Imagine for a moment – in the face of the dawn, your father picks you up and instead of a short haircut and a military uniform, he smuggles you across the border on foot and, after getting reported to the police, you end up in an immigration camp in Lavrio, Greece …
Zivko Nikolovski, born in Zabeni, Bitola, in 1951, at the age of 20, experienced exactly this. On Sunday night, after a wedding he attended, he picked up his friend Trajko, with whom he was supposed to enroll in the army the next morning, and went home to get a haircut and prepare for the challenge that awaited. But neither of them actually had any idea of how much life would take them to a completely different road trip…
Born in the village of Zabeni, on July 17, 1931, Zivko was only a 10 year old boy when the World War II started. One of the first questions I asked, I have to admit, was of his memories from that period…I wanted to know how a child perceived immediate danger and how that feeling remained with him throughout his whole life.
(*I have to note here that Zivko speaks Macedonian as if he left his village yesterday, not 70 years ago!)
The answer completely surprised me and made me think about how much our perceptions affect the lives of our children.
“There was no war for me, I wasn’t aware there was something wrong. All I knew was what my mom and dad would tell me, and they told us nothing but the things that needed to be done at home, on the fields, or with the sheep. I was a shepherd and that was my job. I didn’tt care much about the war, the wolves were a greater danger to me.”
“But did you not see soldiers, something? Have they ever passed through Zabeni? ”
“Serbian soldiers passed by, yes, when they were going to Greece.”
“And nothing … they just moved on.”
Zivko was a football player that played for the local village team for 5 years, activity he continued after moving to Brazil as well. He finished his primary education in the nearest school that was located 8 km away, a distance he usually walked, or rarely on a donkey. Who knew that this daily, multi-year exercise, would come in handy later in life when he will have to cross the border illegally.
That night, his father, together with one of his brothers, his uncle, cousin Dragi and friend Trajko, pulled Zivko aside saying “Now it’s not the time to go to the army, we have to go somewhere else”, took few pieces of clothes, a bit of food, a “bad dog to keep them safe from the strangers on the road” and set off on foot, “away from the official road” across the Greek border, to a village they had heard they have relatives on his mother’s side.
“We walked for hours … I still did not know where and why we were going, we were just moving. When we arrived at our relatives’ house, they were reluctant to receive us, they thought we were lying about who we are and where we come from, so we struggled, ‘We are who we say we are! No, you are not, go away!’ Eventually we stayed there, but the next day we got reported to the police, and were taken to an immigration camp in Lavrio, near Athens. In meantime, we wrote “We made it, we crossed the border !!” on a piece of paper and sent it back to our home with the dog we had with us. We had to let them know that we succeeded, so they don’t worry…”
The six men, all at different ages and with different life expectations, found themselves together in a place that became their home for the next seven months and had no choice but to fully accept the uncertainty of their future. When I asked Zivko what kind of work they did there and how they survived, he told me:
“There was no opportunity to work, it was a camp, we were about 700 immigrants … we were often stealing raisins to deceive the hunger we felt. We also picked berries and took them to the local bakery, where they were dried in the oven, for which they gave us either little money or bread, and that was our food. Our most common activity was waiting in front of the store for someone to throw a cigarette butt so we can grab it and finish it, I was smoking cigarettes back then” he said, smiling.
Waiting and hoping they’ll end up somewhere in America, Canada or Australia, day after day, week after week, seven months passed by, when one day the Brazilian consul came at the camp and offered $1 and paid travel expenses for anyone who will decide to move to Brazil. Grabbing the first chance offered, the six passengers found themselves on a boat that passed several destinations, before reaching the final – Rio de Janeiro. Italy, France, South Africa and finally Brazil, 27 days at sea with one highlight – in South Africa he saw a black man for the first time in his life.
“Until that moment, we did not think about the black men’s existence….there were none to see in Zabeni. When the ship anchored and we got on deck, we were all shocked to see half-naked black men on the shore hahaha.”
Upon arrival in Rio, they immediately boarded on a train and set off on a week-long trip to a mountain village in northern Brazil. There they were placed eight people in a small hut and stayed for 3 months, working in a factory for electric cables, before heading down south, in Curitiba, a place where Zivko still lives to this day.
