In the summer many of the millions of people in overseas countries, from Australia to the Americas, that trace their roots back to Croatia, visit their ancestral lands on the Adriatic coast. Not even the current coronavirus scare has put them off their plans to vacation in Croatia. Among these is the family of eighty-year-old Roko Tanfara, himself a native of the island of Krapanj. Back in the late 1950s he and other islander farmers, fishermen and sponge divers were unable to find gainful employment anywhere from Rijeka to Dubrovnik in what was then socialist Croatia, a part of the now defunct Yugoslav federation. A dramatic flight with seven of his peers from the island saw them rowing to exhaustion across the Adriatic Sea on the cold night of the 26th of October 1958 to make it to freedom and liberty in the West, which included a two-year stay in refugee internment camps in Italy before he was finally able to board the ship Irpinia out of Naples on his way to Quebec City in Canada, where he arrived as a twenty-year-old on the 2nd of September 1960 after twelve days at sea.
Over the past two decades he has spent the summer on his native island, not resting, but rather renovating the old family home. Roko has also built a new house for his grandchildren with four well-appointed flats with a view of the blue Adriatic Sea. The Tanfara’s spend their golden years weighing each summer between their dreams of relocating to Croatia and their Canadian reality with four grandchildren.
His first days in Canada were arduous and fraught with stresses. Roko landed his first job picking mushrooms at a farm, earning a paltry one hundred dollars a month and living hand-to-mouth. Fortune smiled on Roko when he met his future wife Mira at a party. Mira was a native of the Moslavina region in the north of Croatia that had first moved to Germany, where she worked for three exhausting years before relocating to Canada in 1969. Mira had grown up in the hamlet of Mala Ludina as one of ten children in her family, while Roko had left a sister, three brothers and his father in the homeland. After some ten years of hard manual labour Roko found easier and better paid work in the employ of automobile producer Chrysler where, having mastered the English language, he gradually worked his way up the career ladder.
He spent thirty years with the company, impressing management and working his way up from automotive painter to foreman. He undertook further training and in time qualified for the post of laboratory technician. Roko and Mira were graced by two children, a son and daughter, both now married. He entered his hard-earned retirement just after Mira in 2002. Over the past two decades he has spent the summer on his native island, not resting, but rather renovating the old family home. Roko has also built a new house for his grandchildren with four well-appointed flats with a view of the blue Adriatic Sea. The Tanfara’s spend their golden years weighing each summer between their dreams of relocating to Croatia and their Canadian reality with four grandchildren.
On this year’s trip to Croatia Roko and Mira took a Lufthansa flight from Toronto to Munich and then on to Zagreb. They were picked up by former Canadian resident, engineer and journalist Damir Borovčak, who drove them down to the coastal town of Brodarica before taking the ferry to Krapanj. Borovčak, born in Zagreb, had moved back to Croatia in 1991 to lend his help to the independence effort. His firm friendship with Roko runs back to the days when Croatia was defending its newly regained independence, working in the Canadian province of Ontario to collect and send medical and other humanitarian aid to a bleeding ancestral homeland. More recently, the Tanfara’s were among the first to do what they could to help out with the earthquake relief effort Zajedno za Zagreb (“Together for Zagreb”) following the March quake in the Croatian capital.
As Roko notes, many people born on the island of Krapanj moved abroad in search of employment, with many having settled in Australia, the western EU countries, and some in Canada and the United States of America. Their daughter with three of their grandchildren was to have joined them this summer on the island. The planned five-week vacation, however, came to naught on account of the coronavirus scare. And so, this time alone, Toronto residents Roko and Mira Tanfara meet with other people now living abroad but also sharing roots here on the island of Krapanj at the local Hotel Spangiola.
By: Vesna Kukavica
Photography: Tanfara family album