By Katarina Terzić Conrad, Ph.D.
I came to the United States in the 1990s, for the same reason my older brother Balsa and 300,000 other Yugoslav young people did: to avoid the civil war that was spreading across all the six states.
My parents used all their savings to cover the costs of my ticket and a couple of months’ stay, hoping that I would get a scholarship at the same university my brother did.
I was only seventeen and unready to leave my family, friends, and my country. During this time, the only way of communicating with my family was by payphone. Even then, it was only every couple of weeks for a few minutes because the cost of one ten-minute conversation was equal to a day of my dad’s wages.
In 1993, due to the United Nations embargo on Yugoslavia (1993-1995), Yugoslavian currency, dinar, experienced the worst recorded hyperinflation. Its monthly inflation rate was increased by 313 million percent. Poverty was at its highest point with 39% of the population living on only $2 per day.
My first impression of America was Chicago, with its compex highways and gigantic grocery stores with their endless aisles of the same type of food. I remember the first time I saw a family sized chip bag. It was larger than my forearm. And not only did they differ in size from the tiny European 4 oz ones, but they had so many flavors. And that was just the chip aisle. Not to mention the dairy section! I quickly learned that it wasn’t only Chicago’s grocery stores that were well stocked with food. In 1993 the Liberty University cafeteria was the second largest on the East Coast at the time. It appeared to me the size of a football field. It was both impressive in size and selection. It had so many food stations including an enormous ice cream freezer with over a dozen flavors, which made me feel like I was in food heaven! Apparently I wasn’t alone in my view...
In 2012, BestColleges.com ranked Liberty’s cafeteria No. 1 on the list of best college dining halls. I quickly adjusted to the high caloric food, ending each visit with a 3-4 scoop ice cream cone. The pounds, along with many other problems, such as allergies, skin rashes, migraines, GI issues, and lack of sleep followed. I did not gain the famous ‘freshman-15’; instead, I gained 25 lbs in my first semester!
As I was enjoying American food, my parents were experiencing one of the worst food shortages in their lifetimes. The embargo was still imposed. Most banks had declared bankruptcy, grocery stores were empty, and the lines wrapped around the buildings for simple loaves of bread. Most people were starving. The majority of them, including my parents, stopped receiving monthly salaries. Instead, they started receiving a couple of small grocery bags filled with necessities such as bags of flour and sugar, a bottle of oil, some beans, and a head of cabbage. In order to continue supporting our stay in America they rented out a 900 sq foot apartment located in the old town of Belgrade only to move to an old, moldy, 200 sq foot studio in a remote place 40 minutes away. They never told us about their move and their daily struggle. They instead wanted us to focus on our studies. In the winter of 1994 we decided to surprise them and pay them a visit. My brother and I were shocked at the new conditions to which our parents were reduced.
I will never forget the first dinner at their studio. My mom prepared us a cabbage soup, with a tiny bit of meat in it, and served it with a half loaf of bread and a hand sized piece of cheese. I got so used to the sweet and versatile cafeteria food, that I could not hide my disappointment. I asked her if there was anything else besides cabbage soup for dinner. At that point my mom burst into tears as she told us about their struggle to survive, and how even the humble servings of cheese and meat was a courtesy from my grandparents (who also struggled to keep their farm going). That night I found myself laying on the floor next to my brother, mother, and my dad, staring at the ceiling, having a hard time falling asleep. I had a lot on my mind. Embarrassment, shame, remorse, sadness, and fear, were just a few of the emotions I was experiencing through the night. In the morning, I woke up with a one-track mind — praying for a way to get my parents out of there.
When I returned to the US from that sober visit, I remember walking back into the cafeteria with a different feeling. I begin to cry remembering how my parents and many other family members and friends might only have one small meal that day. I did not bounce mindlessly from food station to food station, packing on the plate. I picked only a couple of items, sat down in silence, and bowed my head to give thanks for my food. Unlike the times I bowed my head many times before, this time I was really “present.” I remember a feeling of gratitude washing over me, followed by a genuine thankfulness.
Sometimes we don’t know what we have until it’s gone, in this case I didn’t see my abundance until I witnessed my parents’ poverty. I’m thankful for this painful memory as it helps me to have compassion for others and encourages me to be grateful everyday for everything.