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    Class helps refugees rekindle dreams

    Thanks in part to a program at Palm Harbor Community School and scholarships from a local church, area refugees are moving toward better lives.

    By TERRI D. REEVES

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 23, 2000


    TARPON SPRINGS -- It was a wonderful life, Zlata Dizdarevic says. She remembers the grand two-story, five-bedroom townhome that she, her husband and two daughters once occupied in Zagreb, Croatia. She recalls how handsome her husband looked in his expensive suits as he left for work as president of a publishing company. They owned three cars and enjoyed traveling.

    Today, those are distant memories. In the spring of 1995, as the Bosnian war escalated, her family was forced to flee the country, leaving behind money, possessions, their home and loved ones. Still, the 46-year-old resident of Holiday says she is determined to make her dreams come alive again.

    "I think and hope most of our hardships (are) over," Dizdarevic said recently. "It's passed, too hard to think about. I'm optimistic about (the) future. I want to live in (the) peace and quiet of America."

    Recently, she and two other refugees, one from Kosovo and one from Iraq, received small scholarships to seed those dreams. The Rev. Joan Hill, the associate pastor of Lakeside Presbyterian Church, presented each with a check for $433.

    "We hope you will use this money to further your education," Hill said during a ceremony for students enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

    Their teacher, Jean Cook, nominated each student for the scholarships, which the church had designated for refugees.

    "They've picked up the language well," Cook said. "I do think they have a good future because of their incredible tenacity and because their spirit is so strong."

    Dizdarevic and the other scholarship recipients are students in Cook's program for adults at the Palm Harbor Community School. The program's enrollment fluctuates from 35 to 45 as students change jobs and settle into their new lives, Cook said.

    "It's an open-entry, open-exit class, so students are coming and going," she said. The program draws students who live as far north as Hudson and as far east as Tampa. Their countries of origin are much more far-flung: Greece, China, Japan, Poland, the Czech Republic and Iraq.

    "I have a lot of students from Colombia because Colombia is a very dangerous place to live right now," she said.

    Dizdarevic said she will save the money for her future education at Pinellas Technical Education Center, where she intends to develop her computer skills. But that plan must wait.

    "It is impossible now to go to school," she said.

    Her husband, who also would like to further his education, works mornings hanging drywall and spends afternoons looking after their 9-year-old daughter. (Their other daughter is 22 and manages a store in Tampa.) Dizdarevic attends ESOL classes in the mornings and labors full-time on the assembly line at Flextronics in Tarpon Springs on afternoons and evenings.

    After spending several months in a refugee camp, the couple lived for more than four years in Germany, where they survived on support from the government, she said, because refugees are not allowed to work. Since arriving in Florida in May, the couple has settled into a "small but nice" two-bedroom, two-bath house, she said.

    For the first three months, they relied on taxis and others for transportation, but now each has a car.

    "Every day is a new culture shock," she said. "There is always something new and surprising about America."

    Dizdarevic hopes one day to become an American citizen.

    Another refugee, Daut Ajvazi, arrived in the U.S. in August 1999 with his aunt, uncle and three cousins. The ethnic Albanian from Kosovo said he was denied the right to a college education by the Serbian government, so he became a self-employed shopkeeper, selling his wares on the streets of Pristina, Yugoslavia.

    In March 1999, Ajvazi was forced by the Serbian military to leave Kosovo and spent the next several months in a Macedonian refugee camp packed with 10,000 people.

    He sought asylum in the U.S., he says, "because of its democracy, it's peaceful and it has lots of opportunity. You can achieve here."

    Ajvazi, 26, plans to get a master's degree in either accounting or computer science. For now, he works as a loader for Wal-Mart in Palm Harbor and as a busboy at the Louis Pappas Riverside Restaurant in Tarpon Springs. He also is taking nine credit hours at St. Petersburg Junior College.

    As his family's primary English-speaker and chauffeur, he takes family members from their New Port Richey home to doctors' and immigration appointments and on errands.

    "The future will get better," he says. "I will get an education, make more friends, get a better job and maybe get married."

    In June, Ajvazi tested in the advanced level in Cook's class, but still returns occasionally to his former classmates to say hello or help tutor a new student.

    "Mrs. Cook and the other international students provide many friendships," he said. "We exchange stories, food, and culture. This has been a big help to me in coming to America."

    - Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

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