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What 3 RootsTech keynote speakers learned about their family story and why it matters

Nick Vujicic, a world renowned motivational speaker from Australia who has no arms or legs, speaks to a filled Tabernacle audience on Sept. 13, 2009.
Nick Vujicic, a world renowned motivational speaker from Australia who has no arms or legs, speaks to a filled Tabernacle audience at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Sept. 13, 2009. Vujicic is one of 13 keynote speakers at this year’s RootsTech Connect on Feb. 25-27, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Discussing Nick Vujicic’s family history could whisk a person off to any number of countries and cultures.

Vujicic’s parents are both from Serbia. Although he was born in Australia, many of his traits, values and priorities stem from his upbringing in a Serbian household. His wife is of Japanese and Mexican descent. He’s lived in California, traveled the world as a motivational speaker and bestselling author, and now resides in the Dallas area.

For Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, discovering and sharing your family story is not only educational, it’s enlightening and affirms self-esteem.

“For my own self-awareness and consciousness about my roots, my ancestry, my culture, it’s not just DNA, it’s a mindset,” Vujicic said in recent interview with the Deseret News. “It’s amazing to discover, to know, that we are like a tree. The roots of the tree are the most important. It doesn’t matter how big the trunk is or if it has limbs or not. It’s all about who you are beneath the surface.”

Vujicic, writer and genealogist Sharon Leslie Morgan and actor Erick Avari are among 13 keynote speakers presenting at this year’s free, virtual-only RootsTech Connect Feb. 25-27.

The Deseret News recently spoke with this trio of keynote speakers about their respective family histories and why knowing about one’s heritage matters. Here are their thoughts.

Refugees

Vladamir Vujicic, Nick’s paternal grandfather, was born in Yugoslavia in the 1920s during a communist regime. He was a Christian preacher who lived for his family and faith. After being persecuted and going to prison for being a pacifist, he was released when he agreed to save wounded soldiers on the battlefield.

Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, gets ready for a photo after giving a motivational speech at Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City Thursday, March 7, 2013. Vujicic is one of 13 keynote speakers at RootsTech Connect Feb. 25-27, 2021.
Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs, gets ready for a photo after giving a motivational speech at Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City Thursday, March 7, 2013. Vujicic is one of 13 keynote speakers at RootsTech Connect Feb. 25-27, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

While performing that duty, Vladamir Vujicic was wounded but survived. He returned home, gathered his family and left the country. When crossing the border, he handed the guard the address and keys to his home in exchange for his family’s freedom.

Nick Vujicic’s maternal grandfather’s life followed a similar pattern to that of his paternal grandfather. His maternal grandfather was also a pacifist preacher in Yugoslavia who agreed to rescue wounded soldiers before escaping across the Austrian Alps.

“Both of my parents were refugees,” Nick Vujicic said.

Nick Vujicic was their first son, born without limbs in 1982. In studying his lineage, he found out that men in the Vujicic family were known to be “giants” and “six-fingered people” of the Montenegro region.

“I’ve met some people who surgically took off their sixth finger and sixth toe in Montenegro,” he said. “We love our family tree and found the Vujicic family crest. It’s really spectacular.”

Vujicic has traveled to back Serbia with his parents. The experience helped him understand his parents and their heritage better. He also learned the language and continues to make charitable donations to help orphanages and the poor in Serbia and many other countries.

“Nothing touched my heart like going to an orphanage in Serbia,” he said. “It was quite life-changing for me.”

One of Vujicic’s favorite family traditions is getting together with his 24 cousins, who he sees as brothers and sisters, to eat “amazing desserts” and laugh. Every four years they come together to watch the World Cup.

“That’s a huge tradition for us,” he said. “We love soccer. We love food and we just love being together.”

‘Seriously walking’

Sharon Leslie Morgan, writer, author and genealogist, is serious about understanding her African American heritage.

The lifelong family historian presently lives in the home where her enslaved maternal ancestor once lived in the community of Macon, Noxubee County, Mississippi.

What led her to this “little teeny-weeny” town, as she describes it, was a desire to write a book about her family history. Her enslaved ancestor had 17 children with the nephew of her slave owner.

“I live 15 miles from the location where she was enslaved. I live on the street where after emancipation she was able to get a house and live,” Morgan said. “I am seriously walking in the footsteps of my ancestors and being able to say their names and hear their whispers every day. It’s an amazing experience to be here.”

Morgan co-authored a book with Thomas Norman DeWolf, the descendant of a slave trader. The book is titled, “Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.”

Unfortunately, Morgan’s family history trail stops with that enslaved ancestor, her great-great-grandmother. More than anything she would love to uncover the rest of her ancestral story.

“You want to fill in those blanks so you have the whole family picture. I want to meet them in the afterlife,” said Morgan, the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, an online community dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research. “I expect to have hundreds of people waiting for me when I get there. And I’m going to research them so that they’ll be available.”

Why does knowing your family history matter? Morgan believes knowing your story provides a sense of belonging.

“You have to realize you are not here alone. We are part of a community,” Morgan said. “I was fortunate to grow up in a household with my mother, not my father, my grandparents and I got to meet at least one of my great-grandparents. It gives you a sense of security that you belong to people, you belong somewhere. That’s part of the void that we’re missing in African American research. We don’t have part of it and I think that love chain goes back much farther than me. I think family, in the sense of your personal family, and family in the sense of the human family, is a really big deal.”

‘In my blood’

When first approached about speaking at RootsTech, actor Erick Avari wasn’t sure he was the right spokesman. He left his home in India and ventured alone into American acting at a young age. For many years, his only interaction with family involved an expensive international phone call.

Actor Erick Avari will be a keynote speaker at RootsTech Connect in February 2021.
FamilySearch

But as Avari continued to discuss the idea with organizers, he realized he did have a story to tell. Part of that story is wishing he had known more about his ancestry before pursuing an acting career.

“It would have given me a lot more confidence in stepping out into this field,” said Avari, who many will recognize for his recent role as Nicodemus in the streaming series, “The Chosen.” “I remember my parents’ friends couldn’t even wrap their brains around it. This idea of going to America to do this ‘acting thing.’ That’s what he’s going off to do, this ‘acting thing.’ It was very risky.”

Years later, Avari was in New York researching an acting role at the Lincoln Center Library when he stumbled across a book on Bengali theater that mentioned his great-grandfather. Not only was his ancestor an entrepreneur, which he already knew, but it turns out he was also involved with the theater.

Avari learned his great-grandfather was the first producer to put women on the Indian stage, which was “revolutionary.” The man started in silent movies and made the transition into talking films. His brothers were also actors.

“So it was sort of in my blood, unbeknownst to me. I thought I was this anomaly,” said Avari, who grew up in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India. “I wish I had known that before I stepped out. I think I would have stepped with a little more spring in my step and a little less doubt. Perhaps I would have aimed a little bit higher.”

The older he gets, the more Avari appreciates his family and heritage. Knowing your roots allows you to grow upward, he said.

“Family is very, very important. They keep you grounded,” he said. “In acting, when we discuss a character, we talk about setting down roots for that character. Once they are there, you’re on firm footing and you’re able to maneuver anything that comes up because your character is rooted. ... It’s important to see your roots.”

To register or learn more about RootsTech Connect, go to RootsTech.org.