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From War-Torn Yugoslavia to a Web World: A Profile of a Citizen Journalist

Born in the former Yugoslavia, Tea L. came to Canada to escape war and find a future. Turning to extensive volunteer work, the hopeful med school student has also stepped into the growing world of citizen journalism, and left quite the footprint. This is her story.

It’s early morning in the mall. It’s quiet, at least by mall standards. The only life pumping through the veins of the Toronto Eaton Centre is the business crowd following each other like zombies into the subway tunnels. Drab. Colourless.

At a table in the uninspiring food court, Tea L. (known to members as franklin) fiddles with her coffee cup. “I don’t like strong coffee,” she warns me, three times. Starbucks was probably a bad idea. She sips a Grande Café Americano then sets it gently on the table. She spins it around and around, as if hoping to soak up the caffeine high without having to endure the bitter taste and heart palpitations that come with strong coffee.

We’ve met to talk shop: news, the Internet and citizen journalism. With no formal training as a journalist, Tea is modest. She avoids all mention of accomplishment in the budding biz, and changes the subject before I get a chance to ask any meaty questions about her obsession and pursuit of science news.

Initially, the conversation evolves chaotically: We first share a laugh about way in which North Americans butcher the pronunciation of her name (it’s said “Tey-ah”, not “tea” like the drink); we move on to casual chat about the weather; and then to a deep discussion about what it was like growing up in a war-torn country.

I’m surprised she seems completely unfazed by a childhood of bombing, war and protest. The 19-year-old hides her life-experience chevrons under a young face and long blonde hair. She smiles constantly.

Life in a far-off land

Talking with Tea leaves me with a strong impression — she is polite, a bit brash at times, but brilliant. She reminds me of so many rookie executives who speak the honest truth without fear of ink being spilled in negative headlines. She is real. Uncoached.

Tea is outspoken, unafraid and passionate about everything. For someone her age, she has already has a lifetime of experience.

Born in the former Yugoslavia, she is “half Croatian, a little bit of Hungarian and then a bit of Serbian” — “a mix,” as she calls it. She came to Canada five years ago to escape the uncertainty of a country plagued and run down by politics. At least that is how I see it through my Western eyes, where war, bombing and terror exist only on television.

Tea L. soaks up sunshine in the Beaches area of Toronto.

“There was limited opportunity back in my country,” she begins. “My mom worked two jobs so I could do things like music school and tennis. I had a supportive family and for that I am lucky. The country was a mess, bombing was constant and people worked their ass off and got nothing out of it. It was a normal life.”

I half-grin at her notion of “normal.” I look up from my laptop expecting to see a hint of sarcasm painted on her face, but she isn’t kidding. Soldiers, war cries and bomb sirens; her “previous life” doesn’t show in her eyes.

“I remember in 1999 when the U.S., I mean NATO, started bombing us,” she corrects herself with a cunning smile. “For a week or two when it first started happening, I was scared shitless and didn’t want to leave the house, but the sirens never stopped.”

Tea recalls life before it all started. She would often stay home and watch Boy Meets World on television. I giggle at the irony of her being entertained by American programming.

Steering the conversation to an all-important event, she describes the evening when everything changed: “It was 8:20 p.m.,” she recalls precisely. “The bomb sirens started going and my mom yelled to me to get out of the house. Not having a basement, we were forced to go out into the yard. All I did all night was cry and shake, but nothing happened.”

(I learned Tea lives a life of science at this point, as she is obsessed with accuracy and minute detail with things like time. Not long after our meeting, she emailed me to correct herself, saying it was 7:40 p.m. the actual bombing started, but it was 8:20 p.m. that it was dropped on a neighbouring town, and she was in the shower.)

As I peck away safely on my keyboard, I can see Tea reliving the past in her mind. “A month later, the first bomb dropped and fell two streets away from us,” she says. “From that point on, it was constant; the sirens would usually sound at about 8 a.m. and we would get bombed all day. Or sometimes, they would start at night and stop at 7 a.m. They would stop for a few hours and then start again.”

For four months, the teenager saw riots — or “demonstrations,” as she corrected me — and her city held concerts where people protested, calling for and end to the constant military bombardment. Schools were used as military zones, and bombers flew low enough you could actually see them. Her after-school activity, she recalls, often involved running home when those dreaded sirens started wailing.

“It was constant fear,” she says. “They said they would only bomb military zones, but that was a lie.”

Tea L. in 2004 at her cottage near Peterborough  ON.

Tea L. in 2004 at her cottage near Peterborough, ON.

Following the Med School Road

Without knowing if survival were possible, Tea and her mother Vesna sold almost everything they owned and came to Canada as landed immigrants. Her father, who separated from Vesna when Tea was a baby, was not involved in her upbringing and stayed in Europe when they left. Having learned English from watching American television and school studies, Tea says it was relatively quick to adapt to life in her new country. She quickly made it clear it was the little things that impressed her.

