He got out in three.

Bell cleaned up his act. He vowed to no longer get into fights and rededicated himself to school. Then one night at a party, he met a girl. She was singing a song in Serbian.

“It was beautiful,” Bell remembered. “I said to her ‘I don’t know what your language is.’ But I had to get to know her.”

Opposites attract. Eventually, the two started dating. Two months into their relationship Jibri’s girlfriend introduced him to her brother.

His name was David. David Brkljac.

Brkljac and Bell were two outsiders living in South Dakota, but they eventually found a common ground with one another because of their vastly different cultures, both of which preached honesty and integrity. They were open with one another, genuine in their interactions, and somehow, years after Brkljac nearly killed Bell in a fight on a high school field, they became close. Really close.

So close that even after Jibri and Luna eventually broke up, their friendship carried on.

Meet the “Black Serbs”

Brkljac, now 26-years-old and Bell, 23, eventually took their talents on the road. They left South Dakota for Denver and then Los Angeles. They started making YouTube videos under the name “Black Serbs.”

“The name Black Serbs (or its Serbian translation Crni Srbi) is about being who you are no matter where you’re from, no matter what your background is,” Brkljac said.

Black Serbs represents many things, like being yourself, not conforming to society’s inherent stereotypes, staying true to what’s inside you. It speaks to the dichotomy between Brkljac, a Serbian refugee, and Bell, an African-American from South Dakota. It also illustrates the harsh reality that racism in Serbia and elsewhere is still prevalent.

In a 2007 under-21 soccer match between Serbia and England, Nedum Onuoha, an English defender was subject to racist chants by Serbian backers. In 2012, English left-back Danny Roose was the target of more racist chants from Serbian fans at the conclusion of another under-21 Serbia versus England match during Euro 2013 qualifications. In 2017, Brazilian-born soccer player Everton Luiz, who played for Partizan in Belgrade, was a victim of a racist banner and chants from FK Rad supporters, another Belgrade soccer club. Luiz left the field in tears.

Bell knew about those stories but still wanted to visit the country he had heard so much about. Eventually, the two got to Serbia. Soon, Bell was speaking Serbian. He learned the language through music. Once he got exposed to the generous, hospitable, and caring nature of the country, he was hooked.

“Serbia changed my life,” Bell said. “I didn’t feel human before that. I didn’t feel quite whole as an individual before I went to Serbia. Serbian culture was the first culture that made me feel human.”

The most accidental friendship progressed into a partnership and ultimately a business. 

The Black Serbs’ first video, “Coming to America Episode 1,”  where Brkljac and Bell bounce around Los Angeles and try to ingratiate locals into Serbian culture, was shot in Los Angeles in 2013. It quickly generated around 1 million hits on Youtube. Their second video, “Coming to America Episode 2” followed a similar storyline and was shot in Denver. The two immediately gained a mass following in Serbia.

Brkljac and Bell have since produced more videos, some of the music video variety. Their 2014 project where the Black Serbs posed as fans of rival Serbian soccer clubs Red Star and Partizan — the two biggest clubs in Serbia — and tried to sway Los Angeles locals to support one side of the rivalry, picked up even more steam back home.

Going into business with friends can be a fatal mistake, and it almost was for these two. After some success through their Youtube channel, Bell wanted to move to Serbia and capitalize on their newfound fame, but Brkljac thought it would be wise to stay in Los Angeles. 

The disagreement led to a brief split.

Bell, the African American from the Black Hills in South Dakota who had never been out of the country, moved to Serbia. He went by himself, toured Eastern Europe, and rooted himself into the only culture that he’s ever felt accepted by. He now says he’s from Serbia —not South Dakota — when asked. Brkljac, who grew up in Serbia and was fluent in his native tongue, stayed behind in L.A.

After a few years, the two got back into contact through a mutual friend and started making videos again. In May, they shot “Ballin like Jokic” which pays homage to Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic.

Why Jokic?

