The person in charge of the mid-morning chapel at Atlantic Union College announced that the student speaker that day was originally from Yugoslavia, and her topic was “From Communism to Christ.” I was intrigued. From the wings strode a very pretty woman in a dark blue dress. I sat up straight, leaned forward, and put down the magazine I usually brought to stave off boredom.
She spoke with poise and conviction. Her image and speech lodged themselves in my brain for the rest of the day. By late afternoon, I had determined that I needed to ask her for a date. After supper, I nervously called the girl’s dorm, got the switchboard, and asked for Ann Zuvicic. While I waited, I rehearsed the brand-new opener I had carefully crafted for this special occasion.
“Hello?” Ann offered.
“Hi, this is Kim Johnson from the men’s dorm. I really enjoyed your talk this morning.”
“The reason I’m calling is to let you know that we took a survey here to determine the prettiest girl on campus and…guess what…you won!”
“Any chance you would go with me to the program at the auditorium this Saturday night?”
“Uh, well, I guess so. Thanks.”
“Great! I’ll pick you up at 7.”
That was Tuesday. I injured my leg playing flag football on Thursday and had to wear a cast from the knee down. At first, I was upset. But then I thought, Hey, maybe this can work for me. Sure enough, when I showed up for our date using crutches, I could immediately feel waves of sympathy radiating my way. I even had to lean on her to negotiate the stairs. Perfect.
Our next date was picking apples in a nearby orchard. On the way back to the dorm I asked if she could bake an apple pie.
A moment’s hesitation, then, “Uh…sure…sure. Come back around 4 and we’ll eat some in the dorm kitchen.
It was delicious. Almost as good as mom’s.
Twenty years later, Ann and I were reminiscing, and she confessed that her roommate had made it, adding, “Didn’t you suspect something? I haven’t made one since then!”
As we continued dating, I learned more about the details of her life back in Yugoslavia. Born in 1949, she grew up in Malinska, a picturesque coastal village that faced the clear, turquoise blue Adriatic Sea. The charming seaside town was full of gorgeous bays and beaches, perfect for long walks and days spent by the sea.
A straight “A” student, Ann loved school and was a voracious reader. Her dream was to one day attend university and become a history professor. Teachers made it clear that communism under then-President Josip Broz Tito was the key to the future, while capitalism was the enemy, leading to decadence and crime.
Ann’s summers in Malinska were spent lounging on the beach with her younger sister, only yards from home, and rooting for the country’s professional soccer team. The sisters swam in the horseshoe shaped harbor that was ringed with multi-colored commercial and leisure boats tugging at their anchorages.
Their mom tended a lush vegetable garden that could give any modern-day supermarket’s produce department a run for their money. The entire family tilled, planted, weeded, and harvested. Plump figs regularly graced the dinner table from the dozen fig trees that dotted the side yard.
Religious life centered on the Catholic church of St. Nikola. When Ann turned twelve, her mom made the very unusual decision to become a Seventh-day Adventist due to the influence of a sister-in-law. They were the only two Adventists on the island. Viewed as a cult by many, rumors and misinformation about Adventism circulated.
Several months after Ann’s sixteenth birthday, her parents sat her and her sister down for what they described as “an important talk.” Her dad’s unusually serious demeanor made them both nervous.
He began, “Last week we received a surprise in the mail. Twenty years ago, before either of you was born, your mother and I applied for a visa to immigrate to the United States. We’d pretty much forgotten about it. Now they’re notifying us that our family has finally been approved. It took so long because of the quota system over there.”
Ann shuddered. She stared in disbelief as her mom explained further.
“It’s been a very hard decision. We have lots of friends and family here. This is all that we know. Our whole history is here on this little island. But for the sake of everyone’s future, we think it would be best to go ahead and move. Your uncle in New York City has offered to be our sponsor, which means we’ll have to live there.”
Malinska was bountiful in natural beauty but much less bountiful in financial opportunity. The Zuvicic’s, along with many other year-round residents, struggled to make ends meet. Ann’s parents felt that living in America would offer a significantly higher standard of living.
