A story of perseverance and determination mixed with a little luck
The year was 1992 when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia went to war. The socialist republic was formed with six states in 1945 and remained strong until 1992. It was comprised with ethnic groups of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, with a mix of faiths, including Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and Christians. Civil unrest and violence erupted between states within the constituent federal units wanting to claim their independence, amidst the communist party that was losing its hold on ideology. With a series of economic crisis during the 1980s, this became a catalyst in conflicts between inter-ethnic communities.
The war is known for being one of the most devastating civil wars since the end of World War II. It is estimated that 100,000 were killed and over 2.2 million people displaced, not to mention the horrible atrocities that occurred to their citizens. The war ended in late 1995.
A young man by the name of Zeljko was in boot camp for the army in 1993, but he didn’t join the army because of his ethnic or religious beliefs. Rather he was in the army because it is what society expected it of him. The community put pressure on his family as to why their son was in university and not fighting for their cause and religion. Zeijko knew that the relentless barrage of inquiries and pressure on his parents would not end until he joined the military. At the age of 19, having completed only one year of college at the University of Serbia, he dropped out and joined the army.
The first time I met Zeljko, he introduced himself as “Z”. He has a cool and calm demeanor, yet you can tell his brain works at a high-pace level, churning with new ideas, concepts, or projects. He can have a conversation and simultaneously figure out a missing equation in a new software build. I sat down with Z and had the wonderful pleasure of hearing his story. A story filled with courage, perseverance and some luck. I am thrilled to share it with our readers.
Z was born in 1975 in a city called Bijeljina located in the northeast corner of Bosnia. The population is close to 107,700. This region of the country is predominately agricultural. The land is fertile with suitable weather conditions. Common produce consists of, wheat, corn, cabbage, paprika, tomato, watermelon, and fruit. There are also cattle-breeders in the area. The primary language is Bosnian; however, Serbian and Croatian are also recognized languages that share similarities.
He recalls his childhood as simple and easy. “We spent the majority of our time outside as children, we didn’t have technology back then, so we rode bikes, played basketball, and football (soccer).” He grew up with a younger brother and parents that were both educated as well as had careers. His father was a math/physics teacher and his mother, an economic technician that worked in an insurance-based job. Z went on to say, “We were protected in our city and environment. I heard English for the first time when I was eighteen-years-old.”
His community was 90% middle class and consisted of a mix of religious faiths. His parents were of mixed religion. He grew up with Catholic and Orthodox influences but was baptized in the Orthodox church. I then asked what is was like to grow up in a communist country and how they were able to practice their religion without severe consequences.
He explained how Bosnia was lucky due to the fact that it was centrally located, and more importantly, they were not a part of the soviet communistic party. “We were not really exposed to ‘true’ communism or their indoctrinations. We were allowed to travel and cross borders freely, have whiskey, buy Levy jeans, etc. However, in surrounding countries, this was forbidden. People were allowed to practice their religion in private, just not in public. We were grateful for the freedoms they granted. We spent winters skiing and summers at the Adriatic coast.” He even remembers the winter Olympic games that Sarajevo hosted in 1984.
There was one requirement enforced on Bosnian citizens and that was in order to work, you had to be communist and believer in their ideology. His parents had to conform to their society in order to provide for their family and keep their jobs.
Education in Bosnia is composed of three levels. The first is primary school that starts at the age of six and last until the age of fifteen. Then, secondary school begins at the age of fifteen and students graduate at the age of eighteen or nineteen. Once a student graduates, they are ready for Tertiary education (University).
I asked Z what school was like for him compared to our schools in the USA. He said that school had a strong focus on mathematics, physics, and biology. “I would spend hours every day studying and doing homework, the amount of work required was unbelievable.” He chuckles as he tells me about the massive pile of homework that his younger brother has kept over the years as evidence. Z took his hand to show me how high the pile is stacked, and I cringed at the thought of all that homework. In a moment of reflection, he believes this started him on his path of learning how to think critically and logically. “Everything I learned in primary and secondary school, which my father reinforced, taught me the notion that everything is either true or false. When we are able to make this determination, you can figure out the correct answer to almost anything in life. I realized that these were the building blocks, the foundation on how to process and solve problems. Through some of the more challenging times of my life, I have applied this technique and have successfully navigated my way.”
In Bosnia, once a student graduates from secondary school, you are allowed to apply and attend tertiary school. The process for admission was not a financial one, it is based solely on testing. Z graduated from secondary school in 1993 and his desire to attend college led him to apply to the civil engineering program at the University of Serbia. He said the test consisted of 9 questions and you were allowed six hours to finish. Over a thousand students applied and were tested, Z placed number nine. He was accepted into the program in 1993, one year into the civil war.
