SCU Croatian Student Learns to Love Life Despite Difficulties

At 22, Croatian refugee Mladen Jarpun has experienced more hardship and turmoil in his life than an average person could endure in a lifetime. A sophomore and a member of the basketball squad at Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Jarpun fled Croatia for the United States at the age of five from Europe’s war stricken country, Croatia, which reeked of violence and inhumanity as a result of the Bosnian War that broke out in the early 1990s. Today, the athletic young man is content to be where he is in life while he pursues his Bachelor’s degree at SCU.

Mladen was born in 1988, the son of a middle class family. When the war broke out in 1992, however, everything changed. His mother, an accountant, lost her job, while his father, a lawyer, enlisted in the Croatian military immediately. Most of his family was forced to live underground to escape the indiscriminate bombing and destruction of their country, as well as the rape, ethnic cleansing and genocide inflicted by opposing forces. The Jarpun family endured even more chaos in 1993 when Mladen, along with his mother and brother, made the decision to flee Croatia after his father was killed in a Serbian attack.

Boarding the first plane they could get out of Croatia, the three refugees decided to relocate to the United States, settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the fall of 1993. Not being able to understand even the simplest of words in the English language, Mladen, who was five at the time, along with his seven year old brother, Igor, enrolled in elementary school immediately. His mother found work to support the family, but with no immediate relatives nearby to care for her children while she worked, Mladen and his brother were unsupervised when not at school. As Mladen grew up, he became interested in a wide array of sports, participating in just about everything he could. Basketball, however, interested Mladen the most, and the youngster fell in love with the game.

When Mladen was 11, the Jarpuns decided to return to Croatia to visit family members still living there. What was hoped to be a joyous reunion, however, became another bitter experience as Igor acquired a fatal disease during the visit. In 1998, the Jarpun family buried Igor next to his father in Croatia. Mladen and his mother then concluded to return to their home country instead of residing in America.

Mladen finished school in Croatia, but decided to play club basketball instead of furthering his college education because Croatian universities do not have sports teams. Two scouts impressed by 18-year-old Mladen’s skills offered him the opportunity to return to the United States to play basketball on a scholarship at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas.

Mladen’s return to the United States to play college basketball did not fare well and after three semesters, he concluded that he was not happy at the college, so he withdrew and began searching for somewhere else to play the game he loved. With no home or anywhere to go, Mladen divided his daytime hours between working out and playing basketball at a gym in Houston, Texas for almost a month in hopes of catching the eye of college basketball recruiters. Evenings were spent working at the gym’s concession stand during AAU games in exchange for a place to sleep on a worn-out couch.

Mladen did not get any offers from other colleges while at the gym, so once again, he decided it was time to move on. Out on the streets again with no place to call home, Mladen made his way south to the University of Houston for a tryout. Finding no luck in Houston, Mladen received word of another tryout being held in Dallas, Texas. Mladen hitched a ride north to the tryout where he was referred to Paris Junior College in Paris, Texas. Realizing he only had one more year of eligibility to play at the junior college, Mladen wanted to keep pursuing the sport he loved, instead, at a four-year university. After one semester at Paris, Mladen began his search to find a college that would allow him to compete at a higher level. He caught the interest of Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Okla., and in the fall of 2010, Mladen arrived on campus, eager to don his basketball shoes.

The 6’4” guard now suits up every game for the Eagles, helping the squad compete in their first year as an NAIA team. Despite the obstacles Mladen has faced so far, he still considers himself thankful for where he is at now.

“Because of my past, I take college seriously; it’s not a joke for me,” said Mladen. “I try not to take things for granted and I consider myself blessed at where I am thankful for what I have.”

For now, Mladen lives on the SCU campus, working small jobs here and there to fund his education in addition to his basketball scholarship. He has not decided on if he will return to Croatia after his college basketball days are over now that things have settled down there. Wherever the road takes him, SCU is glad to have had the chance to be a part of his life.