It’s now been 20 years since the day Kate Mesic arrived in America with her family from Russia.
They were refugees seeking new lives.
Mesic’s parents did not believe that their two daughters — Kate and her older sister, Liza — could have a safe, happy and successful future in Russia.
Her parents experienced many hardships under the old Soviet regime, much of it due to Mesic’s parents — mother, Tatyana (Russian Orthodox) and father, Leon (Jewish) — being an interfaith couple.
Yet two decades later, that day still makes Mesic emotional as she recalls it while sitting in the spacious office of her Southside law firm.
“Once we arrived at the airport in New York, the authorities separated us,” Mesic says.
“They had my father get in one line. And they had me, my grandmother and my mother get in another.”
Mesic pauses and begins to fan her hands at her eyes.
It’s an attempt to wave back the building tears.
“I remember the only thing I could think about at the moment,” Mesic adds.
“It was, ‘Am I going to see my father again?’”
After a seemingly endless wait, yes, her father did return.
And once he did, Mesic says, something else happened that she still remembers clearly — intensely.
“Any doubt I had about being in this new country — America — went away,” Mesic says.
“And I’ve never had another moment of doubt since.”
AMERICA HAS BEEN RICHLY REWARDED
Within a day, Mesic’s family had traveled on to Jacksonville — a city where her father’s sister had come to live years earlier.
Jacksonville became the welcome haven that Mesic’s family desperately sought.
And Jacksonville has become the place that Mesic, now with a family of her own — husband, Jay, and toddler son, Aiden — still treasures for the open embrace it gave her and her parents.
But make no mistake about it:
Jacksonville has in return had its arms filled tenfold with gifts for extending them to a Russian refugee family 20 years ago.
And so has America.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Because here is what Mesic has brought to our city and country since that emotional, brief moment of uncertainty and fear in a New York airport in 1997:
She has worked to protect the community as an assistant state attorney for Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit in Ocala.
She has added to the diversity of expertise in Jacksonville’s legal community as a lawyer for two local law firms.
She has built — though still a millennial at 35 — an impressive record of accomplishments and volunteerism — from graduating with honors from the University of North Florida and the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law to doing pro bono legal work for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
She has symbolized the entrepreneurial spirit that Jacksonville longs to foster, promote and nurture — Mesic launched her own law firm in 2011 and leads a staff representing clients in areas ranging from business law to criminal cases.
She has become a dynamic role model for area women, having served as a president for the Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association and winning a 2013 “Up and Coming Entrepreneur of the Year” award from the Women Business Owners of North Florida.
This is what Kate Mesic — a “refugee” — has brought to our city and country over two mere decades.
This is what one person, one of the actual humans behind a word too many of us view in a negative way — “refugee” — has added in a positive way to the fabric of Jacksonville and America alike.
THE STORIES MUST BE TOLD, THE FACES MUST BE SEEN
And that is why the Times-Union Editorial Board is making a commitment in the months ahead to share the stories and faces of people like Mesic — inspirational people who have come to our city as refugees and are making it a better and richer community.
Day after day.
Their stories need to be told.
Their faces need to be seen.
“I think the biggest misconception that many of us have about those who come to America as refugees,” Mesic says, “is how much appreciation and love they have for this country.”
Adds Mesic: “I can honestly tell you that level of love and appreciation runs so deep that it’s hard sometimes to completely put it in words. That’s how much this country means to me and others who have come here as refugees — and who love and cherish the values that have made this country.”
So let’s tell their stories.
Let’s see their faces.
And — most of all — let’s celebrate this fact:
They are the stories and faces of America.