Serb Service

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.

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.

Along the way, Lejlic recalls passing through the empty cities destroyed by the bombs. The only signs of life were a few farm animals or stray dogs.

This was the work of the Serbian planes he had seen flying over his house heading toward Croatia in 1991.

What at one time seemed to be someone else's concern now became his.

"You don't think, 'It can happen to my family,'" he says.

Once in Zagreb, Lejlic says, "I still didn't believe it, how people can kill somebody for religion.

"If you walk on the street, you can't tell religion," he says.

Orthodox, Jew, Catholic, Muslim.

"But they [soldiers] check I.D., and if they see your name is Admir (a Muslim name), they kill you," Lejlic says.

In Bosnia, religion was not an issue. His father was Muslim and his mother was Catholic.

"It was not a problem," he says.

Until Milosevic made it a problem.

Lejlic says Milosevic spoke eloquently on television and sounded "so nice."

Though Milosevic began to discuss the building of a Serb-only state when he was elected Serbia's president in 1986, nobody thought he would go through with it, so there was no fear, Lejlic says.

"You can't be afraid because you have so many friends that are Serbs and Croatians," he adds.

Lejlic won't say what he thinks of Milosevic. He thinks about it but does not answer.

But he says, "The Serbs that live here don't like him."

Many Serbs did not agree with Milosevic's tyranny and fled in protest; 350,000 Bosnians sought asylum in Germany.

In 1992, Lejlic and his family were among 35,000 Bosnians allowed to resettle in Berlin.

"My wife has an uncle there and he helped us, maybe for a month," Lejlic says.

But the uncle was poor and could maintain Lejlic's family for only a short period of time.

So they moved to a makeshift apartment set up by the German government: a series of walls that made small rooms for refugee families. No toilets. Tiny kitchens.

His fluency in German won him a few temporary jobs in construction. He'd learned the language in high school.

Eventually, he found a stable job as the manager of an apartment building. With the job came a rent-free basement.

"You couldn't see out or anything," Lejlic says.

But he was willing to do what it took to survive. He kept the job until he came to the U.S. in January 1998.

The International Rescue Agency sponsored Lejlic in Phoenix and helped him get the job at McDonald's.

Lejlic spoke no English and started out as a cook. But he picked up the language and is now fluent.

He says he's worked hard to achieve his present status and his life continues to improve.

And so far, he's content with his job at McDonald's.

"You move up fast here," he says.

Still, Lejlic says he wouldn't mind doing something else someday.

"I'd like to open another restaurant, maybe American coffee bar," he says.

Lejlic heard that his coffee shop in Bosnia is still operating, and that really upsets him. He'd like to go back someday, but right now he's trying to get his family rooted in the U.S.

Lejlic bought a home in Phoenix last year and drives a new Chevy Malibu.

His son, Almir, now 15, works with him at McDonald's and is a sophomore at Greenway High School.

"I do everything but cook," Almir says.

Lejlic's wife, Amela, has been taking accounting classes for the last two years and works for a local construction company.

They have one other son, Armin, who is 10. The two boys speak English fluently.

Almir plays baseball for Greenway High.

"Two years ago, he didn't even know what a baseball was," Lejlic says.

The three Valley rescue agencies are the pipeline for refugees resettling in Phoenix.

Agency representatives are the first people whom refugees meet at the airport. The reps set up a place for them to live, turn on the utilities, stockpile refrigerators with food and provide clothing, furniture and other necessities for the first 30 days.

Refugees are here because they cannot return to their countries. They have proved to the U.S. government that they have been persecuted or have a fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion -- the criteria for asylum as outlined in the Federal Refugee Act of 1980.

In fiscal year 2000, the government allocated funding for the resettlement of 93,000 refugees in the U.S.

A chunk of them have come to Phoenix.

Barbara Klimek, resettlement director for the Catholic Social Service in Phoenix, estimates that 2,500 refugees a year pass through one of the three Phoenix agencies, all of which are affiliates of larger national or worldwide organizations.