“I had never seen a TV with so many channels,” she exclaims loudly, punctuating her sentence with an outburst of hearty laughter. The couple at the table behind her turn around to investigate the commotion, but Tea continues. She’s overwhelmed by memories of excitement. “I was watching movies on TV here that were not even out in theatres in Yugoslavia yet.” She laughs even harder.

The mood changes, though, when we start talking about school. Now studying kinesiology and exercise science at York University in Toronto, she recalls the more frustrating years when she first arrived in the city: “The bastards put me in ESL,” she barks, upset at the notion of being put in English-for-beginners classes. She grunts, clearly upset by recalling what it felt like to be slapped with the “immigrant” label hanging above her head. “The school was concerned I couldn’t learn, but in reality I was bored out of my mind. They were reading Animal Farm and I was thinking come on, give me Shakespeare.”

But that was grade 9. After getting good marks she moved into academic English classes in grade 10 where she proudly advertises she got better marks than most Canadian-born students.

Education is now a big part of Tea’s life. Preparing for med school, the university student has likely logged more volunteer hours than most Big Brother chapters: She has worked at a hospital in the MRI and emergency wards; she volunteered at Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga, Ontario; she spends time with her university’s Student Ombuds Service as a peer advisor; she works free for the campus paper Excalibur; she worked with kids that have disabilities; she was a tennis instructor for almost three years; she volunteered in a high school music class; and was even a therapist for a university tennis team. She does it all to make her resume stand out, hoping it will ease her entry into med school.

“When I first came to Canada I couldn’t grasp the concept of volunteer work,” she says. “I remember saying: ‘You mean, you aren’t going to pay me?’ Later I learned it was well worth it and now I really encourage people to do it.”

Tea is also going to South Africa next year to volunteer at a hospital and maybe even help build schools.

“To be honest, I am a little bit afraid,” she says of the upcoming trip. “I’ve read so much that I’m scared I’m going to break if I see a kid get shot or person die. In Africa, you have people dying from HIV on a daily basis, and you see far too many kids with HIV or tuberculosis. You don’t see that [in North America]. If you see a kid in the ER here, it’s because he got a cut on his finger.”

Tea hopes to gain more life experience as well as accomplish goals that will give her an edge when she applied to med school.

“Anyone can volunteer at a hospital in Canada,” she says. “What you do here is very basic. If [med school administrators] see Africa, they will see I’ve done something unique. My mom is more worried than me about going though. She keeps saying I’m going to get shot. But if I get shot at least it will be doing something that I like.”

Tea L. on her way to her cottage in 2006.

Tea L. on her way to her cottage in 2006.

Life as a Citizen Journalist

Under the moniker “franklin” (named after the cartoon turtle) on Digital Journal, Tea is known for chewing off big issues and swallowing them whole. Whether it’s her own experience dealing with anxiety problems, a critical look at North America’s medication regulatory system or articles on space and science, Tea spends hours researching and writing.

“Citizens often see issues different than mainstream media,” she says. “No matter what you watch on TV or read in newspapers or the Internet, you can practically anticipate what the media will say. But citizens have very different views from one another and you often can’t predict what someone will say. I think that is what Digital Journal is for me; it combines many viewpoints into one place.”

Tea decided to pursue writing after she was disappointed by the health section in her university campus newspaper.

“The article on the page was about a beauty spa, and I couldn’t figure out how that was health. The paper was really lacking so I went to the editor-in-chief and said I need a real health section. With no contributors able to write on health news, I offered to find people.”

Tea put together a group of about five people who began regularly contributing to the paper’s health section. Their goal is to move that category to a permanent home on the Web.

Tea later found Digital Journal after seeing a CTV News piece about the site in November 2006. She quickly jumped on to the site.

“I’ve always been interested in space and science, so when I came to DJ I wanted to find news that franklin could be known for,” she says. She admits with a giggle that she spends about five or six hours per day on Digital Journal where she looks for news without a mainstream bend.

“I like people disagreeing with what I say,” she says. “It makes for a great debate. I’ve read a couple of news items on DJ that created huge controversy. You don’t see that anywhere else, and when it stays on intelligent debate it’s incredible.”

She recalls her early days on the site, when she was intimidated by some users. Hitting the “activate” button on her first article was a big step, and she laughs as she recalls being reamed out by a user for posting a duplicate article.

In addition to publishing news on the site, Tea says her goal now is to be seen as a writer who can offer help to newbies. She says she knows how terrifying it can be for a regular citizen to play in the news world, but she wants to encourage many people to sign up and benefit in ways they never imagined.

“The best thing about Digital Journal for me is friendship,” she says. “I didn’t think friendships like this were even possible when I signed up, but I have learned so much by reading news from a variety of opinions and backgrounds. The intelligence I pick up will be with me forever. I’m a really relationship-based person and this site has given me friendships I want to keep for the rest of my life.”

This article is part of our ongoing series of Citizen Journalist profiles. If you would like to be featured, please contact me.

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