By Caleb Mynatt
The life of Kata and Milan together has been defined by differences that didn’t really matter to them.
As a married couple living in what was once Yugoslavia, they had a very normal life in Eastern Europe in 1992. Kata, a housewife, was a Protestant Croat married to Milan, an Orthodox Serb. Despite their differences, their marriage was never affected. They considered themselves one-and-the-same, a team living a normal life together.
Then, when the USSR and Yugoslavia began falling apart in the early 1990s, things started to change drastically. Although their differences didn’t matter to them, those differences began to matter to other people.
“No one cared about our marriage before this war. It was normal for us. My brother also married an Orthodox woman. No one cared about that before the conflict started,” Kata said. “We were leading a normal life in Croatia, among Croats, until the war. Then they started dividing people by nation.”
A series of wars in the area completely decentralized the region, as well as turning ethnic groups against each other. Then, after Operation Storm in 1995, a military strike that inevitably led to Croatian independence, things continued to get worse for the couple. What was once a life characterized by happiness and normalcy for Kata and Milan became one characterized by terror.
Facing ostracism and potential violence, Kata and Milan followed the separation mandate put in place by the Croatian government and relocated to Serbia because of Milan’s race. Then, still in fear for their lives, they applied for refugee status and moved to the United States as senior citizens in 1998. Along with their three sons and their sons’ families, the entire group relocated to St. Louis, Mo., in search of the happy life they were forced to leave behind.
“We were happy to be here since there was a war raging back in Serbia,” Kata said. “We lost everything there, everything burned and destroyed.”
Even though they were happy to be in the U.S., once again the couple found themselves having to deal with their differences defining them. Although their new situation was an improvement over their lives in war-torn Serbia, the move presented a new set of challenges. In addition to assimilating into American culture and dealing with time changes, there was also the adjustment to living in a brand-new city that was much bigger than the one from which they came. More than that, there was also a significant language barrier.
“The worst thing was the language barrier. We could not even find jobs; since we didn’t know the language; there was nothing we could do there,” Kata said. “Because we were just babysitting our grandchildren, I never managed to learn the language. I even went to school but still didn’t manage to learn it.”
The adjustment period was not going well. Kata and Milan were having major troubles adjusting to their new reality and, in many ways, it seemed like the differences in culture would be too much to overcome.
Then the couple happened upon a church and food pantry where they saw people carrying food. That’s where they met Mira and Sasha Zivanov.
“In 2004, Kata came into the food pantry. I spoke with her, and she was obviously very happy that we were speaking the same language,” said Mira Zivanov, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in St. Louis. “Then she told me, ‘You know, my husband is going to be very happy to meet you.’”
Relieved to finally meet someone who spoke their mother tongue, Kata, Milan and the Zivanovs struck up a friendship. There was finally someone who understood the couple and where they had come from. This was an extreme relief for the elderly couple who had experienced nothing but hardship and change over the past decade. Working alongside Mira and Sasha, they became more involved with the local food bank. They began to feel more comfortable in their new environment and found a community of believers that accepted them for who they are, differences and all.
“For an elderly couple like them, being here, it’s very hard to start a new life from the beginning,” Mira said. “We feel for them, and they feel for us. So, we support each other.”
Although Kata and Milan have aged, their relationship with the Zivanovs has become even stronger. They have finally found peace with their life in St. Louis—largely because of their relationship with Mira and Sasha. They were able to become more adjusted to their new surroundings, which was all they could have ever asked for. The couples still meet regularly, dine together and support each other. By all accounts, they are more than friends. They have truly become family.
“Milan and Kata are like my own parents,” Mira said. “They are really a part of me and my family.”
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This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.