After hearing about the move, Ann thought, How can I leave all my friends and live in an enemy country? And New York City of all places! It’s a huge concrete jungle. Just the opposite of everything I love about Malinska!
Her mom continued, “I know this must be difficult, and I’m sorry. I hope you can eventually see the wisdom of our decision. It’s not going to be easy for your father and me either.”
As Ann left the room, tears welled up in her eyes, and she thought, Sixteen is the worst possible age to relocate to an alien world! I don’t know a single word of English. Everything that’s familiar is gone. My life as a professor is gone. I’ll never find a boy to date and marry. My life is over. She fell onto her bed and wept quietly.
Their departure date was three months away. During that time, the family traveled to the capital, Belgrade, to file the necessary papers and apply for green cards. They were scheduled to sail on an ocean liner in steerage. All the family’s belongings had to fit into a single trunk. To Ann, it seemed totally impossible.
One by one, household items began to be sold or given away. Neighbors purchased appliances. A used furniture company came and took the beds away. Ann’s favorite desk and chair were given to one of her friends as a farewell gift. More than half of her wardrobe had to be donated or tossed. Worst of all, they could only take a handful of her beloved books. The once cozy home felt more and more like a drafty warehouse that mirrored the emptiness in Ann’s own heart.
The day they left, everyone in the family tried to put on a brave face as they waved goodbye to friends and relatives in Malinska. The journey took them by ferry to Rijeka on the mainland and then by train to Genoa, Italy. When they finally arrived at the port of departure, they blended into the crowds boarding the hulking vessel that would carry them to their new home. Their cabin below decks was smaller and stuffier than anyone had hoped with two sets of bunk beds in the same room.
The five-day trip over the Atlantic was relatively uneventful. Ann and her sister were finally able to find something to lighten their mood by swimming in the onboard pool and playing games offered on deck.
On the morning of the sixth day, the announcement came over the loudspeaker that they would be pulling into the New York harbor in about forty-five minutes. It was the middle of June, 1964. Everyone hurried to the railings to get a good view. Ann’s heartbeat quickened as she strained to see the tallest skyscrapers come into view.
They’re so huge! she thought.
And then…there it was, the famous Statue of Liberty! Ann’s mom squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. It all suddenly became very real. As the ship maneuvered into place dockside, Ann’s family spotted her uncle waving excitedly from the shore.
After greetings and hugs, the Zuvicic family was driven to their apartment in Queens. They entered the large front door of a twelve-story apartment building, crowded into the elevator, and were taken down to the basement. The first thing they saw was the massive boiler and the myriad overhead pipes heading off in all directions. Their uncle led them to the opposite side of the sprawling, oily-smelling room to their small, one bedroom apartment. In the bowels of the city, they all felt very much like immigrants. Their new reality was jarring and so very far from their little village. They felt far from their pristine harbor, their lush garden, their clean, open spaces, and refreshing air.
In a few short weeks, Ann had to start her junior year in high school. In such a limited time, she could only learn a handful of self-taught sentences in English. On opening day, she left the basement trying to fight back feelings of trepidation. Her backpack contained lunch, several schoolbooks, and a translation dictionary. She made her way to the subway for the first time, hoping to remember the name of the right place to get off. The noise, clatter, and screeching metal were grating for a girl from an island village that had only one car.
As she entered the school, it felt surreal to be surrounded by crowds of young people all chatting about things that were completely unintelligible. The homeroom teacher enrolled her in a class to learn English, but otherwise her subjects were the same as all the other juniors. How do you get good grades when you can hardly understand what page to turn to?
As the months rolled by, Ann worked harder than ever to just get Cs and C-s in subjects as diverse as American History and Chemistry. For a teenager who was used to getting straight As, it was terribly disheartening. A deep sense of insecurity expanded within Ann’s heart and never fully went away.
Without any Yugoslavian friends, Ann suffered from chronic loneliness. One day, her mother suggested she come to the Yugoslavian church nearby and join the youth group there. Ann accepted the invitation and was soon delighted to be able to converse easily with others from her home country. After several months, the pastor offered to give her Bible studies. It wasn’t long before she was baptized.