He spent the first two years in the construction sector, building some of the most important buildings in his city today, and the next two and a half in a shoe factory, after which his entrepreneurial spirit awoke and together with his father, uncle, cousin and Trajko, decided to start their own workshop for production, sales and repair of shoes.
“During the years we worked in the factory we learned everything we needed for the new feat. We worked tirelessly in our shop, every day from 8 to 10 in the evening, Saturday until 18, and Sunday until 12, when all of us, once a week, would have lunch together. We spent 10 years on our own …. we did laundry by ourselves, we cooked, we cleaned, but to be honest, I never saw it as burden, I was only 20 and something and could do anything.”
Zirko met his love Sirley, the girl of Italian-Polish origin, at a local dance event and after the third date he “managed to get her“, but they could not be married as Sirley was only 14 at the time, so they spent seven years in a relationship, and eventually got married in a Polish Orthodox church in 1962.
His mother, after spending ten years on her own in Macedonia, joined them in Brazil, but a few years later, first his brother Dragi, then his mother and father, moved to Canada, leaving Zivko and his family on their own in Brazil.
“My father was a very strong man, I never saw him cry, until the day we greeted each other at the airport before boarding the plane for Canada, when he cried his eyes out and told me ‘This is the last time we see each other, son.’ At the time, I wasn’t aware it was, but he died few years later at the age of 68, exactly when I got the visa to go and see them there … in the end I canceled the trip and didn’t go.”
When I asked him if he found it difficult at the beginning and during all those years in Brazil, he threw his head backwards and said NO with a smile. After a few seconds of silence, as I did not expect this answer and was caught off guard speechless, he continued:
“I came young and strong, there were no obstacles for me. Yes, I left my mother with my brothers and sisters in Macedonia, but I had my father and one brother next to me and at that time, that was enough for me. I never thought about how difficult my situation was, I was doing what needed to be done at the moment, but I always had a plan and I knew exactly where I wanted to go. After only 2 years here, we built a house where there was no electricity or water. We carried everything by ourselves, dug a well, sat on candles, laid bricks … but I never thought it was difficult.”
What particularly surprised me, and also confirmed his great entrepreneurial spirit, was the statement that, when everyone was buying new cars to “show off”, he invested the money he had saved in his workshop to have it repaired and equipped, and bought an old car for a small amount.
“My bike was my means of transportation, summer or winter. One day I saw a car parked in the yard of a man’s house. Chevrolet, then brands like that were driven, American. I knocked on his door and asked if it was for sale, he told me ‘It depends on how much you can offer.’ We agreed for (then) 200 dinars and that was it, in 1965 I bought my first car.”
Zivko and Sirley have five sons and a daughter Elizabeth, who was born 11 years after the oldest son. Although Sirley is not Macedonian, she learned the language because she lived with Zivko’s parents for seven years before moving to Canada. She learned how to cook Macedonian dishes from her mother-in-law as well, and they planted and still grow beans, peppers, cabbage, apples, plums, walnuts on their property.
“The walnut seedling was given to me by a Japanese man many years ago. He told me There you go, but I don’t think you’ll leave long enough to get the fruits of this tree. I’ve been bringing him walnuts as a gift for several years now.”
Zivko for the first time returned to Macedonia in 2011, exactly 60 years after his departure, at the age of 80, and once again, four years later. He also went to Zabeni to see the house he was born and raised in, but now he says they sold it and no longer own it.
He recently celebrated his 90th birthday, surrounded by his closest family in Curitiba, Brazil. The central spot at the celebration was given to the Macedonian flag and the cakes with the Macedonian-Brazilian flag, as a proof of the wonderful symbiosis of his roots and current life.
Zivko did not miss the chance to get up and dance, proving he has the Macedonian blood that makes you jump and move every time you listen to a Macedonian rhythm.
In the end, I could not help but ask what Macedonia means for him, to which he replied:
“I left Macedonia at a very young age. When we came here, we lived better than what we did back there, the conditions were much better, but still …. I was born in Macedonia and no matter how many years I spend here or anywhere else in the world, I will always be Macedonian and that land will always be mine. You can not run away from yourself and your being, you can be nothing else but that you were born to be.”