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Council declines “welcoming resolution” for immigrants, refugees

February 15, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Fort Myers Beach resident Hank Zuba was perusing the local news of Oak Park, Ill., a former residence, when a photo caught his eye.

It was a picture of a little girl on her father's shoulders, holding a sign that said "Be Safe." Residents in Oak Park asked its government to consider becoming a sanctuary city for refugees - and the town agreed.

Zuba felt compelled to do something in memory of three people: his grandparents John Sverko and Barbara Keriojolic, and his mother, Eva.

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Local resident Hank Zuba holds a photo of his grandfather, John Sverko, who immigrated from Croatia during World War 1.

"Those three were immigrants, facing what we're facing today," he said at the Feb. 6 town council meeting. "We have always been in my view a welcoming community, a community that strives to be of service."

Life was hard for John, Barbara and Eva. His family fled from Croatia in war-torn Europe during World War I, seeking a safer and better life in America.

When Zuba was a child, he remembered taking lunch to his grandfather, John Sverko, each day.

Fact Box

"We have an indescribably beautiful beach. It's ours to share, not ours to own." - Hank Zuba.

Sverko worked the night shift at Dryden Rubber in Chicago from 3 midnight.

"He worked very hard," Zuba remembers.

They came without speaking English and had very little to their names.

"I always felt like they symbolized the words on the Statute of Liberty - 'huddled masses' of people who felt like it was a blessing to be here and be safe," he said. "They never went back, and it must have been very difficult to say goodbye to everything."

Zuba said he's never talked about his family past before in public, but he stood up at the council meeting to ask the Fort Myers Beach Town Council to consider drafting and adopting a resolution welcoming refugees and immigrants to the beach.

"We have an indescribably beautiful beach. It's ours to share, not ours to own," he said. "I think we have benefitted from immigrants and refugees, and we have a very open attitude toward people here."

While he didn't think a resolution would be anything more than symbolic, Zuba said it was "very disappointing" when his idea was immediately dismissed. He didn't think it would be possible for Fort Myers Beach to be a sanctuary city, like Oak Park, but just wanted to establish that it would welcome anyone.

Council Member Anita Cereceda and Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros supported discussing a resolution at a future workshop, but the rest of council was not interested.

Council Member Joanne Shamp said she felt it was a political statement at this time, reflecting on a hot national political issue.

"I would not make a statement like that without knowing if it reflected the desire of the community," Shamp said. "I think this community is welcoming. It welcomes new residents, seasonal residents, tourists and visitors from around the world. but to make a resolution as requested seemed more to me like a political statement, and not the role of town council."

At the same meeting, the council agreed to pass a resolution endorsing the restoration of the Everglades and the Caloosahatchee Watershed Regional Water Management Issues document, prepared by the city of Sanibel and endorsed by multiple regional and state conservation organizations.

Shamp said this resolution was a formal request from Mayor Kevin Ruane to the council to endorse the Caloosahatchee freshwater management plan.

"It has been supported by the mayors and councils of a large number of Florida communities who are impacted," she said.

Cereceda didn't see the harm that could be had in passing Zuba's resolution.

"We have a resolution about everything - 'plant a tree day'," she said. "For Hank to get up and be personal, for those who know him, said a lot. It made me emotional."

Cereceda is a descendent of a colorful immigrant herself - her great-great grandfather, Gavino Gutierrez, immigrated from Spain to the United States with dreams of striking it rich as a mango farmer in Florida, she said. While in Key West, he made friends with Don Vicente Martinez-Ybor, and the two founded Ybor City in Tampa.

"I think of Fort Myers Beach as everybody's place," Cereceda said. "Sometimes it's nice to say that and remind people that they're welcome here."

Telling his story before council was not easy for Zuba - he gets choked up talking about his family's life as immigrants here, he said. They had to work very hard, and he said he often felt inadequate because of the opportunities he was afforded that they were not. His grandfather always used to ask him what trade he was going to learn, and Zuba wanted to go to college. His grandfather and mother had never finished school.

The plight of refugees and immigrants has been in his thoughts, especially recently, with the protests and demonstrations both for and against accepting refugees from the Middle East in national media.

The held in high regard by many from other countries, he said, and he thinks about his family's desire to come to America and live a better life when he sees these stories.

"I think of the hope that my mom had in her eyes for life," he said. "They always said to take advantage of the opportunity here."



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