The following is an excerpt from “Tears for my City.”
In 1973, my parents left Macedonia so my sister and I could have a better life.
I’m sure a motivating factor was the fact that the Balkans had always been unstable, with threats of war and a long history of ethnic conflict. Little did my parents know we would end up living in a city that had every imaginable sign of the war they were trying to escape — decaying buildings, barbed wire fences, graffiti as far as the eye could see, violence and death.
War eventually did break out in Macedonia against rebel Albanians, soon after we escaped. Although the war there only last about nine months, my parents felt lucky that they were able to free us from that experience. What they didn’t realize was that the war on the streets of Detroit did not have an end in sight.
I realize now that if we had stayed in Macedonia, we would have been safer there than in Detroit, even with the civil war.
I still wonder what made my parents take the greatest risk of their lives by moving here. I have often asked my parents why they come to America and the only answer I ever received was “We did it for you and your sister.”
“Was life in Macedonia that bad?” I asked.
“No, we loved it there,” they replied. “It wasn’t easy leaving our entire family and the only thing we knew behind.”
That explanation didn’t satisfy me. I always thought there had to be something more to it.
When we first arrived in Detroit we were picked up by our sponsors at Detroit Metro Airport. Sponsors were necessary for anyone immigrating to the United States. These were the people who vouched for you and prepared the necessary paperwork. Our sponsors were a typical Macedonian family, a 30-something-year-old couple with two boys just a few years older than my sister and me.
We didn’t have much luggage for a family of four. My dad sold almost everything of value and gave the money and every piece of gold to our sponsors. They didn’t hesitate to take it. In fact, they expected a payoff.
As a child, I remember being affected by this because of how poor we were. How could someone take that much when they knew what little we had — even if it were offered to them? Why not say “pay us when you get on your feet, but first earn a little and get established?”
We lived in the upper level of their two-story home on Moran Street for a few months before buying our own house at 5315 McDougall.
While we were living on Moran with the sponsors, I experienced my first violent beating. I was in front of the house while the rest of my family was in the backyard. I was playing with a ball when some older boys, about 13 years old or so, hit me over the head with a baseball bat. I remember crying so hard that, at first, no sound came out as I sprinted toward the backyard.
Nightmares and sleepwalking
I grew up having bad dreams almost every night, recurring nightmares about school-related things, like not knowing what the teachers were saying to me, because I didn’t speak English, or anxiety over not knowing how to do my homework.
I remember faking stomach pains just so I wouldn’t have to go to school. I did this 56 times in kindergarten, which meant that mom or dad had to be home with me — so they couldn’t go to work those days.
My second wave of nightmares came from all the beatings I endured and the violence I witnessed in the neighborhood. Those nightmares caused me to walk in my sleep, as if I were trying to escape from someone who was chasing me, trying to kill me.
Most of my nightmares started with a chase. I was usually running away from someone with a gun who was trying to shoot me. The nightmares felt too real, as I became paralyzed by fear and could no longer run. The pull of the trigger would wake me up.
With the move to our new home, I hoped to escape the violence that I had experienced at our sponsor’s home. But in reality the baseball bat incident was only the first of many violent acts toward me because of the color of my skin. We were foreigners and we were white, certainly not a good combination for establishing a life in Detroit in the ’70s and ’80s. If only we were there in the ’40s and ’50s, a time when the auto industry, and Detroit, thrived.
When our sponsors first drove us to their home on Moran Street, I remember seeing gym shoes hanging from the utility lines. Because we had so few belongings, my focus was on the loss of the shoes and whoever lost them.
I found out sometime later that shoes hanging from wires meant that someone had lost his life on the streets and his shoes were placed there by gang members as an informal memorial.
The baseball bat incident paled in comparison to the violence I experienced on McDougall.
One day, I went outside and ran into some friends. An argument developed across the street among people I didn’t know. The argument turned violent, and one of the guys pulled out a gun and started shooting aimlessly. I felt the heat of one of the bullets and heard a whizzing sound as it zipped past my left ear. Somehow, the bullet didn’t have my name on it; it hit the building I was standing next to, Comerica Bank, which had been viable in my early years but in time became a decaying fixture in the heart of the neighborhood.
The Comerica brick was only the first of many bricks I would collect over the years. Many years later, when my elementary school, Ferry, was knocked to the ground, I collected a brick there as well.
I had been driving with my two sons past McDougall on our way to Belle Isle. I looked over just as we passed Ferry Street and to my sad surprise I saw a pile of bricks where my school once stood tall for so many years.
Detroit was a place where I had to grow up extremely fast. There was no time to be a child. Sure, I played like any healthy kid, but it was different. We lived in what has been described as the most dangerous ZIP code in America, 48211. That ZIP code covered my entire neighborhood.
I didn’t cry when I left Macedonia. I saved my tears for Detroit. Leaving the city for the suburbs filled my heart with sorrow. I always knew we would have to leave Detroit. I knew good things didn’t last forever.