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From Bosnia to Illinois: Eldina LaBranche’s Story
While many of us might take for granted being part of a company or community that values people for who they are, employee Eldina LaBranche considers it a gift. Because acceptance hasn’t always been a part of her story.
When she was just 12-years-old, her family was forced to leave their home country of Bosnia as civil war erupted around them. Leaving her father behind to fight, she, her mother and her sister fled to a military camp in Croatia, where they stayed for 18 months until they were granted refugee status in Germany, where they went to live with her aunt — her father following 4 years later.
“We struggled a lot in Germany,” shares Eldina. “My mom worked minimum-wage jobs to support us, and neither one of my parents spoke German. So, at a young age, I was responsible for managing any situation in our household that required us to speak German. We were also not well accepted given we were refugees. My sister and I had a hard time getting into our school system because we were not of German heritage.”
When it seemed like things couldn’t get more difficult, Eldina’s family received a letter stating they were no longer granted refugee status. Having nothing to go back to in Bosnia, they had no choice but to choose yet another new home.
“I felt so lost because, once again, the rug had been pulled from under my feet,” says Eldina. “We had no idea what was coming next. But we applied to come to the U.S. through an organization called World Relief and, after several interviews, background checks and physical exams, we were granted refugee status.”
Although coming to America was an opportunity filled with possibility, it was still an unknown. And it wasn’t always easy.
“Coming to America was a humbling experience in the beginning,” says Eldina. “My parents worked minimum wage jobs while we all lived in a one-bedroom apartment. But for the first time in a long time, I felt we would stay somewhere and build a home.”
In addition to the sense of stability her family gained over time in the states, Eldina uncovered another benefit — she could continue to pursue her dream of playing tennis, the one element of her life that had always been constant.
“I started playing tennis in Bosnia when I was six,” shares Eldina. “I was always good at it, so when everything else around me wasn’t going well, tennis was something that gave me comfort. With tennis I didn’t have to worry about the language I spoke or the country I was living in, because it didn’t matter. It was about fun. Once I got to the U.S., I knew tennis meant a way out for me. I knew that if I kept excelling in it that I’d be able to make a way for myself, and that became very true. I earned a full scholarship to the University of Illinois where I played for four years.”
Eldina credits her passion for tennis not only for her ability to receive an education and, ultimately, begin her career at American Family Insurance, but for fostering her competitive spirit. When things got hard, this was what she was able to rely on.
“My competitive spirit always kept me going,” claims Eldina. “I always had a vision of what I wanted my life to look like and I knew that at the end of the day, my success depends on me and nobody else. And through it all, my experiences have definitely made me a very resilient person. I have a feeling that no matter what happens in life, I will always be ok.”
And now, after all the adversity she’s faced, she’s able to push through the difficult memories and celebrate her culture. This summer, she’s traveling back to visit Bosnia with her husband and children. An emotional, exciting journey she’s been dreaming of for a lifetime — and an experience she so clearly deserves.