Couples take an unexpected path to shreveport and find home
The verse is from "As Time Goes By" by Herman Hupfeld. The song, as sung by Dooley Wilson in the film "Casablanca," is the soundtrack for finding love in war-torn Europe en route to a better life in America.
This is the story of two sisters and their husbands who did just that. Sanela Tomic and Anela Majstorovic are sisters. Bosnian by birth, they were enjoying a good life in the former Yugoslavia. In 1992, their story took a dramatic turn, as did the story of their homeland.
"In 1992, the war broke out," Sanela said. "Before we knew it, it became this raging conflict between previous states. We escaped the war. We went to Germany because we had family there. In the meantime, we realized the war wasn't going to be over any time soon, so we had to find a way to somehow start our life in Germany."
Those first few months were difficult, Sanela said. They were a pair of homeless refugees.
They found some solace in the kindness of people they met along the way. On one memorable night – Sanela's birthday – they decided to break free of the struggle, even if only for a few hours.
"After a few months living in horrible conditions, we decided it was time for us to go out and have fun, because it was my birthday," Sanela said. "We were a couple of cute-looking young girls, and we knew that we were going to be able to get into a nightclub."
That's the night that fate intervened. Zoran Tomic was in the same nightclub that night, hanging out with a friend who knew Sanela and Anela. For Zoran, it was love at first sight. But the mutual friend told Zoran – who is from Belgrade, Serbia – that he had no chance with her. Undaunted, Zoran made his move.
"He approached me on my birthday 30 years ago, on Sept. 18, and we have been together ever since," Salena said.
Sanela moved in with Zoran. That left Anela looking for a roommate. Her new roommate invited some friends over for dinner one night.
Fate intervened again, this time in Renato Majstorovic. For Renato, it was love at first bite.
"I met my beautiful wife through mutual friends," Renato said. "One night I got invited over, and she cooked dinner. I told myself, 'This is it. This is the one I am going to marry.'"
Renato is Croatian. So here are two Bosnians, a Serbian and a Croatian, finding love in Germany when they would have been bitter rivals back in their homeland.
"What's interesting is that all three sides were fighting against each other," Sanela said. "But somehow, against all odds, we literally got together and got married in the midst of that chaos over there. Obviously, we have made right decisions. Look at us now, 30 years later going strong."
War was raging back home. But love conquers all.
"My dad knew I was dating Zoran, but he didn't have an opportunity to meet him," Sanela recalls. "My sister and I were living in our first apartment together. He (our father) came over to tell us that his sister died from a grenade that was thrown by the opposing side. Knowing that Zoran was from Serbia, I didn't know what kind of reaction that would cause. My dad said if he knew who did that he would be angry at that person, but he cannot be angry at an entire nation for things a few individuals are doing."
Renato said his parents taught him a similar lesson.
"I grew up in a family that doesn't hate," he said. "They love everybody. They love their neighbor. They love other people. It doesn't matter."
Sanela and Anela arrived in Germany with one suitcase each. They met their husbands, started families, worked hard and paid their taxes. They believed they were doing everything right to build a new life there.
But after a peace agreement was signed and the war in the former Yugoslavia ended, the German government wanted them to return to their homeland because they were deemed "financially stable."
"We were just in disbelief because we thought we were doing the right thing," Sanela said. "We never abused the system. We decided to go somewhere where our hard work would be recognized."
Sanela said they wrote a letter to the Catholic Conference Refugee Program, which helped displaced refugees. With their assistance, the two families landed in Shreveport in 1997 – Sanela with seven suitcases and Anela with six – ready to build their dream once again.
Their sponsor at the Catholic Conference Refugee Program helped them find work.
"We started from zero," Zoran said. "I was working the kitchen at Superior Grill for $6 an hour. Renato was a bus boy. I said to my wife, 'Did I come here for this? What the hell? From the life I had in Europe?' But you need to start from zero here to go somewhere."
Sanela added: "Every beginning is difficult. We didn't expect how difficult. But we have persevered."
Zoran and Renato were at Superior Grill. Sanela was tending bar at Copeland's. And Anela was a manager at Julie Anne's Bakery.
