When Jelena Milisav meets newly-arrived refugees with young children, her heart goes out to them. “I can’t feel their struggle, but I know my mom felt that.”
Just over 20 years ago, Jelena and her family came to Greensboro as Bosnian refugees fleeing the wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. At the time, Jelena was a toddler and her older brother and sister were 4 and 7. Jelena was too young to remember much from those early years, but her mom has told her stories: “In the first few days, we ran out of food and it was really hard.” Jelena and her brother cried often, and her parents had to figure out how to take care of their children while also learning to survive in a new place.
Yet, the Milisavs found a community to help. “We had a really good Serbian community that brought food.” When Jelena now visits apartments like Glen Haven with large refugee populations, she is reminded of her family’s experience. “Where I lived, there was a whole bunch of Serbian people…I think it’s a great idea that when they resettle, they live in the same place because they can feel closer. If they need help, they’re just a knock away.”
The Serbian community did more than bring food—they helped her parents find employment. Her mom’s first job was at Replacements, Inc. “She actually got the job because there were so many other Serbian people that worked there…You know how you usually see English and then Spanish? At Replacements, it’s actually English and then Serbian.”
Like many refugees from Eastern Europe that began working at Replacements years ago, Jelena’s mom continues to work there today. Her picture hangs on a plaque with other employees who have stayed with the company for more than 20 years. Now, Jelena and her siblings work about 8-10 hours a week upfront in the Showroom. “Anytime I do a tour, I point her out on the wall, ‘Here’s my mom!’”
Jelena’s father works for a different employer, making kitchen appliances. “My dad has hearing problems and has a hearing aid. So when they did English class, I think it was harder for him to pick up.” Yet, Jelena is continuously surprised that he successfully navigates a predominately English-speaking city. Thinking about her family’s experience, she said, “I really think that if you put two foreign people together, and they don’t speak the same language, they will communicate the best way—better than you and me.”
Although she speaks English better, Jelena also speaks Serbian. “I think it’s really important to not lose the language.” She speaks Serbian with her parents, but she and her siblings speak English amongst themselves. Except for a few family members in Charlotte and Chicago, most of their family still lives in Bosnia. Jelena has been back to visit twice, once in the 8th grade and once in college. “The tickets are pretty pricey, so we don’t ever all go back at the same time. My sister and I will go. My mom went my herself a few times.” Her parents plan to go back this summer.
This year, Jelena graduated from University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies. During her senior internship last spring, she worked with New Arrivals Institute. “When my supervisor was interviewing me, she was telling me how they had English classes. And I told her about how when my parents came, they took English classes there.” Later she met an employee at NAI who had actually helped her parents years before. During her internship at NAI, she realized that she wanted to apply for the AmeriCorps ACCESS program to work with refugees.
In October, she began her year as an Americorp ACCESS member at Church World Service Greensboro. “My family came as refugees through Lutheran Family Services. That’s why I feel like I have a real connection with refugees and immigrants.”
Jelena works with the employment program at CWS. Just as the Serbian community helped her parents find jobs years ago, she is now helping other refugees secure employment. Currently, she facilitates job class, but everyday looks different. “I’m helping people make resumes, going out in the field to see if people are hiring, or just taking a client to an interview.”
She loves helping people create resumes. “Many of the people coming don’t even know what a resume is.” Jelena always asks people to describe everything they have done. “For example, they might not think farming is something special, but on the application, it is. And it’s a really good accomplishment.” For her, helping to create resumes builds confidence. “Even if they think it is something little, it’s not.” She loves seeing their faces when they actually have the resume in their hands. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, see everything you’ve accomplished!’”
CWS Greensboro is so thankful for AmeriCorps members who bring their experiences, energy, and effort to our organization. AmeriCorps ACCESS members are integral to welcoming refugees to Greensboro. Please consider giving to CWS so that these important team members can continue helping newcomers understand the local culture, secure employment, and find friends!