‘A Day in the Life’ Column: Thanking Sodexo


When the war in Bosnia started on March 21, 1992, Zikreta Bjelosevic knew that she had to leave her country.

Nadine Elsayed

Nadine Elsayed

There were already 2.2 million people displaced in the most violent and devastating European conflict since the end of World War II. So after running from enemy grenades during the day, Zikreta escaped into the night with her 7-month-old daughter in her arms and started to walk.

First, she walked to Croatia. In Croatia, she and her daughter ate leaves off of the trees alongside the road in order to survive.

From Croatia, she walked to Slovenia. In Slovenia, she had to quiet her baby’s cries so that they wouldn’t get caught by the locals and sent back to war-torn Bosnia.

From Slovenia, she walked to Austria. In Austria, she wanted to wash the filth off of her body but couldn’t ask anyone for help or else they’d report her.

From Austria, she walked to Germany. And in Germany, she finally met with her husband and decided to stay in Munich for the next several years.

It took a full month of walking, rummaging and hiding for Zikreta to finally make it somewhere she felt safe.

Twenty-four years later, she is sitting in front of me at Rathbone wearing a Sodexo uniform, a hat and a nice smile.

Zikreta — or “Z” as her coworkers call her — has worked as Rathbone’s supervisor for five weeks now. In addition to her 1-9:30 p.m. shifts at Lehigh, she also works as a secretary for her church Our Lady of Perpetual Health during the day.

Her daughter Zina — who experienced her mother’s displacement — graduated from Temple University two years ago and now works in Philadelphia as a software analyst. She also has a son, Amer, who is a junior majoring in computer science at East Stroudsburg University.

“My kids are everything to me,” she said. “I’ve slept four hours a night for fifteen long years so that they can have a better life. That’s how I do it.”

The 44-year-old mother of two tells me about her journey to America. After the war ended in Bosnia in 1995, Zikreta and her family had already been in Germany for a few years when the government said that migrants had to return.

But there was nothing for Zikreta to go back to.

“The enemy took our land, our house, everything. I was homeless trying to make a living for two kids.”

Nevertheless, they went back to Bosnia. It was such an excruciating time, however, that Zikreta and her family decided to immigrate to Holland just 17 months later. But after staying in Holland for two years, they finally got the chance to come to the United States on May 17, 2000.

“I came here with two kids, my husband and $250 in my pocket,” she said. “Even though I work a lot, America is my favorite place to be.”

She tells me how different the United States is from Europe. Zikreta said that in America, people can work to get anything they want regardless of their age. They can easily continue their education or buy a house whether they are 20 years old or 60 years old. In Europe, it’s not quite as easy.

So she works hard here in America, especially to put her kids through university. She still helps out her parents in Bosnia, too.

“My dad was captured by the enemy and tortured,” she said. “He has a lot of medical expenses and eventually they had to cut off part of his right leg. So I help them but mainly I just try to pay my bills on time and support my kids.”

In addition to working hard, she also gets to interact with Lehigh students on a daily basis.

“You are all so polite and well raised,” she tells me. “Many students take their garbage out — I really appreciate it.

“But the kids here complain about school and their classes but I wish I was in their place,” she said. “If I had any advice, I would want to tell them that you guys are so young. Go dream big and go wherever you can to be at the top of the world.”

As we sat in the booth of Rathbone and continued to talk, I realized how much love is emanating from this woman. She told me of her struggle with tears in her eyes but can now give motherly advice to kids who I’ve often seen not give a simple thank you on their way out.

Like LUPD and “townies,” Sodexo workers have a bad reputation here at Lehigh. For some reason, the people who don’t like Sodexo’s food automatically translate their dislike for the workers as well. They’ll see them as “stupid immigrants who don’t even know how to cook a proper meal” — as a fellow student once told me.

But people like Zikreta — who is actually fluent in five languages — break that stereotype.

There are Sodexo employees who have given up so much to be at the place they are now. They work hard in order for us to be more comfortable in our stay at Lehigh — including food that is always readily available, clean plates and utensils, and kind employees.

We should be mindful and smile next time someone makes our omelet. We should be mindful and start a conversation next time someone is cleaning the tables. We should be mindful and say thank you next time someone rings up our order.

A simple thank you always goes a long way.

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