Seven years ago, Tihomir left his home country and was on his way to Chicago to continue his culinary education. Along the way he decided to stop and visit a friend in Charlotte. He immediately fell in love with the town, particularly the trees and the friendly people, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
“Charlotte is a modern town, but with a country style”, he explains. “People, they say, ‘Hi. How are you.’ And they smile. Everywhere you go.”
When you ask Tihomir why he wanted to come to America in the first place, his eyes light up and he laughs. “The food channel! I watched cooking shows all the time and those schools on TV were amazing. I wanted to come to culinary schools in the U.S. and be the master!”
Armed with his passion for cooking, Tihomir started working as a cook at a local restaurant. The work was good but almost immediately he dreamed of something more. “I used to drink coffee with friends and tell them, ‘Someday I will have a restaurant here. I’m going to have a place here.’ I felt it.”
His dream of owning his own place, however, was nearly derailed before it could get started. In 2010 Tihomir found himself needing to apply for permanent residence status but with very little time to get all the paperwork assembled and approved.
With deadlines looming, he arrived at International House’s immigration law clinic. Teaming up with Anne Crotty, Immigration Attorney and Jelena Giric-Held, Immigration Paralegal, Tihomir scrambled to quickly collect all the necessary documentation and to file the required paperwork. With just days to spare, the case was filed and soon after approved. Anne and Jelena called Tihomir with the good news – his status had been adjusted successfully.
This was a defining moment in Tihomir’s life. “International House helped me stand up on my feet”, he explains. “Without them I would never have reached this point. I give them so much credit for that!”
Armed with the certainty of permanent residency, Tihomir immediately set out to complete the next stage of his American dream – to open his own restaurant. He soon found the perfect location – not far from where he used to drink coffee with friends. He had some money saved from his cooking jobs, and he found a Charlotte investor with sufficient confidence in Tihomir to loan him enough money to make what had been a dream for so many years, a reality.
Once he started his business, Tihomir’s combination of culinary skill, willingness to work 12-14 hours a day, and respect for his customers and his employees, turned out to be the recipe for success. He repaid his loan early, and, despite never advertising, his restaurant has grown to the point that he has created jobs for nearly 20 people while making hundreds of loyal customers. “The experience is wonderful” he says with a smile. “ Many people were very helpful. Friends bring their friends. My customers are very, very supportive.”
With his business thriving, Tihomir had one more step to complete his dream. Last year, he applied for US citizenship and in May of this year, Tihomir completed his journey from immigrant to restaurant employee to business owner to U.S. citizen. Now, as a citizen, he stands ready to help others who come behind him. “The USA is a foundation that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. I dream to make a difference in this country. And I think I do make a difference in Charlotte. I am an example. People can look at me, and say, ‘If he did it, then I can too!’”
If you sit across from Tihomir at a table in his restaurant, you will have no doubt that he will continue to make a difference in Charlotte. You will also understand how International House gave him the critical help he needed. “International House is very important in the community”, he says as he flashes a grateful smile at Jelena. “They are fighting for people with a weak voice. Without this assistance, life is hard. And the people at International House do it from their heart – not for money or for business. They do it right.”
Tihomir never made it to Chicago. But Chicago’s loss is Charlotte’s considerable gain!