By Andrew Nash
Sanela doesn’t read or write English. So, without the help of CBF field personnel Sasha Zivanov, she would not have been able to pass the computer test that landed her the job at Walmart that feeds her family.
“When I was starting out, I had to take pictures of the questions and go to the restroom and send pictures to Sasha to see what’s needed for the test,” Sanela said. “If it wasn’t for Sasha, I couldn’t have stayed there.”
“If she had not gotten help from Sasha, she wouldn’t have passed orientation,” said CBF field personnel Mira Zivanov.
Sanela has been in America for nearly 20 years since fleeing the Bosnian Civil War via Germany. In St. Louis, she has found not only a new home but also support from the Bosnian community and the Zivanovs.
“I never hid anything; whenever I needed something, I could talk to them,” Sanela said. “I tell everything to Sasha as if he were my father, and to Mira as if she were my mother. I consider them to be my second mom and dad.”
When she was eight years old, Sanela fled Bosnia with her parents, heading first to Germany before following her sister to the United States. Her first exposure to America was in Idaho.
“When we got up in the morning and looked out of the window, there were hills all around, everywhere,” she said. “I was wondering where we had come. There were hills all around us, and we were in the middle. I hadn’t seen that in Germany when I was little.”
Eventually, Sanela and her family made it to St. Louis, but Sanela was still behind educationally. She hadn’t had any schooling in Bosnia and only a bit of education in Germany. In America, she started school, but eventually dropped out to get a job as a housekeeper. Her father had his own struggles, eventually buying a car, passing the driving test and getting a job himself.
Luckily, St. Louis is the home of the largest Bosnian population outside Europe, with an estimated 70,000 people. “No one bothers you here, and they are our people,” Sanela said. “This is like Little Bosnia. Everything is here: Bosnian doctors, shops, everything.”
Sanela’s oldest son was not yet walking when she first met the Zivanovs. Now that son is 12 years old and she has three more children. Those children are beneficiaries of the tutoring program set up by Mira and Sasha Zivanov.
“They helped us a lot with that, by setting it up and helping the kids with their homework,” Sasha said. “They don’t need help from me or their grandma, and it means a lot to them.”
When she or her kids need a ride or a translation, Sanela knows whom to call. The Zivanovs even helped with the paperwork to help Sanela get a house.
“Usually when she gives my phone number to someone, she will say, ‘That’s my sister,’” Mira said. “Then they will say to me, ‘Your sister gave us your phone number,’ and I say, ‘What?’”
Any time the Zivanovs organize a celebration for events like Christmas or International Women’s Day, Sanela makes sure to bring her family to the International Fellowship Center.
But all of this does not mean it’s easy to live in a country where you don’t know the language. Sanela is afraid to take the citizenship test because she knows she doesn’t know English well enough to pass. At one time, she even contemplated moving back to Bosnia. But she said she has stayed in America for her children, to give them the best chance at not only the education she never had but also the opportunity for a bright future.
“Where I am now, they couldn’t live like I am,” Sanela said. “I want my kids to graduate, get good jobs, to stay here and be good. I want them to have it better than I did; I didn’t have it good anywhere. Not in Bosnia, not in Germany. Here now, as they say, you have a family and kids. It’s the best it’s been.”
The CBF Offering for Global Missions makes possible the long-term presence of CBF field personnel like Mira and Sasha Zivanov. Learn more about the Offering at www.cbf.net/OGM. This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online and subscribe at www.cbf.net/fellowship.