The local Catholic agency is one of the oldest in Phoenix and has offered social services since 1933. However, its refugee resettlement program did not begin until 1975 -- a function of the Vietnam conflict when 400,000 refugees from Indochina arrived on U.S. soil.

The Lutheran Social Ministry opened its Phoenix office in 1970, a few years before the fall of Saigon.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is the most recent addition to the Phoenix resettlement agencies. It opened in the Valley in 1994.

Craig Thorson, director of the refugee program at the Lutheran Social Ministry, says the 1970s saw refugees "almost exclusively" from southeast Asia. But, Eastern Europeans from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo have made up the highest number of refugees in the past decade.

In recent years, the agencies also have seen increases in Middle Eastern and African refugees coming into Phoenix.

Such an influx combined with limited funding -- $700 per refugee -- means refugees must become self-sufficient as soon as possible. That means going to work.

The agencies place the refugees on the basis of their experience. And, though some refugees may be illiterate in their own languages, others are highly educated, says Robin Dunn-Marcos, regional director for the IRC.

"Many of them are professionals; they were doctors, attorneys, and now they work at a hotel," she says.

Menial jobs, however, have not diminished the spirit in some of these refugees. Many are again climbing the success ladder they were familiar with in their motherlands.

"The majority of them will do what it takes to find the American dream," Dunn-Marcos says.

Two years ago, McDonald's franchise co-owners Jerry Wornell and Mark Kramer found themselves at a loss about how to solve their employee-shortage problem. So they contacted the rescue agencies.

"We had read in the newspaper that a lot of refugees were coming in. My partner and I thought this could be a really good source for employees, a win-win situation," Wornell says. "Help the refugees by offering them employment and staff our restaurants at the same time."

Within the 10 McDonald's restaurants in the chain, there are currently 80 employees who are refugees, many of whom have been with the company more than two years. Some are going into and others already are in management.

Refugees make the same starting wage -- $6.50 an hour -- as other employees, and get the same benefits, including the option of a 401(k) retirement plan.

Although his initial intentions were not completely altruistic, Wornell says he has become very aware of where the refugees come from and the conditions they left behind.

"They are really good people," Wornell says. "And, when you think of what they have gone through, most of us here can't even imagine. Many of these people saw friends, relatives, family being killed.

"Everything they had in their countries they don't have anymore. They came here with basically nothing," he adds. "They deserve more."

So Wornell has done more.

He and Kramer have helped some refugees find affordable apartments in higher-rent areas close to work.

Also, through its bank, McDonald's was able to secure a 10 percent interest rate on car loans, which were co-signed by the company.

Wornell says that the company's involvement in car buying has also kept some employees from getting ripped off. Some were being charged 20 to 25 percent interest.

That was unacceptable, Wornell says.

"These folks mean a lot to us," he says. "They help us out a lot, and in turn, we want to help them out as well.

"And, while we certainly don't agree that all of them will be with us for the rest of their lives, it's a good place to spend a few years and learn about America. Hopefully," Wornell adds.

And they do. Many refugees are not only becoming acclimated to American culture but are also improving their English skills.

With increased comprehension of the English language, they are able to tell Americans their stories of a journey stemming from the war-ravaged innards of the former Yugoslavia and ending in the sanitized surroundings of a McDonald's, the American icon.

Damir Mirolovic from Croatia is one of these people. The IRC provided him and his wife with an apartment when they arrived from Croatia a year and a half ago. They also got him a job at McDonald's within months.

The 33-year-old's skin is a ghostly shade of white, and his wide, oval face, although cleanly shaven, bears the outline of a beard. His thick, straight, black hair is slick and neatly combed. His eyes are large and perceptive.

It's shortly after the breakfast rush. The McDonald's is slow; only a few patrons remain. They're having coffee or an early lunch. Two census workers are discussing their routes for the day.

Mirolovic's face is illuminated by the fluorescent lights as he sits at a booth with his arms crossed, resting on the table.

