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Bridging Cultures: Irena Milasinovic Karolak moves from Croatia to St. Pete

The author meets her second-cousin Maksim during a trip to Serbia in 2011.

Karolak (the child at left) decorates a Christmas tree in Croatia with her cousins in 1987.

Karolak and her parents celebrate as she graduates from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in 2005.

Karolak with high school friends in St. Petersburg.

Karolak spends time with her nieces and nephews during a 2015 trip to Serbia.

The author and her husband Michael Karolak on their wedding day in downtown St. Petersburg, December 2015.

This article is reprinted from FORUM, the statewide magazine of the Florida Humanities Council.
© Florida Humanities Council 


A blast of humid air hit my face as I walked out of the Tampa airport with my parents, each of us with two suitcases in tow. We were greeted by a stranger welcoming us into our new life. She drove us to a motel room that we would call home for the next 10 days. That was 18 years ago. We were war refugees from the Balkans -- Serbs from Croatia. 

The civil war erupted in former Yugoslavia in 1991 and concluded in 1995 but not before it damaged millions of lives, produced thousands of casualties, turned cities into ashes and changed the fate of everyone who once lived there. In August of 1995 the war escalated in Croatia, forcing more than 200,000 people to leave their homes in a matter of days. We were among them and sought refuge with relatives in neighboring Serbia, a home away from home. But that country was struggling with its own aftermath of the war, trying to accommodate a half-million refugees, and it felt more like a shelter than home.  

If I look back on that time, several moments clearly stand out. I remember the day we left for the United States. We had the biggest farewell entourage at the Belgrade airport -- grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins who felt and still feel more like siblings than cousins, and friends. I remember saying goodbye to each individually, and each goodbye felt like another sharp tear to my heart. I remember my father telling me not to look back as we approached the terminal. The 15-year-old in me didn’t listen and turned around anyway. I still wish I hadn’t. 

I remember how much we laughed the night before as we attempted to pack our life in six suitcases. Each of us had our perception of what was important to bring, what we would need, what we could leave behind.

I remember how happy I was a couple of months prior to that when, after two years of waiting, we received the approval letter for residence in the United States from the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in conjunction with the Dioceses of Catholic Charities. The final destination was to be St. Petersburg, Florida. I remember how quickly the feeling of guilt overshadowed the happiness -- a feeling that still trails behind: that I left my own family, traditions, culture.

I remember spending the majority of my childhood in a war-torn country. My cousin and I planned an escape route to use if sirens started during school; we would wait for one another in between the buildings and then run home. Sirens became a part of my everyday life. Just a few years earlier, we contemplated an escape route to use during a game of hide-and-seek. 

Moments like these defined me, but they also prepared me for what was to come in my life in the United States. 

They prepared me for those 10 days spent with my parents in a small motel room in St. Petersburg as we patiently waited for our apartment to become available. They prepared me to walk into a modest two-bedroom apartment with bare white walls and reminisce about the baby-blue teenage room I left behind when war intensified and we fled.

As I spent a few days in the motel room waiting to become an American student, I watched afternoon talk shows, trying to grasp the language and to prepare myself for my new peers. I remember thinking how their problems seemed so different from mine. Their problems seemed scarier. They dealt with teenage peer pressure -- something I avoided while dealing with the effects of the war.

Memories of living in a war-torn country, and surviving, prepared me to face a culture shock in a new country where I barely knew the language and would be a freshman in high school -- a trying time for any teenager. As Florida experienced a surge of refugees from various ethnicities in the mid-1990s, my high school became a melting pot of nations. We all sought refuge in each other in our English-as-a-second-language classes, which we used as training wheels until we were ready to ride on our own. I left the program in my second year and became a sophomore in high school along with everyone else. 

But, accompanying me was the determination to succeed, to belong, to prevail.

My memories also prepared me to focus on journalism as my major in college, and be the only one in class who wasn’t from here. I looked back on that 15-year-old who first arrived in this country with her thick accent, and she became my drive. They prepared me for those ever-so-familiar questions: “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” and the reactions that followed after my not-so-common answers. 

They prepared me to deal with the unpleasant moments one experiences in a new country -- or was that just in life itself?

But they didn’t prepare me for losing bits and pieces of what I left behind in Serbia -- my family.

Five years after that tearful goodbye, I returned to Serbia with painful knots in my stomach. It now was an established home to family who stayed behind. No longer a child and already adapting to my new life, I wondered if they would recognize me and if I would recognize them. They said that I seemed shorter to them, but I know they seemed taller to me. Photographs can be deceiving that way.

After a few weeks of repeatedly answering the same question: “How is it over there?” in not-so-perfect Serbian, I slowly started re-adapting. Soon, I felt as if I had never left. I returned to Florida that summer, my English now rusty, and felt the familiar old nostalgia over the new memories of being back there.

And then, just like that, in a few months I was back into my new life again, being in college and using English as my first language. After all, I wrote, prayed, dreamed in English. All of my lists, thoughts, diaries were written in English. All my emotions came flooding in English regardless if I was happy or sad. It felt more real. It still does.

Years passed, with many trips there and many returns here, each bringing different emotions and experiences. Each trip was shorter as I focused more on my studies, then my interests, then my career -- my life. I began to cherish the small-town feel of St. Petersburg -- similar to my first hometown in Croatia and the opposite of the busy, rushed lifestyle of Belgrade, my adopted hometown in Serbia.

But, somehow I always felt as though I was living two lives, being two people, halfway here and halfway there.

And then I fell in love with my husband, with an American. For the first time I felt that I completely belonged here. I realized that Florida is my home and a place where I am building a new life here -- not losing, but incorporating, pieces of my old life there. 

My friends are no longer friends just because they come from there. Some were born here and some were born there. They vary in cultures, nationalities and experiences. As my husband and I gather for a birthday, holiday, or either of two Christmases -- his on December 25th and mine on January 7th -- we embrace our differences and celebrate the joys and milestones with our family and friends.

These celebrations are often bittersweet for an ever-present realization that I am not there for my nieces’ and nephews’ first baby steps, first words, or first birthdays. Those things can’t be planned. I just have to make do and experience them in person on my terms when I am there. I’ve learned to appreciate and read pictures until they tell a story. I’ve learned to celebrate birthdays through videos and perfectly timed presents. I appreciate love despite miles, years and life experiences between us. 

After half of my life spent there and half of it lived here, I have fully adjusted to the Florida life. Along the way, the late-October humidity, the adjustment shocks and the language barriers were replaced by sunshine, cultural richness and endless opportunities.

Irena Milasinovic Karolak, currently pursuing her master’s degree from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, works as a Public Information Officer for Pinellas County. She resides in St. Petersburg with her husband. 

If you have immigrated similarly from another country to the Tampa Bay region, 83 Degrees would like to consider publishing your story. Write your story in 700-800 words and email to tips@83degreesmedia.com for consideration. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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