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The Mini UN at McDonald’s

Fri, Jun 22, 2012

Left to right - Jusuf Omercajic, Ferid Mehicevic and Hasan Redzovic catch up at the Lincoln Square McDonald’s.

Most of the men are from what used to be Yugoslavia. Not all, though. They have history worn on their faces. One is from Mexico, another is from Iraq. There is a German. Some are Muslim, some Christian. Quite a few were refugees. A Bosnian man brought his 12-year-old son tonight. There is a couple in their late 20s with a small child. They are the only people eating. The rest drink coffee and tea. The 12-year-old sips a soda and listens.

This is some form of the scene you will find below the golden arches in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, just off Western Avenue on any night of the week. The men gather throughout the day, sometimes mak-ing several trips, but the late evening is when the biggest crowds come.

One night there are around 20 men – they all spend $1. They sit and talk for two, sometimes three hours. The next night there is only one man, Ferid Mehicevic, 77, a Bosnian refugee who speaks no English. The teenager bagging fries behind the counter says not to worry – they will come.

As 9:15 p.m. rolls around, they trickle in one by one.

Hasan Redzovic, 62, sports a black leather jacket and a long pointed beard. He speaks the best English in the group this evening and translates for the others when needed. Mehicevic talks about his journey to America through Redzovic.

Mehicevic fled the war in Bosnia in 1993. He stayed with his sister in Croatia for seven months before he made his way to Chicago. A Catholic refugee assistance program called Caritas helped Mehicevic and his family settle into Chicago. He met Jusuf Omercajic, 70, at Jadran, a Yugoslavian restaurant that used to be down the street on Lincoln Avenue, 16 years ago.

Omercajic is showing his friends photos of a recent fishing trip to Iowa the next day at his wife’s hair salon, Mina Hair, on the north side of Lincoln Square. Omercajic tells me he would like to retire to Iowa one day. Somewhere where there is fishing, he says.

Omercajic’s wife styles a woman’s hair while their 42-year-old daughter, Alma, sits for a break. She was 26 when the family fled the Brcko District of Bosnia along with her 21-year-old brother.

“I worked for a big company before the war,” Jusuf says. ”I worked there as a bookkeeper, something like a manager.”

Jusuf made a good living working for a large company that felled trees, made furniture in a factory and sold the furniture in a large retail store. When the family fled to Hungary, they all found work at a winery. The work was difficult, but they were able to get by. They had enough saved to rent a weekend home from a Hungarian man Jusuf met on the street. They had the choice of moving to Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the U.S.

“My father, he chose the United States because he was always impressed by the movies,” Alma said. “Western movies – John Wayne and all that. And he liked the American language.”

Jusuf ’s uncle lived in Chicago and had sent him packages with movies when he was a child.

The Omercajic family’s cousins moved to Chicago first and then sent papers for them. They had been in Hungary for four years. In Chicago, Jusuf worked at a jewelry shop in Evanston that Alma says took advantage of immigrant workers.

Alma Omercajic takes a break from styling hair to sit with her father while her mother works on a trim.

“It was the worst company,” Alma says. ”They worked people like modern slaves. They hired people for a couple of months and then fired them. He was paid about $5 a day with no protection.”

Jusuf ’s wife, Mina, was a heralded hair stylist in Bosnia and she was one of the few who were able to have a diploma transferred to the U.S. Alma went back to school to get her beautician’s license in Chicago. After a couple of years in Lincoln Square, Mina was able to build up a good amount of clientele and to open her own salon. It still does well today.

At McDonald’s later that week, Aziz Zandi, a 55-year-old Iraqi cab driver, sits with Redzovic. Zandi had a univer-sity degree in Iraq that is of little use to him here. He fled Iraq in 1977, and after time in Germany and New York, he made his way to Chicago. Since then he has received an associate’s degree from Truman College and a bachelor of arts degree from Northeastern. Zandi speaks five languages and says he was offered $250,000 a year to work for the U.S. government as a translator in Iraq and Afghanistan. He turned the job down.

Redzovic found work as a translator/liaison in Bosnia in 1997. He was working maintenance for an Egyptian man in Lincoln Square when an army recruiter called on the Egyptian man’s son. Redzovic and the recruiter started talking about translator positions and he flew to Virginia for training later that week. He worked as a translator in Bosnia for a year and half.

Much of the time at McDonald’s is spent telling stories. The men talk about growing up in foreign countries, the wars they have seen and how they adjusted to American life.

Redzovic tells a story of police abuse in Chicago, in 1981. He was leaving his building one night when the police had a young man spread across the squad car. They searched him and left. The young man told Redzovic they had stolen his money. The police returned 15 minutes later and asked Redzovic if he had seen them steal from the boy. He said he didn’t, but he had seen them with him up on the car. When they threatened him he ran and a scuffle ensued. The neighbors came out of their apartments as the policeman drew his gun.

“I went to court 27 times,” Redzovic says. ”They lied and said I resisted arrest. The lawyer, he promised we were going to sue him, blah, blah, he lied to me. I had two years probation. Twenty-four years later, I came home and on the evening news, there was the police, John Miedzianowski. He got a life sentence.”

Miedzianowski was convicted in federal court in April 2001 of racketeering and drug conspiracy. During his sen-tencing to life without parole in 2003, the Chicago Tribune reported that lead prosecutor Brian Netois called Mied-zianowski an outlaw cop who betrayed honest officers by revealing the identity of undercover police to gang members, by protecting drug organizations, by distributing crack cocaine and by supplying gang members with ammunition.

Redzovic’s brother enters with his 12-year-old son, Kemal. He is allowed to come to McDonald’s about once a month to hear the men speak.

“I listen to their stories,” Kemal says. ”Sometimes they talk about the politics back in Bosnia and sometimes they talk about how their home lives were. I’d like to go there, maybe after college. I’d like to learn about the art and the culture.”

Kemal’s mother is Serbian and lost both her parents and her brother in the war. He says her life was hard when she came to Chicago on her own. The backgrounds are very different from table to table. But, they are all family here.

They will meet again tomorrow, maybe for breakfast or after dinner. Maybe for both.

Andrew Marciniak, StreetWise Editorial Intern

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