He appears shy and speaks softly, almost in a whisper, about his life and his home in Croatia.

"My house was destroyed in '91," he says, when Serb militants shelled his city of Pakrac.

In 1991, Croatia was attacked by paramilitary units deployed by Serb president Milosevic.

Croatia was trying to create a sovereign nation separate from Yugoslavia, which was being overrun by Milosevic's troops engaging in an ethnic cleansing campaign.

Thousands of homes were destroyed and many civilians were murdered -- the price paid for Croatian independence, which was eventually achieved in 1992.

Mirolovic witnessed a lot of the carnage, and after his home was flattened, he quickly left the city.

He and his family, who were Orthodox in faith, found security in the city of Belgrade where they were harbored by other family members for several years before arriving in the United States a year and a half ago.

In Belgrade, Mirolovic became proficient in driving a forklift, an occupation he held for about eight years. He worked for several companies in various industries.

But, "I don't miss old job," he says.

Instead, he prefers shoveling beef patties with steel spatulas and dabbing toasted buns with ketchup and mustard, slapping cheese on sizzling meat and picking up a broom here and there.

"He does an outstanding job. He's one of our best employees. We want to make him a manager soon," says Julie Brown, the restaurant's manager.

For the time being, Mirolovic doesn't want to return to Croatia.

That seems to be a sentiment shared by most of the refugees working in the restaurant.

Especially Ana Sijecic Ismihna.

The 38-year-old woman struggles to hold back emotions. She puts her right hand to her heart and smiles.

Her hands are strong and her shake is firm. Her short, blond hair is styled in a timeless Mary Lou Retton fashion. Her penetrating glare reveals a glossiness in her eyes.

Ismihna is a Muslim who fled the Bosnian city of Prijedo with her two sons after her husband was killed by shells launched by Serb paramilitary units in 1992.

Now, she's a short-order cook at McDonald's.

"I never want to go back. . . . My father is dead, husband, uncle [are both dead]. There's no life there," she adds.

But Ismihna recounts the life she once had. A good life.

"I was well-off in Bosnia," she says.

She and her husband were financially stable, and neither worked. While her husband, a college student, studied, she raised her children and maintained a home.

"I had a big house in Bosnia," she says.

She now owns a house in Phoenix she calls "a small house for my children." She's raising her sons, Denis, 20, and Damir, 12, alone.

"Housing or money is not a problem; the problem is husband is dead," she says.

After fleeing Prijedo, she sought asylum in Germany and lived there for six years; she speaks fluent German.

Ismihna has been in the U.S. for two years and is glad her English is improving.

She works in the kitchen because it is one job that requires little English comprehension. Besides, most of the employees communicate in Serbo-Croatian in the kitchen.

Ismihna emits a confident, outgoing spirit, as if she's anticipating the next phase of her journey. As if McDonald's is only a temporary stop. Like the customers in the lobby, ordering quickly, grabbing the Earth-friendly bag and rushing out the door, to another place.

As they walk out, they pass Miruden Mujkanovic, 43, who is wiping clean the soda fountain and refilling the napkin dispensers.

He snaps his fingers at another worker and points at the empty lid holders. She tosses him a sleeve of medium-size lids from a cabinet under the soda fountain and he quickly fills them.

It's the lunch rush at the eatery. Mujkanovic walks around the lobby, wipes a few tables and collects the trays gathered on the garbage cans. He does all this in the span of about three minutes, during a short lull. But the customers begin to gather in denser numbers, and he returns to the kitchen.

His face, aged and rough, sits under a military-style haircut. At one time his hair may have been blacker, but today a sea of silver has inundated his follicles.

On his left forearm is a tattoo: a crest surrounded by words written in his language, Serbo-Croatian.

Mujkanovic's voice is raspy and strong, and he is followed by an essence of cigarette smoke. His eyes are oval and thin like sunflower seeds. His stare is penetrating, slightly intimidating.

