by Jane Anderson, Columnist & Featured Contributor
[su_dropcap style=”flat”]N[/su_dropcap]EVER HAVE I READ the story or met a person who has survived such atrocities and violence as Izabela Lundberg. I held my breath many times as she narrated from memory the devastation of living as a refugee, losing family members to war, and assuming the role of sole support of her diabetic sister as they flee their war-torn country of Yugoslavia. Izabela’s capacity for bravery and audacious ability to strategize under extreme sadism never faded. Scattered across her story, which she tells in unadulterated truth, are her private thoughts written in memorable quotes. This one, I can’t get out of my mind for it epitomizes Izabela Lundberg’s character.
Nothing can be as rewarding as serving others during their greatest need.”
Izabela’s early childhood was happy and supportive with a nucleus of mom, dad, two sisters and a brother. Izabela was a precocious child. At the age of five one of her most treasured objects was a ‘money kit’ that contained play currency and flags from many countries around the world. Here interest in learning about the world, cultures, civilizations, their foods, music, and language never waned. Her models of leadership were adopted early and in addition to her own father, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa had her admiration.
There was a bit of tomboy in Izabela which, I’m sure, contributed to some of the unbelievable feats of heroism she performed as a young woman. She dreamed of becoming an Olympic Athlete and even though she was much too young at the time, was thrilled when the Winter Olympic Games came to Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, the heart of Yugoslavia. When she recognized she was not gifted as an athlete, Izabela set her heart on being an educator, teaching all she learned through her love of sports and travel. Izabela has never lost her Olympic Spirit and through her experiences she shares a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm for helping others discover their “Olympic” dream.
When you read her book, you will be introduced to individuals who have overcome unprecedented circumstances to achieve their dreams. I wish I could share a piece of each of their stories, but that’s not possible. You can have the inside advantage, though, of opening the pages of her book and get to know the living characters whose blood runs red and hearts beat strong. Izabela shares from the real lives of real people.
Even as a teenager, Izabela had an instinctive sense of survival and strong motivation for solving menacing problems. She also learned that true character, what is in a person’s heart, is exposed under pressure. As unrest in her country became more tumultuous, Izabela was grieved by the realities of war. War was declared in 1991 bringing a blood bath and destruction to Yugoslavia, Sarajevo and its surroundings. Her brother escaped to Sweden, but she, along with her dad, mom, and sister had to stay in country. Isabela was commanded to use her speaking skills to spread propaganda of the enemy, but she refused. Instead she filled her time with volunteering in service to the Red Cross. On his deathbed, her father’s wisdom assured her of her choices: “Bela, never sell your soul to the devil. He will be back and will always ask for more until there is nothing else left to give.” Her father and sister suffered from diabetes and their health failed during the siege. Her father’s love for his daughters was a testament to his character. Before his death, her father and family members plotted the escape of Izabela and her diabetic sister to Sweden. “This is your mission, Bela. To save your sister.”
The life of a refugee has no comfort at all. The living conditions are crude and uncivilized. The lack of food, water, bathroom facilities, and disease infested surroundings are inhumane. But this is where Izabela and her sister lived in their quest for freedom outside the boarders of their beloved homeland. I read with horror the account of visiting a church and seeing, not the cross of Jesus but wall after wall papered with photos of war victims. In the midst of reading, Izabela breaks through my consciousness with,
Face fear head on so you can achieve your goals and dreams while reaching greatness within you.”
I sucked in my breath and wondered if I would have the strength to soldier on and keep fighting.
Finding her courage and facing her fears were how her life was spared “dozens of times”. Izabela survived the transport through checkpoints, had a gun held to her head, was scoped out for rape yet she escaped. She refused to let adversity define her and chose to learn survival and how to thrive despite her overwhelming circumstances.
The journey to Sweden was coming to a close for Izabela and her sister, but not before they were thrust again into the scraps of refugee life. They crossed through Hungary and got held up at the Polish border. More interrogation, multiple languages spoken through interpreters, body searches, arguing, fighting, more fear – the fragments of the asylum seeking process.
