Serbian teen just like American counterpart

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Damir Tarabar is a typical teenager. He loves sports, listens to music, talks on his cell phone and is constantly online with his friends -- who just happen to be in Serbia.

Tarabar is a foreign exchange student living with Cindy and Dr. John Hennette, Greencastle and their two teenage children, Kelsey and J.T.

The Hennettes had been thinking about a foreign exchange student for about a year. They met with Theresa Robbins with the Program of Academic Exchange (PAX), a non-profit educational organization that promotes and arranges international student exchange.

They reviewed between 15 and 20 student profiles from countries like Germany, France and Sweden.

"Early on, we really considered a girl since Kelsey was going to be a senior, but we really liked Damir's biography. He was a good academic match, both of his parents are doctors and since we run a dentist office we thought we would have things in common," remarked Dr. Hennette.

"Damir also liked several of the same sports as our son J.T.," he added.

In fact it was how active their own children were in sports that gave the family a segue way into introducing him to the community. Tarabar plays basketball and soccer and runs track at Greencastle High School.

"Our daughter Kelsey did an absolutely wonderful job of introducing him to classmates at Greencastle. She runs with a great group of friends and they took to Damir right away," said Hennette.

Tarabar arrived in Greencastle about a week prior to school starting last August. He will be leaving a little early as he plans to get home for a large celebration with his schoolmates in Serbia. He will graduate with the class of 2008 at Greencastle in late May.

He hopes to return to the United States to attend college. He has taken both the ACTs and SATs and is interested in several universities. He has already been accepted at a couple of them.

He is concerned about an upcoming general election in Serbia on May 11. He says the current official in office is very democratic and a change could split his country.

"I'm not sure I will be allowed out of my country if the government changes," he told the BannerGraphic.

The election will pit a block of parties led by President Boris Tadic against an alliance led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Radical Party Leader Tomislay Nikollic.

Tarabar lives in a ski resort town in the Carpathian Mountains and his family is considered upper middle class in Serbia.

Life in Serbia, says Tarabar is very different in many ways from the U.S. The average income per person is much lower there yet the cost of living is equal to or greater than that in the U.S.

"Classes too are different. At home I take 15 classes. We go from 8 a.m. -2 p.m. one week and from 2-8 p.m. the next week. It is much harder work there than here. We go to class, get lectures, study and take tests," noted Tarabar.

In the third grade he began studying Russian, German and French.

In fifth grade English is mandatory. He is fluent in all four languages plus his own.

While he is eager to see his friends, he claims he doesn't really miss Serbia.

"I really want to stay here and go to school at a University, but I don't know if that will happen or not," he said.

The Hennettes have taken him on several college visits along with their daughter. They also took him to Chicago.

"He comes from an urban area and came into the U.S. through New York City. I'm sure he finds it a little different here than in a big city setting," laughed Hennette.

Tarabar has turned down a couple of opportunities to travel with PAX to different areas around the country.

"By internet he is in contact with his friends and family. It's a lot different now for exchange students because they do have that frequent contact. PAX used to require very limited contact so they could be immersed into the culture but that's hard now with computers," commented Hennette.

"If you ask him, his idea of a good time was to hang out with his buddies and go to clubs to listen to music and dance," said Hennette.

Tarabar admits he prefers to drink green tea to coffee and loves McDonalds double cheeseburgers.

Several members of the boy's varsity basketball team can attest to the fact that used to eat two or three prior to games.

He also loves to talk about his favorite NBA player, New Orleans Hornet Peja Stojakovic, who happens to be Serbian.

"He is the best starter in the NBA. And, he is from my country," said Tarabar.

Both of his parents are medical doctors and his father is also a consultant and speaker who travels all over the world.

He has family members who live in the northeastern U.S.

Tarabar's father Dino and uncle came to visit at Christmas while attending a medical conference in Orlando.

His father who was also an exchange student stayed in touch with his host family for over 20 years. He was heading to Iowa to visit them after spending Christmas with the Hennettes.

"I was really inspired by Damir's father and uncle. We're looking forward to visiting his family in Serbia in a year or two. We've become good friends. Cindy talks with them on e-mail a lot, "said Hennette.

"What we have learned from this experience is there really is no difference between people. Damir is a typical teenager just like our own kids. He can sulk, has a biting sense of humor and is very smart. I'm really impressed by how brave he is. I can't image being 16 or 17 and leaving home for a year," adds Hennette.

The whole experience for both Tarabar and the Hennette's has been very positive in many ways.

"We have wonderful conversations. We've all become comfortable being part of a family. He has even learned to do his own laundry and has really been blossoming lately. He's coming out of his shell. I enjoyed taking him to get a tux for the prom," added Hennette.

"We've met new friends and family members. I know we'll keep in touch in some way always," reflected Hennette.

As for Tarabar, he says with a smile that he will always hold this experience and the Hennette family close to his heart.

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