He was a cop. Seven years patrolling the city of Doboj, in northeast Bosnia, close to the border with Serbia.

Mujkanovic spent the night in the city while it was being bombarded by Serb artillery. He fled the city the following day and became a soldier. He fought against the Serbs in Bosnia for four years.

He is a Muslim.

During the conflict, his wife, daughter and son were harbored by family in Slovenia.

They came to the United States two years ago.

Mujkanovic, however, says he misses the old country.

"It's a beautiful country," he says. "But there is no work or housing because of the change caused by the conflict.

"Everything was destroyed by the Serbians," Mujkanovic says, including his home.

The thing he misses most about Bosnia is the snow. Still, he'll never return.

He has adjusted to the heat in the desert and says his life is beginning to take root.

Mujkanovic is on the verge of becoming a manager. He works six days a week.

His son, Niyaz, 12, and 16-year-old daughter Dzenana (pronounced Zen-nana) are doing well in school and speak English fluently, he says.

Outside of work, Mujkanovic is good friends with Mirolovic.

Lejlic says they are the only two employees who "get together after work" for a beer or something.

They drink Heineken.

The other refugees have good camaraderie at work. They often joke, laugh and speak with each other in Serbo-Croatian.

But for the most part, their camaraderie remains at work.

At the end of the day, they go their separate ways and live separate lives, Lejlic says.

The hotel industry also has seized the opportunity to build a staff with refugees. This has been especially common in some of the larger resorts.

The Scottsdale Princess Resort, for example, north of Bell on Scottsdale Road, has about 1,000 employees working at the resort. One hundred of them are refugees, mainly from Croatia and Bosnia, but also from Cuba and Africa.

They keep the property, which has 400 rooms and a 36-hole golf course, in operation. Refugees are involved in housekeeping, stewarding, banquet setup and engineering, says Rosemary Taylor, director of human resources.

Canada-based Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Inc. owns the Princess. It has refugee programs at a few other hotels in the U.S. and Canada.

The Scottsdale Princess began the practice of refugee recruitment five years ago at the onset of the labor shortage.

"Before the labor shortage began, we were tapping into other resources. Being so far north [in Scottsdale] it seems a little more difficult to get people up here," Taylor says. She says most of the refugees have become very good workers.

Entry-level employees start at $7.50 to $7.75 an hour. Health and dental insurance is available after 90 days. Employees also receive paid vacations and 401(k) plans after one year. The company matches 50 percent of the retirement-plan contributions.

These are incentives the employees can understand, even though many don't speak English. But the language barrier has not been a problem.

Interpreters have been hired to relay important information to the employees. They have also translated hotel literature, policies and benefits packages into Serbo-Croatian.

Language "is not a barrier. It's become part of our culture," Taylor says. "We do everything in three languages" -- Spanish, English and Serbo-Croatian.

And besides, the majority of the refugees are quickly picking up the English language.

People like Dragan Perkovic, 34, who was the first Bosnian refugee to work at the Princess in 1995. Since then, he's landed his countrymen jobs there as well.

He's a brawny fellow -- tall, with big, strong hands -- who would appear menacing in an unfriendly situation.

His hair is blond, short and neatly combed back. His hairline is slightly receding, in a Dick Clark fashion.

A bead of sweat drops from his brow, then several more.

He holds a college degree in biology and geology, but now Perkovic works in the resort's engineering department. He's been working on air conditioners all day, and he's also installing new thermostats in all the rooms.

He offers a handshake and begins to talk about his life as a Bosnian Serb who fled the former Yugoslavia in 1995. He says he was a soldier in the conflict, but he won't say for whom.

He is, however, a Serb and a former resident of Sarajevo. Perkovic's family members were prominent business owners who operated several grocery stores in the city. At 21, he entered the business and ran a few of the stores.

But the harsh reality of war struck the city in '92 and destroyed any plans for success. Everything changed.

His parents are dead, he says, and his brother and sister still reside in Sarajevo. His brother is a business owner and his sister is the director of the post office.

