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In the wake of tragedy, this refugee mother found strength in her daughters

Zlata’s husband tragically passed away the day she and her daughters were to be reunited in Phoenix after years of violence in Serbia separated the family. Despite the trauma and pain, Zlata was determined to give her daughters a chance.

The Pihcintu Refugee Youth Choir, comprising 34 girls and young women from refugee backgrounds, sings at the Global Compact on Refugees meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York.

“Our decision was to not go back to Serbia. We had to go forward, and that gave us strength,” said Zlata, recalling her first week in the United States.

It was January 16, 1997, and Zlata was a widow and with two young daughters. She was in a new country and did not speak the language.

Despite the circumstances, Zlata had a plan.

“After I made the decision that we were going to stay, I enrolled the children in school and I enrolled in English classes and started working on my English eight hours a day.”

Education and the pursuit of success are driving forces in Zlata’s life. Prior to resettling in the U.S. she had already earned a graduate degree in Psychiatry in Serbia.

Academic accomplishment would once again provide the path for Zlata and her daughters to pursue a new life in America, free from violence and with boundless opportunities.

“My daughters were excellent students when they came here,” Zlata proudly recalls. “I raised them to be hardworking and good students, so my expectations were high.”

By the end of their first year of elementary school in Phoenix, her daughters Marina and Nina completed their English as a Second Language (ESL) requirements and were enrolled in regular classes.

Their academic success didn’t stop there. Each excelled in high school, receiving scholarships to college and then earning law degrees.

And for Zlata?

“I still have an accent and I still make grammar errors,” she says with a smile. Her modesty belies more than two decades of accomplishments in her new home. She earned an undergraduate degree in 2002, a Master’s degree in Social Work in 2004 and in 2011 began work on a Doctorate degree in Behavioral Health.

Zlata used her education and experience as a newly resettled mother in America to create a refugee “Welcome Center” in her school district. The center provides an orientation for newly resettled refugee families so they know what their rights are in the education system. She also teaches classes at Arizona State University that cover refugee issues and how the needs of the population influence social work practice.

For Zlata and her daughters, there always remains the tragedy that brought them to Phoenix, but there also remains the family’s resilience and the spirit that has allowed them all to succeed. 

"So I always remind them about our decision to stay and that tragedy actually made us very close, so we support each other all the time.”

Here’s how you can help

This Mother’s Day, you can honor refugee mothers like Zlata by making sure these courageous women can rebuild their families' lives. Your monthly gifts will provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care — and hope. Please join your fellow caring Americans by starting your monthly gifts today.

May 10 2019
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