Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

American­­ Dream realized by refugee from Yugoslavia

  • Updated
American­­ Dream realized by refugee from Yugoslavia

Ivana Gavrilovic escaped from the wars in the former Yugoslavia by seeking out America as an exchange student and through experiences in business. She is now the proud owner of a new business.

Everybody from the city of Dunwoody to both large and small area businesses knows Allegra Printing. In March, when its longtime owners retired, Ivana Gavrilovic became the new owner. How she came from war-torn Serbia to own a successful printing firm is another story of the American Dream.

From 1992 to 2001, Yugoslavia was embroiled in Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II. Known as the Yugoslav Wars, these mainly ethnic conflicts among the various Yugoslav federal republics eventually led to the deaths of more than 140,000 people.

Ivana Gavrilovic grew up in Valjevo, a town of 120,000 in Serbia, one of the Yugoslav republics. There she led a peaceful secure childhood until she was nine years old. Though the economy was shaky, everyone in her neighborhood got along. Her parents owned businesses, and she lived comfortably with them and her older sister.

In 1992, everything changed.

“Yugoslavia split into six countries,” she said.

Though for the first five years, the war was fought mainly in Bosnia, Gavrilovic remembers the rest of her childhood filled with fear and anxiety.

“The whole country was in crisis,” she said. “We never knew what would happen next.”

To make matters worse, her mother’s father was very ill, and lived in their hometown in Bosnia, about 25 miles from some of the worst fighting. Because fellow Serbs held the area, she and her family were able to him every other weekend. Every trip was peppered by the sound of gunfire.

“There was really no point to this war. It destroyed the infrastructure,” she said. “Now the region is very poor. The regular people lost. Only the politicians won.”

Gavrilovic dreamed of escaping to the safety of America. When she was 15 years old, she got her chance and applied to spend her junior year in high school as a foreign exchange student. She ended up on a farm in Bradwell, Tennessee.

“It’s so small you can’t find it on a map,” she said.

She fell in love with her host family and their country.

“They showed me the side of America you don’t see in movies,” she said. “I knew I would come back and make America my home.”

Though she arrived not speaking a word of English, she was so good at math and physics she graduated in one year. Hoping to figure out a way to return, she went back to Serbia to attend the University of Belgrade. While she was there, NATO began its controversial bombing, with bombs landing half a mile from where she was living.

During her senior year at the university she heard about a summer foreign-exchange work program at Six Flags Over Georgia and applied immediately. In one month, she was on the job. After six months at Six Flags, she worked for three years as a nanny for a family in Vinings, returning briefly to the University of Belgrade to take her exams and graduated with a degree in operational science.

She also began an online course to become a paralegal, after which she quickly landed her first paralegal position, followed a year later by a position at another law firm. Soon after starting her second job, she put her university degree to good use.

“I told my boss I could fix things,” she said. “He gave me four weeks to come up with a plan. I did and six months later became senior manager of the whole firm.”

So, there she was – a young woman who had come to the U.S. just a few years earlier not speaking a word of English, now the senior manager of a major Atlanta law firm. For eight years she honed her management skills, eventually realizing she wanted to pursue the ultimate American Dream – being her own boss.

“I always had trouble finding a good printer who could help with all our printing needs, especially our marketing,” she said. “So I decided to find a franchise where I could become the person I wanted to find and help small businesses grow.”

By this time married to a fellow Serb, she explored businesses in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs close to where they and their young children were living. Like everything else in her life, when she found what she was looking for, she didn’t hesitate. On February 25, she met the retiring owners of Allegra Printing, and on March 31, she closed the deal.

Her goal is to make Allegra Printing a one-stop shop for small businesses, offering small-and-large-format printing, promotional items and development and design. She has two part-time employees and two full-time, including an on-site graphic designer. Of course, she herself is there everyday, cheerfully working hard, knowing that in her new country anything is possible.