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Leading With Love - Be a Better L.E.A.D.E.R. Series

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” ~ John Quincy Adams

In our “Be a Better L.E.A.D.E.R.” series the foremost trait of becoming a better leader is to lead with love. As a young adult, I thought that being a great communicator was the most important trait of a good leader. But shortly after I found myself in a foreign land, just weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday without speaking a word of English, I learned that love comes first.

How did the most conservative, republican university in the whole of America endorse a young, foreign student from a communist country engulfed by civil war to represent them? How did a poverty stricken, young woman with no religious upbringing and poor English win the hearts of Liberty University’s faculty, staff, and student body in less than 3 years?

Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia.

When Yugoslavia was being torn apart by civil war, and Serbians were portrayed in the media as savages, I came to the United States in hope of a better future. My parents did not give me much warning before they sent me to join my older brother, already across the Atlantic. I was neither prepared to speak the language nor prepared to understand a new culture and its people. No one asked me if I wanted to come and leave my life, as I knew it, behind.

Having my brother there to greet me helped, but even he would not speak Serbian to me; he assured me that it would be better that way, and that I would learn the language faster. I ended up sharing a room with three roommates, all coming from conservative Baptist upbringings who could recite the whole of the Bible by heart. I, on the other hand, had a very limited exposure to religion.

In 1918 Yugoslavia was founded as the United Kingdom of Serbs, Slavs, and Croats. Shortly after the WWII began, the king was exiled and then the communists took over. Before the turn of the century Yugoslavia was ruled by kings, communists, socialists, and finally democrats.

I grew up in the transitional period from communism to socialism. The breath of the communist era was still lingering over the former Yugoslavia; the country was divided by two major political parties—one fighting to bring communism back, and the other fighting for democracy. The western states of Slovenia and Croatia were pulling toward, respectively, independence and democracy—and Serbia, its capital then leaning towards the major communist party, with its president Slobodan Milosevic. He was a gifted speaker, very animated and passionate, always evoking strong emotions. Unfortunately, nationalism was one of them.

The country was not only divided by political parties, but by ethnic and religious upbringing. The majority of Serbs were Orthodox Christians, while Croats practiced Catholicism and Bosnians practiced Islam.

Most of the people from urban areas, like my family, where intellectual status was more valued than money, were atheists. In fact, the kids would laugh at believers and label them stupid.

How I began believing in God is still a mystery to me. My concept of God was simple—an invisible friend, of sorts. To a child who had no friends, this was a very appealing coping mechanism. It wasn’t a particular God, just someone kind with great listening skills, because I had a lot of things to complain about.

For example, not having indoor plumbing and having to go take cold showers in the public pool. Especially in the cold winters. Or, not having my own nice clothes instead of the old hand-me-downs I wore, many of them my dad’s or brother’s... Not having a place to run away to when my parents are yelling and throwing things around... Not having long hair like the other girls because they did not have lice... Sleeping on a small couch with mom... Not having anyone show up to my birthday party... Living in fear of my mom leaving.. Being bullied by kids... Being slapped by teachers for reading too slow or not knowing how to keep the letters the same size... Pretending I was full when my classmates bought food. But most of all, wishing to disappear and hide from the shame I was feeling.

Surrounded with my cousin and brother who is not happy to share our only tricycle.

Nearly 40 years later...standing in much different clothing in front of my elementary school King Peter I in Belgrade, Serbia.

I started finding peace in an empty cathedral nearby. Often before my high school afternoon shift would begin, I would go there just to sit in peace. The beautiful paintings, frescos, mosaics, and icons drew me in. I would sit in one of the side chairs and get lost in thoughts. Making up stories about each saint.

Years later visiting Saint Michael's Cathedral in Belgrade with my husband Emery.

Occasionally, I would pass by a beggar at its entrance, and that was always hard since I had no money myself to give them. Once, an old beggar really touched me, in a way I can’t explain into words. I felt moved to go home and fetch some food for her despite the risk of being late for the classes. All I could find were a couple of tangerines, so I ran back to give them to her. I will never forget her look of gratitude and her blessings. She kept blessing, not just the usual bless you brush off—she was blessing me, my children, and my children’s children. I don’t know why, but I found that very peculiar.

Years later, times got better, and my parents’ salaries got higher and the banks gave them credits. We left our small, moldy studio and moved into a single-bedroom apartment with indoor plumbing. My brother and I, now both in high school, were still sleeping on couches, sharing the same room.

He no longer could stand our dad’s my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian style, and he looked for a student exchange program that sent kids to the USA for his senior year of high school. A year and a half later, when the civil war broke out, my parents told my brother, who was already in the USA, to find a way to stay. If he were to return, he would have been drafted.

Just like my brother’s independence from our dad’s iron-fist rule gave me confidence, so did Slovenia’s independence give confidence to the other states to break away, which as we know did not go smoothly. In fact, it turned into one of the bloodiest civil wars in the history of modern Europe.

My parents understood the severity of the situation and decided to send me away as well. But, they were not the only parents entertaining such thoughts. The lines around the western embassies were miles long. Young men and women wanted to flee the country. The American embassy in particular was so swamped with requests that they started denying almost everyone, including a lot of my friends.

When my parents told me of their plan, I cried and I was mad for not asking me what I wanted. I wanted to stay. I saw no evidence of war. Just a new found freedom.

I finally started dating a boy I patiently waited to ask me out for 4 years. When he finally did, I was a freshman in college. I took pride that I was the youngest in the physics department at 17 years of age and hanging out with older kids... new kids who did not know my background. I also moved to my own room. A freshly “remodeled” attic with its own small bathroom and an entrance. I felt on top of the world!

But, my parents saw a different picture. A country in turmoil where there would be a lot of pain and suffering. Hunger and struggle. So, they decided to test their luck at the American embassy, and I was in tears. My best friend comforted me by saying that their chances of approval were slim to none.

While my mom was at the embassy, I ran to my familiar place of comfort. The empty cathedral. I remember as clear as day what I “said” to God that day. I sat behind a life size icon of Jesus on the cross and through tears prayed “God, I don’t want to go. But, if it’s your will for me to leave my country, let it be for a good reason.”

Saint Michael's Cathedral has no seating except the chairs built in chairs against the walls, my favorite place to sit when no one was there.