Sven Zepic – From Croatia to the United States

A foreword on Sven Zepic’s story by his girlfriend, Jenelle Senske.

Meeting Sven my freshman year of college four years ago has been, in more ways than one, absolutely life-changing for me. I always dreamt of being an immigration lawyer but never truly had any idea of what it was actually like to be an immigrant in the United States… and then I started dating one when I was eighteen! Sven and his family have opened my eyes in so many ways and have only made me more passionate about pursuing my future career. While the times we are currently facing are scary and unprecedented, it is certainly not the first time Sven and his family have faced struggles. From leaving their home and all they had known their whole lives in the midst of a terrifying war, the Zepic family has persevered and thrived in the United States. It is an honor and a privilege to know them. Enjoy this tiny bit of their story!

You never really know where life can take you. My life is as abnormal as can be. Back in November of 1996 in a small city in Germany called Heppenheim, I was born. Who knows how we ended up there. My father, mother and sister were all born in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The story of how I ended up in Pittsburgh is actually pretty crazy. My parents are from a country formerly known as Yugoslavia, and they lived their entire young lives in that country. Shortly after my sister was born in 1987, the country was starting to fall apart. A war was on the horizon. In 1991, the war had begun and my father was assigned to the Croatian military. This was a weird time for my family because my mother’s side of the family is all Serbian and my father’s side of the family is all Croatian. Croatians and Serbians became enemies during the war, so their story was similar to that of Romeo and Juliet’s! I remember that my mother would always tell me that she feared one day we would just never hear from my father again because he was gone in the middle of a war that everyone knew wouldn’t end well. 

For almost 5 years my mother and sister had that fear until they made that move to Heppenheim in 1995. I was about to be born and my father and mother realized they wanted to escape this life filled with terror and hate. Shortly after I was born, we relocated a few times within a year to Germany, Croatia, or Bosnia. However, nothing was exactly what my parents wanted. Then, somehow my father came up with the idea to move to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in America? Even to this day Pittsburgh isn’t known as a huge city, so I have a hard time imagining that in the years 1997-98 that Pittsburgh was a glorified city! My father told me escaping the Yugoslavian War was one of the hardest decisions he and my mom ever made. Leaving essentially our entire family to go to the United States where nothing was promised, we could have lived a horrible life. My parents took that gamble and that is something I will always respect and appreciate. To this day, my father has seen his mother (my grandmother) for a total of 2 weeks in the 21 years we have lived in the U.S. Since we have been living in the U.S, my mother, sister, and I have visited Croatia and Serbia a few times, but definitely not as much as we all would have liked to.           

When we moved to Pittsburgh, my parents worked at a pizza shop to make ends meet. We moved into this 1 bedroom apartment in Baldwin in a little place called Prospect Park. The nice thing about it was that we became friends with people just like us from the Balkans who lived in the same apartments as well. Prospect Park brought me my best friends still to this day, and their families have similar stories to ours. As I grew up, my father got a job as a floor installation man, and started to do really well for our family. In 2000, we moved into our first home! This is where I get all my memories of my childhood leading up to now. Around this age my parents started to tell me things about my family because I was very young still and had no idea why I never saw any of my family around compared to other kids.

At an early age, my parents let me play sports, and immediately I fell in love with basketball. I remember growing up and my parents telling my aunts and uncles, “he likes basketball and he is going to be tall, he can be pretty good.” My parents always told me to stick to sports because for them growing up they saw a lot of people who didn’t play sports get involved with drugs at a young age and didn’t want to see that with me, especially because they didn’t know what life was going to be like growing up in America.

I got a glimpse at what it meant to be an immigrant at a pretty young age. I specifically remember an instance where when I was 8 years old, my neighbors who were Serbian were saying that they didn’t like Croatians to my Dad. A moment where I once felt attacked for being an immigrant was when me and my friends were speaking Serbo-Croatian with each other and someone told us, “you’re in America, speak English.” I never really knew how to feel about this because we were just minding our own business and just got attacked for no reason. 

Another thing that was tough for me when I was growing up was not being able to really know a lot of my family. On my dad’s side of the family, I never got to meet my grandfather, so I only really have stories of him from my dad. Both of my grandfathers actually passed away when I was still in Germany. I had a tough time dealing with this as a kid, but having parents and a sister as strong as mine definitely helped me cope with it. Oh, and a lot of Skype calls helped, too. One of my favorite memories was when I was 10 years old, I went back to visit Croatia and Serbia with my mom and sister. I got to meet my grandmas, aunts and uncles, and a bunch of cousins! My grandma Olga passed away in 2017, and I never really got the chance to see her again after the last time in 2012.  As I grew up through middle school into high school, I kept my same group of friends back from Prospect Park. Those friends of mine all thought the same way as I did: treat people the way you would like to be treated. Because of this, we got along with everyone, regardless of where they were from, when we were in high school. My group of friends is actually what really helped me embrace being an immigrant. My friends all would say that it is something we should be proud of. 

As I grew up, my role model was my older sister. A lot of brother-sister relationships are not the best growing up, but my sister and I have a 9 year age difference, so she was like a second mom to me. When I was really young she taught me both English and Serbo-Croatian at the same time, because both of my parents aren’t very good with English even to this day. So when I was about 8 or 9 years old she had been dating this Croatian guy who was an immigrant just like us and he also was a basketball player, whom she later got married to in 2011. She used to take me to his high school games and it just made me love basketball even more. He even ended up playing at Washington and Jefferson College, where I would also play years down the line! 

One of the most recent memories of my life was being the second person in my family, behind my sister, to attend college. I knew what it meant to my parents for me to get a college education, and in 2016 I started attending Washington and Jefferson College. It was a pretty sweet moment for me and my family because for my parents, it was putting their second kid through college, and for me, it was getting a great education and playing college basketball, a lifelong dream of mine. 

It’s weird how some things happen when you least expect them to. Shortly after I got to campus I met a girl, Jenelle Senske. I remember telling her all about me and within minutes, you could just see how fascinated she was with my story and my background. Something I never really could connect with anyone before. She has never made me feel like anything less than her, and that is something I am very grateful for. A best friend and a girlfriend all in one. In 2019, I graduated from W&J and became the second person in my entire family to graduate from college. I would say this is the proudest I have ever been of myself, and I think I made my whole family proud, no matter where they are in the world. Some advice I would give to people is don’t judge others based on where they are from, because everyone has their own challenges and pain they have been through.

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