“He represents core Serbian values,” Brkljac said. “He’s not like other NBA stars. He’s laid back and keeps a tight-knit circle. He’s so unselfish on the court and is always looking to set his teammates up and get others involved. His play on the court and generous, unselfish, and selfless personality reflects the principles that Serbian people live by.

“He’s an icon in Serbia. He’s really an inspiration to me. He’s not afraid to be who he is, which is what our name Black Serbs stands for.”

Both Brkljac and Bell didn’t fit into the Cowboy and Native American culture of South Dakota. Some would say Jokic, who’s from Sombor, doesn’t fit in with the culture of the NBA. In a league where players are constantly curating their images ever so carefully both on and off the court, Jokic stands out from the herd.

Jokic will dress down in a Nike sweatsuit to and from games while teammates just a couple lockers down drape themselves in the latest designer brands to hit the streets. Jokic doesn’t care about numbers in a league where some players still prioritize individual success over team success. He’s generous, kind, the opposite of self-centered, and unselfish. He isn’t afraid to be who he is in a league where it’s often difficult to distinguish between real and fake.

He is the Black Serbs.

The “Ballin Like Jokic” video, which was partly shot at Pepsi Center on the campus of the University of Colorado and in Boulder, Colorado’s foothills, also shouts out other Serbian NBA stars like Vlade Divac, Nenad Krstic, Peja Stojakovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Boban Marjanovic and Nikola Mirotic, who was born in Montenegro. But it centers around Jokic, who embodies Brkljac and Bell’s message.

“Ballin like Jokic,” which has lyrics in both English and Serbian, has generated more than 200,000 views in a little over two weeks.

Currently, Bell lives in Chicago, where he tries to steer African-American youths away from the type of trouble he found himself in as a kid. He’s the creative director for Pride ROC, a nonprofit gang and rescue refinement program whose goal is to end the violence in Chicago by reforming those at its core.

Pride ROC targets active shooters and those being shot at in Chicago’s south side Englewood community and gives them trauma therapy, life coaching, job placement, housing assistance, educational, legal, and family support.

He doesn’t want kids making the same mistakes he did when he was younger.

“I rescue Gang members,” Bell said.

Brkljac lives in Denver but eventually is moving to Chicago to join up with Bell and make videos full-time. Why Chicago? “Little Serbia,” as its known, is home to 500,000 Serbs. Chicago has the second-largest population of Serbs in the world after Belgrade.

When Jokic and the Nuggets visited the Bulls in March, more than 500 fans flooded United Center for “Serbian Heritage Night.” They showed up with posters, chanted Jokic’s name throughout the night, and pleaded for selfies with Denver’s star after the final buzzer. It felt like a home game for Jokic who finished with 21 points on a near-perfect 9-11 shooting, seven rebounds, and five assists in a 33-point Nuggets’ win.

A similar scene unfolded in February in Milwaukee, which also has a healthy Serbian population. Those fans were treated to a historic night when Jokic recorded what’s believed to be the fastest triple-double in league history.

Has Jokic heard the song?

“I don’t know,” Bell said. “But I’m sure he has. When I saw him at a Nuggets game, I just ran up to him, threw my arm around him, and started jumping up and down and rapping. He seemed pretty confused but went along with it.”

Brkljac and Bell have big plans, but their mission is simple. They say that sometimes Serbia is portrayed negatively in the media and they’re trying to reverse some of the common stereotypes associated with the region while communicating their Black Serbs message. 

In a sense, they’re trying to connect their two drastically different worlds.

“We’re two brothers trying to change the world and create a bridge from Eastern Europe to America,” Bell said.

Brkljac and Bell couldn’t be more different, yet they were destined to go on this journey together.

Jibri’s real first name? David. Both of their mother’s initials are MB. Both of their biological fathers were never in their lives. Both of their stepfathers are named Brian. Both of their sister’s names start with the letter L. Bell’s girlfriend is named Donna. Brkljac’s is Desiree.

One, a troubled black teenager from the Black Hills of South Dakota. The other, a Serbian immigrant who nearly lost everything when his hometown was once destroyed.

Together, they’re the Black Serbs.

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