"I am not a baker," Anela said. "Mrs. Julie Anne (Nelson) taught me everything.
We connected from Day One. I grew really fast and became the manager after a couple years."
Renato also rose through the ranks to become a manager at Superior Grill. The restaurant industry was treating them well, they all agreed. But Sanela was looking for a change.
"I realized the restaurant industry is wonderful, but it's not necessarily where I found myself," she said. "I just wanted to finish college and do something else. I studied engineering back in Bosnia. I realized there was no engineering college here.
I had two small children at that time, so I couldn't just move somewhere else to pursue that. So I decided to attend college to better my knowledge of the English language. I was not exactly sure what to study. I chose communications so I could speak English better."
"She was working as a bartender at Copeland's and was going full-time to school," Zoran explains. "She graduated in two and a half years, with two kids and a full-time job. She's got something right in the head."
Sanela was hired in the public relations department for the Horseshoe Casino and Harrah's Louisiana Downs.
Money was tight in those days. Sanela and Zoran made the most of an occasional night out.
"We were able to afford a really nice dinner maybe once or twice a month," Sanela said. "We would go to Bella Fresca because it reminded us of Europe. They had two-forone martinis on Monday night. We would go there and get one martini at the bar, move to the table and order another one."
Once again, fate intervened for both couples.
In 2005, the Nelsons, who owned Julie Anne's at the time, were looking for a change.
"The moment they decided they wanted to retire, they asked me and Renato if we wanted to buy the bakery," Anela said. "She (Julie Anne) said, 'I just want my name to keep going. I want you guys to be successful.' And that's exactly what happened."
"Seventeen years later, we are still working together," Renato added.
Opportunity was brewing for the Tomics as well in 2008.
"While we were going to Bella Fresca as customers, we had the opportunity to meet the former owners," Sanela said. "When they decided to retire, or move on to other projects, they offered us the opportunity to buy the business."
It was not what Sanela was looking for. "I wanted to escape the restaurant business," she said. "But my husband ended up buying a restaurant, whether I liked it or not."
It was a difficult time, they all said. But they credit their work ethic for carrying them through.
"I like to think all of us are hard workers," Sanela said. "But there is no one like my sister. She has not only taken over a successful business, but she's absolutely incredible. Waking up at midnight. Going to the bakery at one o'clock, carrying your child on your back while rolling out king cakes. She literally did that. She deserves all the success that came their way."
The Majstorovics have continued Julie Anne's legacy and ship king cakes nationwide. The Tomics expanded their restaurant holdings with the opening of Sauvage in south Shreveport.
They all agree it takes hard work, ambition and a little luck to be successful. And they know they haven't done it alone.
"You are only as successful as the people who surround you," Sanela said. "We have achieved an American Dream, but we would not be here without all the people who have worked for us. Along the way, we have encountered some hard-working people."
The Tomics and the Majstorovics know they have found their dream in Shreveport. But also realize they have found something more. They have found their home.
It didn't seem that way at first, however. "Shreveport was a mess when we landed at the airport in 1997," Renato said. "But this is home. I wouldn't change anything."
Zoran said the people make the difference. "I lived in many different countries, but there is no people like here in the South," Zoran said. "It's absolutely amazing. They are so helpful and friendly. When we came here, everybody said, 'How you doing?' I didn't even know them. I realized that's the culture."
Renato and Anela recall what happened in their neighborhood after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We were just three years here," Anela said. "Our whole neighborhood came out and said, 'You guys have nothing to worry about. We love you.'"
Renato was looking for an American flag to display at their house, but there were none to be found.
"We had a Vietnam veteran across the street," he said. "He gave us a flag he had brought back from the war. We are still on the same street."
The Tomics experienced it more recently when COVID-19 disrupted their restaurant operations.
"When COVID hit, and we shut down the restaurants, I had so many people call, making sure we were OK," Zoran said.
Before coming to America, they dreamed of living in the San Francisco Bay area. Now they can't imagine living anywhere else.
"The more you stay, they more you fall in love," Renato said. "Is Shreveport perfect? No. It's home now. And I really enjoy it."