After her high school graduation, Ann headed off to Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster, MA, enrolling as a social work major. The undulating hills and rural greenery were a welcome relief from the visual desert of cement and asphalt back in the city.
The college textbooks were thick, and the professors lectured way too fast. Reports and research papers required constant references to her translation dictionary. Homework took three or four times what it normally would back in Malinska and resulted in much lower grades. Academically, she felt like everyone else was running while she was slogging through thick mud, but she persisted. Thankfully, her American roommate helped her come out of her shell and make new friends.
Ann and I met in year two. During a school break, she took me to meet her parents in New York. They had moved up in the world to a first-floor apartment. Her dad was a chef at the famous Plaza hotel and her mom was the superintendent of the ten-story apartment building where they lived.
Wanting to make a good impression on her parents, I asked Ann how to say “Hi, I’m very glad to meet you” in Yugoslavian. I rehearsed what she told me many times before we arrived. We entered the building and knocked on the door. Her parents appeared with big smiles. I immediately launched into my greeting, “Ja sam jedan veliki magarac!” Her parents looked a bit puzzled, then chuckled. After big hugs, they ushered us inside. Concerned, I later asked Ann what I had actually said. She translated, “Hi, I’m a big donkey!”
Two years later, I asked Ann's father for permission to marry her. Ann had told me to listen for the word “Da,” for yes. I nervously asked my question about marriage. Dad immediately launched into a lengthy reply, none of which I understood. I thought, “What on earth did I say this time!” Eventually he ran out of steam and, to my great relief said “Da, Da!”
We were married in 1971 at the Yugoslavian Adventist Church in Astoria, Queens. Ann became a U.S. citizen on May 6, 1983.
Ann’s immigration story is not terribly unusual and that is precisely the point. It is normal for immigrants from all over the world to display remarkable courage in leaving all that is familiar to reach for something better. Being drawn into this particular immigration story has given me an inside look at the many delays, hurdles, and discouragements that have to be overcome to experience what we take for granted. To paraphrase Amy Chua, “A foreign accent is a sign of bravery.”
As Christians who are instructed to care for the strangers in our midst, it is important to hear the truth about immigrants today in the face of very loud misinformation. Research done by the venerable Carnegie Corporation of New York, refutes several pernicious myths:
MYTH #1: “Immigrants will take American jobs, lower wages, and especially hurt the poor.”
FACT: Immigrants don’t take American jobs, lower wages, or push the poor out of the labor market.
MYTH #2: “Immigrants abuse the welfare state.”
FACT: Immigrants use significantly less welfare than people born in America.
MYTH #3: “Today’s immigrants don’t assimilate as immigrants from previous eras did.”
FACT: Immigrants to the United States — including Mexicans — are assimilating as well as or better than immigrant groups from Europe over a hundred years ago.
MYTH #4: “Immigrants are a major source of crime.”
FACT: Immigrants, including illegal immigrants, are less likely to be incarcerated in prisons, convicted of crimes, or arrested than individuals born in America.
MYTH #5: “Immigrants pose a unique risk today because of terrorism.”
FACT: The annual chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born person on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2017 was about 1 in 3.8 million per year.
Additional research by the Case Foundation reveals the following:
– 60 percent of the most highly valued tech companies were co-founded by first- or second-generation immigrants.
– 40 percent of businesses on the U.S. Fortune 500 List are launched by immigrants or children of immigrants, even though they only make up about 13 percent of the US population.
God clearly has a special place in His heart for immigrants and refugees. He told the Israelites, “So you too must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” (Dt 10:19) God’s own Son and his parents were refugees in the land of Egypt for about two years to escape the murderous designs of the wicked King Herod. Our churches today would do well to be places of refuge. Individually, we can be as welcoming and supportive as if we were the ones who had left everything behind and traveled so very far.
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for Adventist journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
Image Credit: Louis Eilshemius, Girl on a Pier, c. 1900 (Smithsonian, creative commons zero license).
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