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Yugoslav Refugee Finds Solace in U.S. From Memories of War

September 15, 2000|MIKE BRESNAHAN

Somewhere between the daily tug-of-war for food and the nightly barrage of bombs from the fighter jets, Nevena Siljegovic moved with alarming speed from child to adult.

Cloistered with her family in the cellar of their home in Belgrade, Siljegovic closed her eyes and wept, wondering if the earth-shattering tremors would move closer and bring her face-to-face with peril.

She didn't want it to be her family's turn to win the Black Lottery, a darkly sarcastic phrase used by Yugoslavians to signify a home that had been destroyed by a missile.

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes approached their third month, Siljegovic began to consider death a desirable alternative to the existence she and her family endured.

"I didn't care anymore," Siljegovic said. "I thought, 'Why doesn't the bombing come to me and finish everything?' "

Nearly 15 months later, Siljegovic sits in an empty classroom in Simi Valley and recounts her story. She attends Royal High, where she is a back-up setter on the girls' volleyball team.

The tears want to fall, but Siljegovic won't let them.

Instead, she tells how her family escaped the terror of NATO air strikes against Serbian military targets that began in March 1999.

The mission, designed to stop Serbian offenses against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, lasted until Yugoslav officials agreed to a military withdrawal from Kosovo on June 10.

Shortly before that, Siljegovic and her family joined hundreds of thousands of refugees who spilled into neighboring countries.

Siljegovic, her parents and her younger sister made it to Austria, where they stayed for a year. Siljegovic said they were treated as pariahs by a nation that was, at best, numb to the influx of refugees.

Her mother, Danka, a foreign-trade specialist in Yugoslavia, took a job as a housekeeper in Austria. Her father, Goran, an accountant and former coach of the Yugoslavian women's national volleyball team, worked as a custodian at a restaurant.

Siljegovic buried herself in learning German, the official language, and worked on her volleyball skills as a means of staying busy in the sobering environment.

"I didn't have time for fun because I didn't know the language," Siljegovic said. "It was difficult to have friends. It was just school and volleyball."

It would still be that way had her mother not made a phone call to Parma, Mich.

Danka, desperately seeking a new country to call home, called Mary Koruga, a friend of her mother and the only American she knew.

The phone was answered by Koruga's daughter, who informed Danka that Koruga had passed away.

But the niece put Danka in touch with Koruga's granddaughter, Patricia Osaki, who lived in Simi Valley.

Osaki and her husband, Glenn, were immediately taken with the story of the Siljegovics. They investigated ways to get the family from Austria to Simi Valley.

Within a year, the Siljegovics gained entry to the U.S. via the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based organization that provides relief and resettlement for international refugees who qualify for entry into the U.S.

The Osakis volunteered to be the Siljegovics' sponsor, providing a place to live, clothing and food while the Siljegovics adapted to life in the U.S.

"We've always thought that if someone was in need, we'd open our doors to them," Patricia Osaki said. "This was our opportunity."

Danka Siljegovic looks past the irony that the U.S., a leader of the NATO air strikes, is providing a haven.

"We've found a place where freedom is freedom, where democracy is democracy and where liberty is liberty," Danka said.

Nevena Siljegovic, who goes by Nena, is gradually finding a niche at Royal.

She has spoken English since she was a child, making the academic and social transition easier for her than it was in Austria.

A junior, she has played volleyball for eight years and was talented enough to make Royal's varsity team.

Her athletic ability is strong, but her maturity is what caught the attention of Royal Coach Travis Ferguson.

"She's an extremely old 17," Ferguson said. "You go through what her and her family have gone through and you get inner strength. She's unusually mature."

Siljegovic seems happy. Her want list is short.

She has food. The electricity never goes out. She doesn't spend days in a cellar. Most of all, she is safe.

"I only need peace," she said. "Nothing else."


Girls' Volleyball Top 10

Rankings of teams in the region


RK LW School (League) Rec. 1 1 Harvard-Westlake (Mission) 2-0 2 2 La Reina (Tri-Valley) 2-0 3 3 Westlake (Marmonte) 1-0 4 7 Oxnard (Pacific View) 2-0 5 6 Chatsworth (West Valley) 0-0 6 9 Flintridge Sacred Heart (Mission) 1-0 7 NR Ventura (Channel) 2-0 8 10 Sylmar (Valley Mission) 1-0 9 NR Village Christian (Alpha) 5-0 10 8 Thousand Oaks (Marmonte) 0-1


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