Croatians visit to sign sister city agreement


By John Larson –



The Croatian visitors and their new American friends posed for a photo on the deck outside of Mayor Victoria Woodards’ office.

Two visitors from Croatia were in town last week to formalize the latest sister city agreement. Tacoma now has its 15thsister city, Stari Grad, which is located on the island of Hvar. Representing that city was Branka Bezic-Filipovic, head of the Croatia Heritage Foundation, and Petroslav Sapunar, an educator and elected official who serves on what would be the equivalent of a county council.

Several local residents of Croatian descent showed the guests around town. They included Bill Connolly and Clare Petrich, a member of the Port of Tacoma Commission. Both have Croatian and Irish heritage; Connolly said he is more Croatian than Irish, while Petrich is 75 percent Irish and 25 percent Croatian.

Bezic-Filipovic noted she is part Italian, but feels more tuned into her Croatian heritage. She and her associate spent several days in Los Angeles, then flew up here on April 29 to spend five days in Tacoma, a city which attracted many Croatian immigrants.

They met with several members of the new sister city committee, including Patti Mullan and Tonya Stack, who is originally from Zagreb, Croatia. She teaches Croatian language classes two Saturdays a month at Slavonian Hall in Old Town.

Among the places they visited were Point Defiance Park, Tacoma Historical Society, Skansi Park in Gig Harbor and city hall in Tacoma, where the signing ceremony was held with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and city staff. They also had dinner at the new McMenamins complex in downtown. At the downtown branch of Tacoma Public Library, they donated a book written by Bezic-Filipovic.

Bezic-Filipovic discussed her foundation’s mission to connect with Croatian people who have left their homeland and settled around the world. As a result, she has visited the United States numerous times, although this was her first time in Washington. “We hope it will be the first of many,” said Petrich.

In August, an exhibit based on her research will open in the Civic Museum in Stari Grad. It will examine the lives of Croatian immigrants who settled in Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Bellingham. Text for the exhibit will be in English and Croatian. Bezic-Filipovic hopes to someday bring the exhibit to this area. “I hope this will be the first step toward greater cooperation between us,” she remarked.

Sapunar has a background in education, having worked as a teacher of vocational and technical studies in a high school. He is pleased to see how Croatian immigrants prospered here. “I am happy we adapted well and built a decent life,” he observed. “Many have supported each other as one Croatian community. Our experience is that history is a teacher. If you do not know your history, you cannot build a better future.”

Bezic-Filipovic said prior to World War II, her country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Young males were subject to a military draft, some as young as 12. Some chose to leave rather than serve in that military. Actions taken by the empire had a devastating effect on the wine industry in Croatia, taking a heavy toll on the economy. “They were looking for a better life,” she said. “The toughest always survive.”

Bezic-Filipovic would like to see student exchanges between her city and Tacoma. People of Croatian descent from around the world go there to learn more about their cultural heritage. One was an 80-year-old woman living in Chile.

The visitors noted a few notable differences between their city and Tacoma. Coastal areas of Croatia draw many tourists during the warm weather months, creating work in hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions. Many of these employees are out of work during the off-season. Overall, the unemployment rate there is about 25 percent. “When I went there I saw no evidence of that,” Connolly remarked.

Bezic-Filipovic was saddened by the sight of a young man in downtown Tacoma, who appeared to be homeless and was panhandling. She said in her city, people in need can often turn to their family for help.

One American export that Sapunar connected with is basketball, a sport he began playing in his youth. He said Croatians are very proud of players who gone on to play in the National Basketball Association. These include Dino Radja, who played for the Boston Celtics, and Toni Kukoc, who played for several teams including the Chicago Bulls during their dynasty years of the 1990s.

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