Ivan and Brooke, along with their kids Ljiljana and James, are currently residing in Croatia (Photo: Private album). In recent times, more and more Croatians living abroad have been considering a return to their homeland. However, this decision can be challenging and uncertain, especially for those with young families. Two years ago, Ivan Hrabrić turned this choice into a reality by moving from Pennsylvania to the Croatian capital, Zagreb. We spoke with Ivan to learn about his experiences and insights into the complexities of returning to Croatia with a young family.
Q: Was Croatia a part of your life when you were living in Pennsylvania?
A: Croatia has been a significant part of my life since birth. I grew up in an area with a large community of Eastern European people, including Croatians. My mother’s grandparents emigrated to the US between 1895 and 1905 and settled in Steelton, where they worked in a steel mill. My grandfather also worked there. In 1969, my father came to the US from Krk as one of the laborers brought in to address the shortage caused by the Vietnam War. My parents met at the Croatian Dom in Steelton during a dance. I have always been involved in Croatian cultural activities, such as dancing tambura and participating in kolo and tambura groups in Steelton. After high school, I spent a year in Zagreb attending school to learn the Croatian language and dancing with KUD Croatia in Prečko. I also traveled to Jurandvor and Baška as often as possible and stayed in touch with my friends and family from Prečko and Špansko. Some of them suggested I move to Croatia permanently. Even though I initially saw it as a casual suggestion, Jelena Primorac, a childhood friend who moved to Zagreb, convinced me that I would enjoy the lifestyle here more. She even offered me a job, which I eventually accepted.
Q: Does your wife also have Croatian roots?
A: Yes, my wife’s father’s family emigrated to Steelton from the area west of Glina in the early 1900s. Although she was aware of Croatian heritage growing up, she wasn’t actively involved. However, after moving back to the area, she became interested in the tambura group. We met there, got married, and she visited Croatia for the first time on our honeymoon. We invited her parents, who had never been to Croatia, to come along. We managed to find her family and even visited the place where her great-grandfather left. We started a family, and Croatian culture remained an integral part of our lives. Additionally, we would stream Croatian radio. Even before we moved, she expressed a desire to live in Europe. Contrary to what many people assume, it was actually Brooke who made the decision for us to move to Croatia. I initially resisted because I was comfortable with life in the US, but she was persistent and convinced me that it would be a better environment for our children.
Q: When did you move to Zagreb, and what influenced your decision to live in Croatia?
A: We moved to Zagreb two years ago at the end of June in 2021. Originally, we were planning to move a year earlier, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world went into lockdown, and our plans were delayed. The decision to move had been brewing for quite some time. I was offered a teaching job in Croatia back in 2003, and in 2009, a friend in Baška seriously suggested that I would be happier living here. When I started dating my wife in 2011, she expressed her desire to live in Europe, which she never wavered from. Jelena, who had started a company called Speak Up in Zagreb to teach English, always encouraged me to consider moving and assured me there was a job waiting for me. I was resistant to change because I was comfortable with life in the US. However, in July 2016, while sitting in a tent selling fireworks, I had some alone time to reflect. I realized that my friends in Croatia were enjoying their lives, going out to cafes, beaches, and on trips, while I was stuck in routine in the US. I began thinking about what kind of life I wanted for my children. That night, I discussed it with Brooke, and we spent the next few months researching and talking. With her background in French and our privileges in Croatia, such as citizenship, family, friends, familiarity with the culture and language, and a job opportunity, we decided that Croatia was the right choice for us. We planned to move in the summer of 2020 but had to postpone due to the pandemic.
Q: How did your family and friends react to your decision?
A: The reactions were somewhat surprising. Brooke’s parents were upset about the move, and ironically, my father, who was born in Croatia, was also not happy with it. However, my mother was supportive and saw it as our own life decision, emphasizing that we could always return if things didn’t work out. Most of our friends in the US were excited for us and viewed it as a great experience for our family.