Can you imagine leaving everything that's familiar and immigrating to a foreign country?
South Charlotte resident Jelena Giric-Held can, because that's what she did when she moved from Serbia to the United States in 1999.
Life in Serbia was not without difficulties.
Held, 46, had a good job, an apartment in the cosmopolitan city of Belgrade, family and a social life; however, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had led the country through conflicts on several fronts, and Held experienced the effects of living in a war-torn country. She participated in protests, jeopardizing her safety and her job, since the magazine she worked for essentially was state run.
Held had family in the U.S. and was considering moving here, but it is a daunting process she wasn't quite ready for. That changed, however, when she fell in love.
During a trip to Hilton Head, S.C., to visit her brother, Held was introduced to fellow Serbian and her future husband, Goran Held, 46. With Goran already living in Charlotte, Held decided to move to Charlotte in 1999, and the couple married in 2002.
Held got a job and completed a paralegal program at Central Piedmont Community College. It was in one of her classes that she learned about International House, and she knew she wanted to get involved.
International House provides educational, immigration and cultural services to Charlotte's international community and promotes global diversity.
Held became an International House volunteer and enjoyed meeting people from all over the world. She felt at home immediately.
"It felt like family. The staff all takes care of each other," said Held.
In 2006, when an opening became available, Held was hired as operations manager, and later as a paralegal. She is now the senior paralegal at International House.
Along the way, Held obtained a green card and became a U.S. citizen. The maze to be navigated to apply for citizenship was overwhelming, and Held was procrastinating.
One day, she was asked to sign what she thought was routine paperwork at work. When she looked closely, she saw her name was all over the documents. Her co-workers had surprised her by doing all the preliminary work on her citizenship application.
"That was wonderful," said Held.
In June 2010, joined by her husband and parents, who were visiting from Serbia, Held became an American citizen. Goran Held had become a citizen in 2006.
"I felt very proud, like I completed an important part of my adjustment in the U.S. It gave me security and I truly felt I belonged here now," said Held.
Although there is an attorney on staff who supervises the work of the paralegals, Held is able to provide clients many of the same services an attorney would.
"It's very gratifying," Held said of the work she does to help others obtain citizenship. "I enjoy doing it because I know what they are going through, since I went through it myself."
Denise Cumbee Long, executive director of International House, recounts Held's warmth and welcoming manner when she came on board in November 2010. Held invited Long over to enjoy a traditional Serbian New Year's, complete with many Serbian delicacies.
That friendly manner also is extended to clients of International House.
"Jelena's genuine warmth is something clients sense immediately. She's incredibly professional and proficient but also has very welcoming nature," Long said.
When Held is not working, she enjoys reading, knitting and getting together with friends.