Last Christmas, Olivera Dessieux delivered nearly 300 backpacks stuffed with school supplies to children served by Bridge Refugee Services and a Knoxville elementary school.
This holiday season, the former Bridge client organized another community donation drive aimed at giving children entering the foster-care system a new duffel bag to carry hygiene products and other items so they won’t have to carry their belongings in trash bags.
The annual giving projects are one way Olivera strives to thank the Knoxville community for opening its arms and hearts to her and her family when they arrived here in 1995 as refugees.
“I’m so grateful for what Bridge did for me and for what Graystone Presbyterian Church did for me,” she said. “I struggled for a long time with, ‘How do I repay them? How do I pay it forward?’”
In September 1995, Olivera, then 17, arrived in Knoxville with her parents, Mirko and Ruzica Lukajic, after they fled war-torn Bosnia.
Lynne Miller, a long-time member of Graystone Presbyterian Church, met them at the airport.
“They walked out with little bitty gym bags and grocery bags,” she recalled. “They had nothing but the clothes on their back.”
Lynne and other church members worked with Bridge staff to help the family with housing, doctor’s visits, grocery shopping and finding jobs. They took them to classes to learn English. Lynne taught Olivera, who enrolled as a junior that year at South Doyle High School, how to drive and her now late husband, Mike, helped the teen with her college applications.
“We didn’t just help them, we fell in love with them,” Lynne said. “They’re just part of my life.”
Olivera remembers being struck by how different “everything” was from her native country – from the food to transportation.
“I just couldn’t quite grasp driving everywhere you go,” she said. “We’re so used to walking everywhere we go. It took me awhile to realize this is a vast land and it’s not compact like it is back home.”
She described having mixed feelings about being resettled in Knoxville, which reminded her of her home town of Maglaj along the Bosna River and in the shadow of mountains.
“You’re excited because you have this new chance, but it’s kind of bittersweet because you’re also leaving everything and everyone behind,” she said. “You don’t know what awaits you on the other side or where you’re going. You just don’t know what to expect, which is a blessing in a way, because if you knew, you would not be brave enough to do it.”
Despite the differences in culture and language, Olivera said the people she encountered in Knoxville were kind and welcoming and she has remained close to Lynne and others who helped her acclimate to her new community.
She considered education as a first step towards giving back to those who supported her as a refugee.
“Getting into UT was important to me – to be able to achieve that in just a year and a half after being here,” she said.
Olivera earned her undergraduate degree in exercise science and then a master’s degree in exercise physiology. She worked in that field for about five years, married and became a mother, before deciding to go back to school to become a nurse practitioner.
She worked as a nurse practitioner within general surgery at UT and now works in an outpatient setting with gastrointestinal patients.
She and her husband, Luc, are also passionate about teaching their children, 12-year-old Mateya and 6-year-old Neven, the importance of serving those in need, particularly those who feel forgotten or invisible.
“My family goes under the bridge (by Knox Area Rescue Ministries’ Broadway location) every Christmas Eve to hand out cookies, hats, gloves, scarves and socks to local homeless people,” she said.
Olivera has also spearheaded annual community Christmas drives to benefit local nonprofits, many that serve children, to express her gratitude for the second chance at life that she received here.
“We all, at some point in our lives, need a helping hand,” she said. “I don’t know if what I’m doing will equal what they’ve done for me, but I sure will keep on trying.”