Once in Sweden the sisters over time established a home base and did find their brother. Izabela recounts her meeting with a young man from Rwanda who also had a near death escape from becoming a casualty of war. As they shared their hearts with each other they realized that they both had survivor’s guilt. She from the Balkan War, he from the genocide in Rwanda where 800,000 men, women, and children perished.
Izabela’s sister regained her health and began studies to become a nurse, as their mother had been, and her brother was in an MBA program. It was time for Izabela to fulfill her lifelong dream of permanent residency in the United States of America. Although she studied Swedish culture, learned the language and was supporting her community of refugees in resettlement, she couldn’t leave the desire to go to the US behind.
You have to read the astonishing story of how Izabela walked into the town hall, spoke to the Mayor and got her visa and passport.
These had to be melodious words to Izabela Lundberg,
Welcome to America – you are approved. Make it your American Dream! We need more people like you.”
At this point in the book I’m thinking the same thing. Izabela, refugee, human sufferer, loving daughter, devoted sister, benevolent servant leader, humanitarian, wise counselor – We need more people like you.
It was months before she stepped foot on an airplane destined to Denver, Colorado but she found it magnificent! As she reflected on her life her response is, “You are your life creator: with or without your limiting beliefs.” She had a dream of living in Denver, Colorado, USA and she was there. She learned through the oppression and narrow escapes in her past that she did not need validation from others to know her self-worth. She rose above the challenges and despite setbacks kept moving forward in life.
To find our way, we need to know our why. Our mission in life is supported by our vision, where we dream big and fulfill goals. As Izabela points out, “Successful, professional athletes and business leaders are crystal clear on their why and they are committed to reaching their goals regardless of obstacles.” She tells the story of Mike Haynes, former National Football League cornerback and Hall of Fame athlete. Mike worked relentlessly toward being an excellent teammate and enviable player. He learned that “when roles and goals are not clear, people fail to function as a team.” Translate that to organizational leadership. If the CEO is the only one with the vision and the goal, the key players are left to guess and falter.
The biography of Mike Haynes in this book brings out the characteristics that others want to emulate. Just like Izabela, Mike learned early in life that the mind is a powerful organism and we need to learn how to use it for good and for achieving success. As an athlete and as a successful businessman, Mike changes his reality through meditation and visualization.
Izabela continued to live her why in Denver working with victims of war, focusing on rehabilitating genocide, war trauma, torture, and human trafficking survivors. What I learned next touched my heart in a way no other part of Izabela’s story did. She was asked to watch an unidentified movie with a man she had never met. Two hours she endured images of the Balkan war, the attacks of snipers, and the finality of discovering broken trust between two friends. The story was true, Izabela knew of the story but did not know the man sitting in the same room with her was involved. This man came to ask forgiveness. Could Izabela find it in her heart to forgive him?
Shortly after this encounter, her beloved America was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001. Again she experienced the dread of war, the panic all around her, people scared and devastated by what they had thought was in the past, now part of their new existence. Heartbroken but filled with hope, Izabela got deeply involved in building strategic alliances and partnerships to support the immigrant and refugee population in Colorado. During this period, she realized the importance of finding anything positive, then think about that – maintain a positive mindset. By now, it seemed Izabela functioned from a positive mindset anyway, but even she admits she needed self-talk to bring her out of a downward spiral. She seeks hope and shares a formula here.
HOPE = Happy, Optimistic, Perfectly Empowered YOU
We are all fighting for something. That’s the common thread whether it be in business, in sports, in school, at home, in life, “we all require passion, drive, and a competitive champion spirit. We strive to achieve, we apply ourselves to the task, we start, we fall, we focus and start again. Some of us take longer to get up and try again, but to find our path that’s what we do. To be the best we can be, it’s up to each of us to find our arena and accept it, to welcome it. We play best when we are in the arena where our strengths and interest can germinate and grow. We’ve heard about the self-realization of achievement. This is where we find our fit, we feel confident, and a sense of belief in our abilities. This doesn’t mean we have complete comfort or that we don’t take any risks. It means this is the place where we are rid of toxic dependencies, unhealthy relationships, abuse and fear.
