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NORTH HILLS : Croatian Exchange Student in 'Paradise'

September 25, 1993|SUSAN BYRNES

Growing up in a rustic coastal town in Croatia, Janina Kisic held an image--grainy as an old photograph--of a strip of land called California, more than half a world away.

"In my country," said the 17-year-old exchange student, "California is like a synonym for paradise."

When she arrived in this country last month to attend James Monroe High School in North Hills--from a town far from the battlegrounds of the former Yugoslavia--she took note of everything. She was intrigued by the houses, the cars and especially the malls, visiting seven different ones in her first seven days.

"I didn't know what to expect. It's just that word: California. It's like the promised land, the American Dream. People have more things here. They can find a job and work and buy a car and be independent. We don't have that material independence. We are a pretty poor country."

Janina came to the United States on an international student exchange program paid for with money her grandfather had set aside years ago. She lives with Greg and Carolyn Martinez and their two children not far from the high school, where Greg Martinez teaches and coaches football. Janina spends her afternoons practicing with the varsity tennis team and her evenings helping the Martinez's 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter with their homework.

She studied English in Croatia but mastered the American accent by watching the subtitled Hollywood movies and sitcoms on television. Back home in the seaside town of Rijeka, her friends are waiting for postcards from paradise.

Her town has escaped the physical blows of the war but not the emotional ones. When the war started, air-raid sirens invaded the nights. Men and boys she knew left to fight in battles that she believes other countries should not enter.

"I don't think we need help," she said. "Everyone says the U.S. should help.

"They don't have to give young American boys away for it."

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