Serb Service

Refugees from war-torn lands find sanctuary under the Golden Arches

The early evening has left the McDonald's lobby somewhat vacant.

A few patrons are finishing their meals while others are working on a post-meal ice cream cone.

A customer comes into the restaurant and approaches Admir Lejlic, the first assistant manager. The customer is complaining about the lack of attention given to his kid when he fell on the playground earlier that day. Apparently the child cried for several minutes without drawing the attention of the on-duty manager or any employee.

Ana Sijecic Ismihna (foreground) keeps tabs on sizzling Quarter Pounders.
Paolo Vescia
Ana Sijecic Ismihna (foreground) keeps tabs on sizzling Quarter Pounders.

This customer is big and menacing. He's wearing a plaid button-up shirt and faded blue jeans. He's got a big belly, a blond beard and is waving his index finger at Lejlic, demanding a solution to his gripe.

Lejlic is diplomatic. He agrees there was a problem and says he will forward the complaint to the store manager. The man leaves, somewhat satisfied.

Lejlic was unfazed. He is, after all, a man hardened by the sound of bombs in the middle of the night, exploding only miles from his home.

A man who wondered whether his family would survive the onslaught of artillery aimed at his country -- whether he would get out of Bosnia and live to see another day.

So today is not so bad at this McDonald's at Cactus and Tatum, near Paradise Valley Mall, where Lejlic has worked for two years since arriving in Phoenix as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia.

It's a miracle he's even here.

Lejlic (pronounced lay-litch) is one of 30 refugees working at this Phoenix McDonald's. Recent arrivals from Croatia and Bosnia make up 75 percent of its staff.

The golden-arched eateries have long been synonymous with initiating zit-faced 16-year-olds into the workforce. But an active economy in the last five years has created an abundance of jobs in the Valley and a scarcity of teen workers to fill them.

Jerry Wornell, co-owner of the McDonald's franchise, says finding teen workers also is tough because the 10 locations in his franchise are in the Scottsdale, Fountain Hills and Paradise Valley areas.

"In these neighborhoods, unemployment is very low and a lot of kids don't need to work," Wornell says.

Not only are teenagers scarce, but workers of all ages are dwindling due to a vast pool of jobs.

This surplus has forced McDonald's and other companies to search for nontraditional methods of recruiting employees, such as turning to refugee agencies.

And it seems to be working.

Employers have unearthed a gold mine of human resources within the three refugee resettlement agencies in Phoenix -- the International Rescue Committee, the Lutheran Social Ministry and the Catholic Social Service.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security reports that 5,740 Bosnians and 336 Croatians have settled in Arizona since 1993. Since 1998, 336 Serbians have resettled here, and since 1999, 535 Kosovars.

Not to mention the 1,453 refugees from Africa and the Middle East who had resettled in Arizona as of June of this year.

Eighty-five percent of these people live in Maricopa County, and they all need jobs.

But no matter the kind of work, these refugees, like Lejlic, are living their interpretation of the American dream.

Lejlic, who learned to speak English with no formal instruction, is a tall, lanky figure, and very polite. His hair is so short you can see his scalp at the back of his head. But it's slickly combed and very neat.

His face is thin and accented with sharp features: a pointy noise, a strong jawbone.

He looks like he's in his late 20s, but he's 37. His true age becomes even more apparent when he tells his story about a journey to America.

It's a story with epic elements that starts shortly before the Bosnian conflict.

"I left Bosnia a week before they start the war," Lejlic says.

That was in 1992. But even before the war started, Serb militants had begun bombing cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, signaling the start of Slobodan Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Lejlic and his family would be woken by the thunder of artillery in the middle of the night.

"Two or three in the morning," he says.

After one night of bombings of a nearby city, the 100,000 residents in his city of Brcko began to flee.

The next morning, Lejlic was somewhat hesitant about leaving the coffee shop he owned that sat adjacent to his house. But his in-laws insisted he get the family out of there.

"It's hard to know what you're feeling when it is the day; you don't believe it's happening," Lejlic says. "But you get scared and see that something is wrong."

On the day they left, his wife packed a bag and dressed their boys, ages 2 and 7 at the time. They took no photographs, no memories with them. He gave his house and business keys to a friend and left.

Many residents had already evacuated the city. The streets were empty and the silence was eerie.

"It's so quiet, just maybe a few dogs barking," he says.

The family started walking and eventually crossed the Croatian border.

Once across, Lejlic put his family on a bus that would take them to the city of Zagreb, Croatia's capital, where they had some friends.

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