During this time, the war was getting worse. His parents were facing daily pressure, which steadily intensified, and he felt responsible. He made the tough decision to drop out of school and join the military. He said all his friends had joined, so he felt like it was the right decision.
While in boot camp, he got his first stroke of luck. A sergeant walked into their training class and asked what student could answer the following question, “If you load your belt with a full round of bullets, which is four-rounds of 25 bullets, each bullet weighing 25 grams, and you have to jump or quickly maneuver, how much weight have you added?” Z quickly blurted out, “625 grams”. This surprised the sergeant as Z had quickly replied with the correct answer, so he added an additional question and once again, Z answered without hesitation.
The sergeant asked for his name and the school he attended. He finished his bootcamp training and later found out that because of his interaction with the sergeant, he was recommended for a position as a telecommunication specialist. “Imagine this,” he said, “The whole of Yugoslavia had twenty-two men in this position, six of those men were in Serbia. I was chosen to be one of the six. It was a huge responsibility, so much that I can’t talk about my actual job, but it kept me off of the front lines. I am one of the few, fortunate soldiers- so many men died fighting.”
After the war ended, Z was left with nothing, but a high school level education and military experience. His country and surrounding countries was torn, devastated from the war, and the political situation was still very unstable. Work was not easy to come by, so he returned home and completed an associate degree in foreign economic trade. “We were lucky that my parents owned a small convenience store. It kept us alive with food on the table.”
Z’s luck struck again when he met his future wife. She escaped her country as a refugee and ended up in Bijeljina. They started dating and soon after they were married.
Due to rough conditions in Bosnia, Z and his wife decided they needed to move to find a better quality of life for them and the family they hoped to have. They sought asylum in the Netherlands, which became their home for two years. In order to live and work in the Netherlands, they require that you speak their native language-Dutch. Z studied and passed the national language test on the first attempt. However, within two years of living in the Netherlands, they were told they had to leave. As a refugee living in another country, you were at the mercy of the welcoming country and were not entitled to rights. “We were grateful for the opportunity, but we suddenly found ourselves unwanted and without a home.”
Z and his wife welcomed their first baby, which further served as motivation and amplified their pursuit of their dreams. They set their sight on the United States of America. “We were lucky, as we were granted approval.” Z explained the process they had to go through, which was to get a refugee visa and have their citizenship tracked, which was a risk they were willing take. Upon approval, they were given the choice to pick any USA city they wanted to live in. They knew there was a large Bosnian population in Chicago, however, they recognized that if they wanted a great chance at successfully immersing themselves in a new culture, to fully gain independence, learn a new language, and successfully conquer all the challenges that moving to a foreign country presents, that they needed some distance from the comfort of their culture. Needless to say, they didn’t know exactly where to go, so they were sent to Houston, Texas. The refugee program required that the individuals had to pay for their travel expenses, so their first task consisted of applying for a credit card to pay for their plane tickets.
They landed in Houston, Texas on November 8th, 2000 and were issued an I94 legal refugee visa. They arrived with their eighteen-month-old son, two bags, and found themselves unable to communicate as they did not speak English. They were assigned to a local YMCA that had a department which assisted refugees. They were given an apartment, food stamps, and Medicaid for three months, which was just enough time to get on their feet. Although, they were extremely grateful for the opportunity and chance for a better life, their case worker was Albanian, which was one of the countries Serbians had fought against. This deep-seated rivalry prevented Z and his family from receiving adequate mentorship on how to adapt to this new country, but once again, the challenge pushed them to be more independent and establish a life built by determination and perseverance.
Most of us can relate to traveling to a foreign country for vacation, learning how to navigate to a few key places, learn a few basic phrases, etc. However, most of us have no idea what it means to move to a foreign country, unable to speak the local language, and possessing no physical belongings, except a will to survive.
I asked Z what helped him the most after they arrived. He said they joined a small English school and they were able to network. Within a month of moving to the USA, Z found his first job as a night security guard at the George R. Brown convention center. He laughed when recounting this story as he found it to be a great job mainly due to the fact that he wasn’t required to speak English because there was no one else around. He mentioned there was an older gentleman, who also worked as a security guard, who encouraged Z to make an effort to learn English.
Within six months of being in the USA, Z enrolled in a technical school and graduated in 2002 with an associate degree in computer systems technology. In addition, he graduated with honors and on the Dean’s List. During those years, a typical day consisted of attending classes from 8 AM-1 PM, working as an assistant at the school from 6 PM-10 PM, and ending his day by working the night shift at the convention center from 11 PM-7 AM. I asked when he slept, and he just smiled, which I assumed from his reaction meant he didn’t get much sleep during those two years.