Merrill Hoge is a former professional football player and today a football analyst for ESPN. When he was learning commitment, drive, and focused on reaching success as a football player, he had no idea he was preparing for the biggest game of his life – cancer and “red death” chemo. He tapped into mental and emotional toughness like never before and relied on his faith to beat cancer just like he uses the same tools in sports, business, and life. His warrior spirit brought him through these most painful experiences of his lifetime. Mike says his “tool belt comes with mental, emotional and spiritual strength.”
We all reflect on our past. It might not be a daily revisit of our circumstances but even as the author of this book has written volumes and has achieved so much in a few short years, during periods when she remembers the past, she acknowledges the sorrow and suffering but with the added inspiration that all that happened has been monumental and helped shape her.
To move forward, you have to re-think your thinking! By knowing how to think versus what to think, you can solve anything and be the best version of you!”
The many opportunities Izabela had to talk with and counsel people affected by wars around the world are too numerous for a book review. The stories must be left to the pages of the book.
The author’s love of sports has proven to be a good metaphor for life. She can draw from the rules of the game to the personalities of the players, from the family relationships to the relationships within organizations. Consider the challenges and competition, the tensions and trials, breakthroughs and triumphs, are they not also relevant in life? This is why we all must tap into our personal power and refuse to be the victim. Our battles are often with doubt, guilt, shame, fear, feelings of unworthiness, which is why we need to apply the principles we learn about from the stories in this book. Nobody can take the negative self-talk from us, except us. Is we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else believe in us? We choose our attitude. Izabela discusses the pitfalls of lost energy when we don’t bring our best selves to the game of life. She quotes Roberto Clemente, one of the first Hispanic players in major league baseball.
Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”
In 2010, Izabela had her entire year planned out. She was going to spend part of the year in Sudan, then continue to India where she would fulfill another dream of creating a documentary with the Dali Lama. Her mother became gravely ill with cancer so Izabela chose instead to go to Europe where she could do some consulting work while being near her mom. Near the end of 2010 her mom passed away and again, plans formulated for the coming year, 2011 – when a family friend died of the same cancer that took Izabela’s mom. Still broken from that loss, Isabella learned that she, herself had cancer. The remedy was surgery, which took care of the cancer followed by frequent check-ups for three years. In 2012, the Grandmother she adored died. What is happening? Izabela’s reckoning came swiftly though. She knew this was not her time to give up or give in. She had much more work to do. Her self-talk at this juncture and revelation in her life was to recognize a power greater than she was showing her the way. She went all in as before with the self-discovery process, gratitude and deep understanding of her capabilities to touch those around her.
Izabela began some central changes in reaching out to people. She says she developed the capacity to see more and share or say less. After enduring so many losses she wondered if she could have faith again but as hope returned, so did her faith. She recognizes that so many people have losses and they need someone ready to listen to them, to hear and contemplate with them, not to reply or defend.
The pages of this book are rich with promise, hope and the positive influence of the author’s tragedy to triumph experiences. My ability to convey this story is diminished by my lack of skill to articulate what I have read and taken to heart but have not lived through personally.
There is no better way to sum up this book review than to challenge you to decide for yourself what kind of legacy you will leave. What we pursue is our destiny. Izabela tells us destiny is a choice as well as a legacy. We might not be rich. We might not be famous. We will all be some version of ourselves. Do you want to be great? Izabela says,
Greatness is achieved at the moment we start making a positive difference in other people’s lives by providing the most valuable service with the highest impact.”
There is no such thing as ‘no regrets’. We will all have them, but by deeply connecting with our inner selves we can limit them. Your legacy is all about learning from past experiences, living life to the fullest, being in the moment, and building for the future. Mastering leadership can’t be done without constant learning. The things Izabela Lundberg has learned and experienced are recorded in this book. It’s an amazing tribute to the human spirit, the capacity to love, the value of forgiveness, the resiliency that allows us to hope and renew our faith. This is a journal that will change you.
[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]Editor’s Note: Get your copy of Izabela’s new Book here: The World Messenger: From Fear to Greatness: Business, Sports & Life Lessons[/message]