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This Bosnian refugee was banished multiple times, but O.C. Tanner helped her make Utah home

SHARE This Bosnian refugee was banished multiple times, but O.C. Tanner helped her make Utah home

Selma Mlikota, who is on the human resources team at O.C. Tanner, is pictured at the company’s offices in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. The Utah firm is a longtime global leader in the employee recognition business, and while it’s evolved into an endeavor where software and digital application products outstrip the unique trophies and awards it produces, the company has quietly become a champion on behalf of political refugees who have resettled in Utah.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Selma Mlikota had no way of knowing she would never return home from a weekend trip to Serbia she took as an 18-year-old Bosnian college student in 1992.

Or that she would experience further ethnic discrimination, even as a refugee in Western Europe.

Or that she and her husband, also a Bosnian refugee, would ultimately find themselves in Utah with their first baby just a few months away.

“We love this country that took us in, but the stories I hear from others who are new to the U.S. are so hard, so deeply painful ... it takes me back to what happened to so many people from Bosnia.” — Selma Mlikota

But this displaced family would find friends, a community ready to offer support and a Utah company that would fundamentally change their lives.

While she had studied to become a licensed nurse while living in Germany, Mlikota found herself back to square one when she arrived in the U.S. in 1998 after the German government expelled Bosnian refugees on a declaration that hostilities in the Balkans had come to an end, though returning to her home country was not an option. The war, and attempts at ethnic cleansing, in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the mid-’90s displaced over 2 million people and an estimated 100,000 lost their lives. As a non-English speaker, her options were limited, but the almost century-old O.C. Tanner company put both Mlikota and her husband to work as part of a team that made rings for the world’s leading employee appreciation enterprise.

“I thought this would again be another refugee survivor job ... something to get us by while we learned a new language and learned how to live in the U.S.,” Mlikota said.

Some 22-years later, however, what started as a survival necessity has paid dividends for Mlikota, who is now part of O.C. Tanner’s management team. Her path to getting there, as it turns out, was not a fluke of fate but the reflection of a very deliberative, and long-running, stance O.C. Tanner has taken when it comes to workplace diversity and community involvement.

The company was founded in 1927 by Obert Clark Tanner, who studied philosophy in college but saw a business opportunity in selling class rings and pins to high school and college students. That effort would evolve to become the world’s leading manufacturer of employee recognition awards and, in recent years, Tanner has built an entirely new and fast-growing software-based facet to the business.

O.C. Tanner President and CEO Dave Petersen said the company’s intentional diversity — some 400 of 1,600 employees are foreign-born — tracks all the way back to those early days and Obert Tanner, who from the beginning recognized the workplace as a realm that should reflect the broader world.

“The root of our involvement with what I call former refugees goes back to our founding 93 years ago,” Petersen said. “Obert’s approach is still the one that drives us today, that people matter at work and you won’t accomplish much with a group of people who aren’t appreciated and inspired. That philosophy almost unintentionally caused us to collect people into our company from all over the world.”

Mlikota notes the company’s support and appreciation goes far beyond just opening the doors to new Americans. Since joining O.C. Tanner, the company has provided ongoing growth opportunities that allowed her to complete a degree at Utah State University and participate in in-house management training. Now, she’s part of the human resources team and actively involved in deploying the same wide-ranging recruitment and retention doctrine that brought her into the fold. Since arriving in Utah, Mlikota said she’s seen the same warm acceptance in the broader community as what she found at O.C. Tanner.

“Utah was always been welcoming to us,” Mlikota said. “It felt right from day one to be here. Neighbors, strangers, the whole culture here has been warm, open and welcoming.”

Mlikota has worked to be a mentor for other newly landed refugees and said it’s a common misnomer for people to believe that once a person escapes from a country torn by oppressive regimes and/or military strife, that they’ve been “saved” and are immediately on the path to good fortune.

“Many people are plucked out of their world and, if they’re able to qualify for refugee status, they end up here,” Mlikota. “We want to think and assume that you’re safe now in the U.S. and you’ll absolutely thrive. But we’re not taking into consideration that, in many ways, these people are broken, have lost or are separated from their families, and are in an environment that is completely, to them, foreign.”

While Mlikota and her employer aim to create an environment of inclusion and support for new Americans, recent changes at the federal policy level are reducing the windows of opportunity for those left isolated by sociopolitical upheaval to start afresh in the U.S.

Last fall, President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would lower the number of maximum allowable refugees entering the U.S. this year to 18,000 (an historic low), down from 30,000 in the last fiscal year and from 110,000 just a couple of years ago. That announcement was accompanied by an executive order that granted the power to local and state officials to refuse to participate in refugee resettlement programs. Last month, that new option was taken up by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a move that has since been challenged in court. Over 40 states have asserted that they will continue to resettle refugees, Utah among them.


Gov. Gary Herbert is interviewed at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Shortly after the Trump order was made, Gov. Gary Herbert penned a letter to the president highlighting the circumstances under which the state was founded, and reiterating Utah’s commitment to not only being a welcoming place for refugees but being ready to take in even more.

“Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the eastern United States,” Herbert wrote last October. “Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns.

“As a result, we empathize deeply with the individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and and we love giving them a new home and a new life.”

Congressman Ben McAdams, D-Utah, also weighed in on the matter with his own letter to Trump last fall. Utah’s sole federal Democratic representative highlighted that there was also a vital economic component to being a state welcoming to refugees.

“My home state of Utah has shown that refugees add to economic expansion when they have the opportunity to contribute to our communities and workplaces,” McAdams wrote. “My state has a proud legacy of bipartisan support for a robust resettlement program and of engagement from our faith communities to welcome those fleeing violence and persecution.”

Congressman-elect Ben McAdams talks about his hopes and expectations as he prepares for his move to Washington D.C. during an interview at the Salt Lake County complex on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Petersen also noted that Tanner’s inclusion approach has had positive bottom line impacts.

“We don’t look at hiring refugees or going to the expense of providing (English as a second language) classes and other things as a charity,” Petersen said. “We think it’s a gem of an opportunity. These people come to work for us and they are skilled, have remarkable leadership capabilities, work collaboratively and are fiercely loyal.”

Petersen lauded Herbert for taking a strong stand on the issue on behalf of Utahns and said he believes the current tensions surrounding federal immigration policy will find a resolution — one that may be driven by rising economic realities.

“Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the eastern United States. Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns.” — From Herbert’s letter to Trump last October

“I actually think it will work itself out,” Petersen said. “We’re talking about people that immigrate legally and are welcomed into the country. I really believe we’ll find a way to move forward as we get better control of illegal immigration.

“I wish the rhetoric wasn’t what it is, but I think the local and national demand for skills and talent will lead to more legal immigration and refugee welcoming.”

As for Mlikota, she has fallen in love with the country, and the state, that took her and her family in when they most needed help. And, she has not forgotten the path that lead her to Utah.

“I feel as Americanized as it gets, after 22 years living here,” Mlikota said. “We love this country that took us in, but the stories I hear from others who are new to the U.S. are so hard, so deeply painful ... it takes me back to what happened to so many people from Bosnia.

“Even today, I still choke up after 20-something years.”