Upon moving to the USA, Z and his wife agreed that they would push themselves to obtain degrees as their previous education had no value in the States. They recognized that this sacrifice would prolong their initial struggle, but that it was imperative to get an education as it would greatly benefit them in the future. In 2007, Z met his goal and received his bachelors’ degree in technical management and computer science.
His first job upon earning his degree was working for Time Warner. Broadband internet was gaining popularity as well as accessibility and he was one of the first installers in the Houston area. He really enjoyed his job as it allowed him to meet a lot of different people throughout the Houston area. One particular day, he met a lady that was from his country and they bonded over familiar stories/life experiences. Three years later, that same lady called to tell him that she knew of a company looking for an IT person. I would like to notate here how Z’s faced lit up when telling me this story, making it clear that it was a life-changing moment for him. He said, “Someone remembered me from three years earlier. I thought the lady needed a new wire, but this goes to show that you never really know how the connections you make in life may play a part in your future.”
He still remembers trying to find a fax machine to send his resume to apply for the position. He was contacted to come in for an interview and went not knowing what to expect as he had no experience in IT healthcare especially radiology diacom technology. However, he knew he was up for the challenge and that he possessed a different set of skills that could allow him to be successful if given the opportunity. Dr. Stenoien walked in and asked him some basic questions that you would expect in an interview, but to Z’s delight, he was told that he would be a good for for Houston Medical Imaging. Z realized after the interview that Dr. Stenoien understood a lot more about technology than the average person, thus he was able to get a good feel for Z’s level of technical comprehension.
Z accepted the position and took a drastic cut in pay. He knew that he needed to find a company that he could grow with, which would require starting at the bottom and slowly, but surely working his way up the ladder. To make ends meet, he worked at HMI during the day and Time Warner at night. Within thirty days of employment Z told me that Dr. Stenoien gave him some advice that changed his entire outlook on life and work. Dr. Stenoien said to him, “Z, I want you to become irreplaceable within this organization.” Z laughed when he recounted that, as he had to look up the meaning of the word ir-re-place-a-ble: adjective; impossible to replace if lost, or damaged. Synonyms: Unique, unrepeatable, incomparable, unparalleled, priceless, invaluable. Truly a word with a lot of meaning.
The comment gave Z the confidence he needed to be an independent, creative, and valuable team player. In that moment, Z realized that his life was no longer limited to merely trying to survive, but that he could accept value in his thinking, which would allow him to exercise his creative abilities and start building on it. “I decided I would no longer fix current issues, but instead, I would build my own systems and replace failing processes with new and improved methods. Shortly after, I got approval for a brand-new server and thus put me on the path to becoming irreplaceable.”
Z, along with the entire IT team, have had many successes and made some remarkable accomplishments including building an integration system that enables communication with other healthcare software systems. They have also created a proprietary system that calculates out-of-pocket expenses for patients, which is directly connected to insurance carriers, and only takes a few seconds to receive the data, compared to other organizations that sometimes need days to retrieve the data. The team has also designed and implemented an efficient patient notification system, just to name a few examples of their great work.
“Our goal is to improve patient care and access. With creative thinking, we are accomplishing this goal and have become pioneers and thought-leaders in the radiology/imaging industry. We are building a brand that represents ingenuity, quality, access, and that, ultimately, benefits the patient as well as their referring physicians. With higher accuracy of data, patients can make more informed decisions and referring physicians can make prompt medical decisions when time is of the essence.”
As we were concluding our conversation, Z made a comment that reflected everything in his life story, “Sometimes with luck, we get lucky.” Meaning, we can all have luck at times in our lives, but we also need opportunities to turn our luck into a sustainable fortune. I don’t mean wealth associated with money, but fortune when life gives us a moment to realize and accept our potential, which ultimately makes us lucky in life.
I asked Z what his future goals were, and he said, “Living in the moment and strategizing for current goals is better than always worrying about a future goal. I love my job, I appreciate Dr. Stenoien for giving me this opportunity, and I cherish the entire team at HMI. We are grateful to this wonderful country that has allowed my wife and I to build a life and raise our sons.”
Z has worked at HMI for over fifteen years and is still married to his lucky charm. They have raised two sons together and their oldest son is attending college in North Carolina. They chose to live in the country away from the city, this gives them a piece of home and allows them to have a garden and enjoy the quietness of their surroundings.