Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Tennessee Williams

It’s 55 years since we arrived in America, Serbian immigrants from Africa. My brother and I were little kids sitting on suitcases, while my Dad went into the hospital to see where we would sleep for the night.

My father was 45, a seasoned doctor starting life all over as a student. Dad had taken this medical residency in Brooklyn, sight unseen, because it offered housing. This was1967; Medicare had been implemented; old people were flooding to doctors. President Johnson inaugurated a special visa to import doctors. My late father jumped at the chance.

Once before on our anniversary in the US, I wrote about our arduous beginning. This year I want to remember and thank all those Americans who helped us:

The Mosley’s we knew in Africa, they had gone back home to Texas. Just knowing that there was one nice, kind family in this huge country was comfort enough.

In New York we knew no one. But there was a secretary in the hospital who took pity on us; she took us to Macy’s to buy bedding, showed us how to drop a dime into a subway turnstile. At a time when there was no internet she often gave us invaluable information on how to navigate the American way of life. I remember her enrolling us in the local public school. Mom didn’t speak English and Dad was at work. She helped us open a bank account, a novelty for people who paid their bills in cash at the post office (still a practice in Serbia and in Africa for many).

Then there was the late Dr. John Cafaro who signed a credit guarantee for a fellow doctor he hardly knew to buy a beat-up old car on credit so my father could commute to two moon-lighting jobs he had taken to support us. One was at a drug addict clinic and the other at a nursing home. We had no credit history. Dr. Cafaro would take us for lunch to his parents’, Italian immigrants who had made it in the US, and his Mom would make a ten-course lunch.

In the residency housing were an Iraqi doctor, his Dutch wife, and their two kids our age – the El Rubies. They were our first close friends in the US with whom we explored the free or cheap wonders of New York. I still keep in touch with this first best friend, Fatima.

A Korean family, two residents, gave my Mom a job as a nanny even though Mom didn’t speak a word of English. There is now a grown Korean doctor, our Suzy, who speaks fluent Serbian.

After Dad’s residency, Dr. Eugene Hoffman helped him achieve his lifelong dream to have his own practice. Dr. Hoffman and his wife had met as teenagers in the Dachau camp where they had lost their families. My father had narrowly escaped a similar fate from the Nazi Ustashi Jasenovac concentration camp as a Serb. Dr. Hoffman sold us his three-floor town house with a medical office on a personal loan. The Hoffmans had no children and he was dying of cancer. As if giving away his house on a personal mortgage wasn’t enough, during the last vestiges of his life, he sat in the office with my Dad introducing him to Jewish patients so they would not abandon this Serbian doctor.

For years the first of the month was sacred. My mother would take the subway delivering the mortgage payment to Mrs. Hoffman who moved to Manhattan. Mom would take this lonely old woman to lunch and continued to do so, even after the loan was paid off, until she passed away. Over the years, despite a busy life, I have gone to lay a stone on the Hoffman’s tomb in Brooklyn, a Jewish custom.

The late Shelly Hurwitz was a young stockbroker at Shearson Lehman and was cold-calling for clients. My Dad, also a beginner, became Shelly’s first client, and so began a life-long friendship. Shelly was brilliant and taught my father, a quick learner, everything. The two of them through prudent investments amassed for our family enough wealth for my brother’s and my college, law school, and medical school tuitions, retirement for my parents, a second home, and even our inheritances. The seed money of course came from Dad working 24/7 at two hospitals, private practice, and the part-time nursing home job which he kept because everyone there loved him.  I would often hear Shelly and my Dad talking about trading investment ideas, companies’ P&Ls, EPS, P/E, ROE, and diversification.

Unfortunately, there are not many Serbs in this story. Our church was in a schism when we arrived, a heated battle between those who felt the mother church was infiltrated with communists, and wanted to separate from it, and those who wanted to remain with and under the control of the mother church in Belgrade. Legal battles were flying, with the court case eventually decided by the US Supreme Court in favor of the mother church, a landmark decision. What this meant for us is that all newly arrived immigrants were viewed with suspicion by the Serbian community as Tito’s communist infiltrators. This nice family with two little kids, us, sat in a corner in the church hall after services being eyed by every other table with suspicion. Then one Sunday the church Board President Zorka Milich came over and invited us to their house on Long Island for a barbeque. She was our first Serbian American friend and that is how we entered the Serbian American community of New York. She was released from the board of Trustees this year at 96. I call her from time to time and spoke to her recently.

I think our family, in part because of these experiences, and in part because of our own innate Serbian largesse, has always tried to give back, to help someone somewhere. Have I gotten burned by people? Sure I have, but that is a small minority. My philosophy is that helping people comes back tenfold to you and maybe someone somewhere will remember and thank you long after you are gone as I do all these unbelievably kind souls.

About the Author: Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Dushica Protic practiced law for over 30 years in New York, specializing in securities laws, compliance and litigation. She was a staff attorney at the U S Securities and Exchange Commission, and was in private practice at the prominent international law firm of Weil Gotshal and Manges, among other prestigious positions. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Fordham University School of Law where she was editor of the International Law Journal.

At age five, Protic moved from Belgrade to Harar, Ethiopia, with her parents and brother, where her father was a practicing physician and researcher. The family immigrated to New York in 1967. Dushica wrote this piece in 2022, in remembrance of the anniversary of her family’s arrival in the United States.

Protic is the founder and moderator of the almost 12,000+ member Linked In group – Serbian American Professional Networking Group and its Facebook counterpart. For more information about membership in these groups, please reach out to Dushica online.