Perkovic says little else about the mother country, except that "it is beautiful," and that he may return someday.

"Maybe one day if everything is like before," he says, but adds that the odds of that are slim.

In a loud, deep tone, he talks about dealing with his first exposure to American culture without being able to speak English, which he now has mastered.

"I felt so bad; I didn't speak English," Perkovic says. "How can you feel? Terrible, if you don't know what these people are saying about you," referring to awkward glances aimed at him and his wife in the grocery store and in other public places.

Also difficult was the transition from being a successful business owner with a home to being helped by the IRC, which provided him with a place to live and with food stamps temporarily.

Still, he says he is appreciative.

"They took care of me for 20 days. After 20 days they found me a nice place to work," Perkovic says.

He started out in housekeeping, but after nine months asked to be trained in engineering. The resort paid $500 a year of his tuition at Gateway Community College (a benefit available to all employees), where he learned heating and air conditioning skills.

He's been a member of that staff for a couple of years and now wants to learn about industrial washing machines and dryers.

"I want to learn something more, for my future," Perkovic says.

The future includes a new baby. His wife, Ijiljina, is expecting their first child in September.

"I'm a little bit scared," Perkovic says. "But I feel great, I feel nice."

Recently, he's been doing some of the housework and taking care of his wife. But he still spends free time playing basketball, darts or pool with other refugees he's met, like Jack, who is now a Realtor, and Denis, who just opened his own sandwich shop.

He speaks loudly and enthusiastically about their success. It appears to be only a matter of time before he joins them in the small-business world. He's just waiting for the right opportunity.

He calls America a "lovely place, [with] lovely people."

Visjna Arapovic, 45, feels the same way.

"I'm really in love with Princess right now," she says. She's been at the Princess for two years and is the director of housekeeping services.

Visjna is short, just slightly over five feet, and has a lot to say about her experiences that led her to America.

She is very friendly and neatly groomed in her housekeeper's uniform.

The Sarajevo resident left the city in 1990 to attend a tennis tournament in Croatia. Her sons are both tennis players and her husband was a tournament organizer.

She never returned to Sarajevo. The war with the Serbs erupted while she was in Croatia.

Her husband fought as a soldier, and she and her sons sought asylum in Germany, where they lived for five years. Her husband joined them, and they applied for asylum in the United States.

They arrived in Phoenix in November 1997.

In her old life, Arapovic worked as an economist. Her husband was a civil engineer who had worked in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

He had "a very hard time after Sarajevo and in Germany," Arapovic says, adjusting to a more menial lifestyle than they were used to. His tensions eased once they were in the U.S.

During the first two years in Phoenix, her husband delivered pizzas. But now he's getting back into civil engineering at a local firm.

Her son Bruno, 21, plays tennis under a scholarship at the University of Arizona. Her son Karlo, 17, also wants a scholarship but wants to go to Harvard or Stanford.

Arapovic wants to better her English at Scottsdale Community College using the company's tuition assistance. She says she is happy doing what she does and has no plans to work again as an economist.

Initially, Arapovic and her husband worried about moving to the U.S. because she'd heard about high crime rates and drug use among teenagers.

They eventually chose Phoenix after hearing about Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

"In Germany we watched something about Mr. Arpaio. . . . It was at this time we thought we wanted to go there," Arapovic says.

They were impressed with the way he treated criminals. And, they "hope that Mr. Arpaio will control everything."

The power of green bologna and pink underwear.

These refugees fled their countries searching for freedom and understanding. They found themselves in the United States.

Ironically, they also found themselves at McDonald's, perhaps one of the most visible symbols of Western civilization and the free world.

The thousands of refugees coming to Phoenix each year will likely begin their American experience at a McDonald's or another lower-level job. For many, the fast-food chain is a miniature Ellis Island -- their gateway to American understanding.

It may be a motivator as well, because McDonald's shows just how far the American Dream can be stretched.


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