By Ann Marie HohenbergerDragana Katalina-Sun was studying in Sarajevo when civil war broke out there in 1992. She returned to her family’s home in north Bosnia, but the situation was terrifying. “There were two or three funerals a day. I couldn’t live like that,” she says. “I was the only one who could escape; my brother was drafted, my father was drafted, my mother was a nurse and had to stay at the hospital.”
Dragana made her way to Germany, where she was recognized as a refugee of war. She found work washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, and there she met Sun Da. “I had a dream about him before I even met him. When I met him, I knew: That’s the guy.”
Sun Da had come from Beijing, China. A Chinese restaurant owner from Germany tasted Sun Da’s cooking and invited him to come and work in Augsburg, Germany, on a 3-year contract.
Dragana and Sun Da were married in 1994. But throughout this time, Dragana had to renew her visa every three months, never knowing what the outcome would be each time. After three years of living in limbo, it became clear that she wouldn’t be able to stay in Germany as a permanent resident.
With help from Raphaels-Werk, a German Catholic relief agency that assists migrants and refugees, Dragana and Sun Da applied for a special American immigration program for mixed marriages. Sun Da had distant relatives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and so they embarked for Central Virginia.
Sun Da worked in a Chinese restaurant as well as a construction job, while Dragana found employment at the Omni Hotel. She loved working there and the people she met. “I couldn’t believe how friendly and welcoming people were here,” she recalls. One of Dragana’s regular customers was Mr. Chuck Lewis, who always took an interest in her – asking where she was from, how she was doing.
Then, in 2001, Sun Da injured his back. Suddenly Dragana was the family’s sole source of income. But while walking downtown with their young son Marco, Sun Da saw a tiny space for rent on 2nd St. “He wanted to be self-employed, open a restaurant,” says Dragana. “I didn’t want to do it. I was scared. I thought of every excuse.”
Finally, though, the couple found themselves with a little window called Marco & Luca – and a line of hungry customers waiting for their signature dumplings. “Sun Da used to make steamed dumplings at home, and one night he fried the leftovers. We said, ‘hey, that tastes really good!’”
It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Dragana held 6-month-old son Luca in one arm and worked the cash register with the other arm, while Sun Da made the food. “I loved those days!” she says.
Sun Da wanted to grow the business, so they began looking for a bigger space. They looked at a spot in the Carlton shopping center, owned by Chuck Lewis, but the space didn’t quite fit. Then, a premium Downtown Mall spot in York Place opened up. “It was a really hot spot, and Mr. Lewis decided to give it to us,” Dragana says. “Destiny again.”
In time Sun Da and Dragana opened a third location on the UVA Corner, then added stores in Blacksburg and Roanoke. It seems the demand for tasty fried dumplings is simply insatiable.
Dragana says they could not have reached success without the many friends they’ve met along the way – from the early assistance through the International Rescue Committee (IRC), to the bankers who believed in their business, to the local people who love their food. She counts Chuck Lewis among those friends; she visited his office at York Place many times, and “he always had wise words for me,” she says.
Sometimes Dragana misses the little window on 2nd St. “Being in the restaurant with the customers is what I love,” she says, “and sometimes I feel like I lose the personal touch.” Yet she feels incredibly fortunate. “I couldn’t have dreamed that I could afford my son’s college,” she says. “Is it just lucky? Working hard, being open, being willing to risk? I don’t know. I still can’t believe this is happening. Every day is kind of like a miracle to me.”
Sun Da and Dragana Katalina-Sun will receive the 2015 Chuck Lewis Passion Award on Wednesday, June 3, during FABA’s Celebration of Business Diversity networking event at the Paramount Theater.