Growing up in a multi-generational home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in the 1950's, I had no idea how fortunate I was. Despite the smell of the steel mills and the soot in the air, I lived in a rich melting pot composed mainly of eastern Europeans, Greeks, Irish and Germans where ethnic holidays were celebrated with food, music, old world customs, camaraderie and good will. At the time I didn't understand the uniqueness of the melting pot that is America or the sacrifices my family had to make in order to be a part of this country.
My family's immigrant story although unique, is not that different from the story of millions of immigrants who call the United States home. This month we celebrate immigrant heritage month and honor the achievements and contributions of immigrants to the United States.
My paternal grandparents were Serbian, from an area called Krajina in Croatia. My maternal grandfather was a Serbian peasant with a 3rd grade education from that same area, who came to the U.S. on his own, looking for a better life when he was 12 years old. He came through Ellis Island where his name was "shortened" from Budisavljevic to Savlovich. He settled in Johnstown where he met my grandmother. Even though my grandfather didn't have any formal education past 3rd grade, he understood the value of education and always told us to get an education because "it is the only thing that can never be taken away from you." I have very few memories of my grandfather without a book in his hand; knowing what I know now, I can only imagine what my grandfather would have accomplished if he had the same opportunities that I did.
Thanks to my grandparents' vision and sacrifice, my parents were able to further their education, follow their dreams, and give us a better life. My father served with honor and pride in the United States Army during WWII and my mother was a very talented musician who earned her Master's degree in music education -- she was a concert pianist and a music teacher.
Like all immigrants, Serbians have contributed greatly to this country, culturally and professionally -- as scientists, medical researchers, professors, engineers etc ... and the one thing they all have in common is that someone in their family was given entry to the United States. One of those Serbs was Nikola Tesla who came to the U.S. in the 1800's. Without the opportunities that were available to him in America, many of his inventions and patents may have just been the dreams of one very talented man rather than some of the greatest advancements and pioneering work of our times.
This month we celebrate immigrant heritage month and commemorate the contributions of all immigrants to the United States. We honor our own heritage and those in our family that paved the way.
Please visit the website Welcome.us and share your immigrant story with America. Immigration reform is an issue that should concern all of us, and while we look for ways to fix our broken system, we must remember our own immigrant stories, where we came from and what our families endured in order to give us the life we have today.
This article is part of a series that will run throughout the week in celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month, a commemorative project that celebrates the United States as a nation founded and fueled by immigrants. To learn more, please visit Welcome.us.