Miroslav Jezdanov remembers the day the bombs began to fall.
He was 19 years old, a world champion athlete, and a member of Serbia's elite rowing club.
He was washing windows at a gas station in downtown Belgrade when his sister called.
“She said I had to come home right away,” Jezdanov recalled. “They were bombing the city.”
Jezdanov is 36 years old now, and lives in Florida. But he will never forget the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. It changed his life. It nearly killed him. It brought him to Concordia.
Jezdanov was born in Belgrade, in what was once the country of Yugoslavia. A Communist satellite, it was a melting pot of various ethnicities and religions. Dictator Josef Broz Tito's iron grip – and the Soviet Union's influence - kept them united.
After the death of Tito and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, Yugoslavia began a descent into chaos. Within the span of a few years, nine different provinces declared themselves independent countries. Ethnic and religious hatred that had simmered for hundreds of years rose to the surface.
In the new nation of Serbia, a hardline nationalist named Slobodan Milosevic rose to power, and sent Serbian troops and paramilitary units into neighboring countries.
The Slavic regions exploded in all-out civil war. Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and Muslims battled each other across national boundaries.
Jezdanov was the son of a former Serbian soccer star. He and his sister and their parents lived a comfortable life in Belgrade. From an early age Jezdanov showed athletic prowess, and though he tried soccer, he found his true calling as a team rower. By the age of 12 he was competing with athletes twice his age. By the age of 15, he was a member of the Partizan Rowing Club team that won a world championship.
Jezdanov dreamed of competing in the Olympics. He worked odd jobs – like washing windows at a car wash – so he could train full time.
In 1999, in response to Serbian military aggression and alleged ethnic atrocities in neighboring countries, NATO launched a four month bombing campaign to destroy Serbian armed forces.
“I remember one day I was rowing on a lake outside of Belgrade,” Jezdanov recalled, “These jet planes suddenly appear, flying low, and they dropped bombs on a military base. The whole ground shook.”
The bombings and economic sanctions took their toll.
“We lived in a bomb shelter,” Jezdanov said. “We ate food out of cans. We maybe had electricity for one hour a night.”
A once prosperous nation suddenly teetered on economic collapse. Inflation spiraled out of control. There were lines for gasoline, bread, flour, sugar.
Jezdanov wanted out, and saw his world-class rowing skills as a ticket to the United States. He had to travel to Budapest to apply for a visa. He thought his chances were slim; but, surprisingly, he was granted a visa.
He flew to the United States in 2000 with $200 in his pocket. A friend of the family living in Chicago was supposed to pick him up at the airport.
Jezdanov waited five days. No one came to get him. His calls to the family friend went unanswered.
He lived in the airport for almost a week. He knew he had to conserve his money, so he would wait in a McDonald's and eat the leftovers people threw in the trash. He would use other people's empty cups to get free refills of soda. He cleaned himself in the airport bathrooms.
"Airport officials would stop and talk to me, and I always gave some sort of excuse," he said. "I was afraid if I told them the truth the would deport me."
Jezdanov made dozens of calls from airport pay phones. Chicago has a large Serbian immigrant population. He finally found a friend of a friend of a friend who came and got him.
On a tourist visa, Jezdanov was not supposed to work, but he needed money just to survive. He found a job at truck-stop. It was eight miles from where he lived with the friend, and he had no car, so he slept in an abandoned tractor-trailer parked at the truck stop five nights a week. In the winter.
Jezdanov wanted to go to school to get a degree, and a student visa would allow him to stay in the U.S. longer. Through a network of Serbian nationals living in the U.S., he tried colleges in Seattle and Washington D.C., but couldn't afford the tuition.
He finally got in touch with a Serbian girl named Bebe who was attending Cloud County Community College.
Jezdanov came to Concordia in January, 2001. His first night in town he went to a basketball game at the college. The mascot was sick. Jezdanov was asked if he wanted to fill in for the night. He put on the T-Bird costume and danced on the court and goofed around with the fans in the stands all night.
After the game was over he was offered a small scholarship to be the college mascot.
Jezdanov was soon offered other small scholarships to play soccer and sing in the choir, and he got a job working 20 hours a week in the school cafeteria.
He enrolled at Cloud County Community College as a student.
Money was always tight. Just paying his tuition and rent for a dorm room was more than all his scholarships combined, and more than he was making at his job.
Jezdanov had met Brad and Lee Lowell soon after arriving in Concordia, and they took him under their wing. There were always odd jobs Jezdanov could do: rake leaves, shovel snow, plant flowers in the garden. Lee Lowell would stop at his dorm every day at lunchtime, take Jezdanov to her house and fix him a sandwich and soup.
"Many times we would go to Walmart because she said she needed to get groceries," he said, and his eyes misted a little at the memory. "She would load up a shopping cart with food and some clothes, and then she'd take me back to the dorm and just leave all the bags with me."
Jezdanov spent 2 1/2 years at CCCC, and is grateful for all the wonderful people he met, and all the strangers who helped him begin a new life in America.
After he graduated from CCCC, Susanne and Dale Bradley paid his tuition to attend Washburn University.
He graduated with a degree in Business Administration. A self-admitted "terrible student" in Serbia, Jezdanov made the Dean's List and the Honor Roll at Washburn. He went on to get a Masters Degree from Dowling College in Long Island.
He's worked as a high school coach and a rowing coach all over the country, and in 2010 he moved to Florida to open his own fitness training business. Jezdanov created a exercise regimen with rowing as the key element.
"Rowing is a perfect exercise," he said. "It's low-impact on the knees and back."
Jezdanov now has numerous athletes at all levels as his clients, including Dwight Howard of the NBA, and several NFL players for the Washington Redskins.
Jezdanov returned to Concordia in early March, 2018, to reunite with Brad and Lee Lowell, and to share his wonderful news with them. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been granted United States citizenship.
He is now an American.
Jezdanov is writing a book about his life, and his sometimes harrowing struggles, that he's titled: 'The American Dream: I Did It My Way'.
"I was never afraid I could not survive," he said, thinking back on the years he struggled just to feed himself in a foreign country, and learn the language. He lived in the Chicago airport; he slept on the metal floor of a tractor-trailer in winter; he walked three miles through the crime-ridden ghettos of Chicago to get to work; he traveled cross country on a train with $4 in his pocket, and hoped someone would be waiting for him when he arrived.
"After what I had been through in Belgrade, with the bombings, I was not going to let anything stop me. I wanted to get an education. I wanted to live in America. I wanted to be an American. But I couldn't have done it without the help of so many kind people. And so many of them were right here in Concordia. This is just a really special little town, and it helped me make my dream come true."
Jezdanov especially wanted to thank Brad and Lee Lowell, Susanne and Dale Bradley, Joe and Jenna Strecker, Suzy and Tom Tuggle, Harley and Darla Adams, Jackie Barton, and Jim and Jean Franey.
Welcome to the United States, Miroslav Jezdanov... fellow American.