Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from North Macedonia

Activist Works Day – and Night – for Social Reform

  SKOPJE, North Macedonia – I’m sitting in front of Vegan365Kitchen waiting for an 11 a.m. appointment with its owner, Dragana Velkovska.

  She’s running late. A man on a bike turns up, removes his helmet and asks: “Are you the reporter waiting for Dragana?”

  “Yes,” I respond.

  He introduces himself as Dragana’s husband, Marian.

  It had taken some time to set our meeting as Dragana’s daily agenda reads like a metro train schedule. Restaurateur is but one of her many occupations and interests.

  Regarding her schedule and the delay, I ask Marian: “So, this is normal?”

  “Her life is like this all the time. Mine, too,” he says, but not in a stressful way. 

  This Balkans country on Greece’s northern border is years behind the United States in basic social services. So, it’s not surprising that a woman dedicating her life to changing the way a government serves its people leads a frenetic life.

  Suddenly, Dragana appears and takes a seat across from me.

  “Sorry,” she says.

  “No worries.”

  Dragana is hungry; she’s had no time to dine this day.

  “Do you mind if I eat while we talk?” she asks, as her husband heads into their restaurant to hustle up some lunch.

  No problem, I respond.

  My interest in Dragana stemmed from her background as an animal rights and environmental activist and as a current member of the Skopje City Council. Macedonia – officially North Macedonia [see previous article] – was one of six states in the former Yugoslavia, a socialist country that dissolved in 1992. All six are now independent nations. Macedonia is among the poorest and least developed of them. Government corruption, slow-paced reforms in basic programs and services and a general morose attitude among much of the population over change of any kind has kept the country lagging behind.

Dragana's news

  On that topic, Dragana, munching on a vegan cheese and apple sandwich, has some news: Earlier this day she submitted a list of 45 independent candidates for the city’s council and mayoral election scheduled for Oct. 17.

  “It’s the first time in history an independent list of candidates was created for an election in Skopje [pronounced Sco-pee-uh] ,” she says of the group of like-minded candidates she has worked with on various projects.

  She knows most of them won’t be elected – there’s a stringent certification process in place that likely will disqualify a number of them – but she’s OK with that: “The main thing is we expect to get more visibility and share our message with the public.”

  Not one to celebrate – “I’m not usually joyful” – she nonetheless is pleased with this accomplishment. She explains: “When I started volunteering for various organizations it was a dream of mine to assemble a capable, intelligent group of people who work together.”

  Her activism can be traced to an early age. She grew up in an apartment complex – typical for Skopje – with a younger sister and her parents. They were both workers but not Socialist Party members, which meant they struggled financially. Young Dragana, maybe 7 at the time, recalls finding stray kittens in the streets around her home and returning them to their owners at the insistence of her parents.

  “As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to take care of animals,” she says.

  A tattoo on her right forearm underscores her position: “Animal rights are human rights,” it reads.

  Another life-defining experience also occurred at a young age. The bully in her building – a girl one year younger than Dragana – enjoyed beating up neighboring kids, boys and girls alike. She often targeted Dragana’s best friend, but to get to the friend she had to go through Dragana.

  “I would defend my friend because I didn’t want people to get hurt, and I wanted to fight injustice,” she says.

Animal rescue movement

  In college, Dragana studied languages which led to her first career as an interpreter beginning in 2008. Two years later she signed up as a volunteer with Anima Mundi Animal Rescue and her path was set.

  She remembers the early days: “The city had a place that was supposed to be a no-kill shelter. But they killed the animals in the most vicious way, by drowning and decapitating them.”

  It took time - Dragana ended up working with several groups - but eventually progress was made.

  “Not only did we save animals from the streets and found them homes, but we also worked on improving laws protecting animals,” she says.

  Dragana learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

  “I realized the only way to change things was through developing a strategy and getting laws passed. Had I not been exposed to this I would have spent my entire life trying to get animals off the streets and I would have never succeeded.”

  Taking this thought process further, she ran for city council in 2017 and earned a seat as a member of the Levica [Left] Party. It was not a good experience. Promises made by the mayor on issues she cared about were not kept. And she was not happy with the direction in which the party was going.  Another lesson learned.

  After one year on council, she left her party and became an independent, setting the stage for a movement culminating in today’s announcement.

  I ask how she would describe her political views.

  “The things I’m striving for – free education, free health services, good public transport, a safe environment – are normal things and how everyone would want to live,” Dragana says, with conviction. “So, I never label myself anything. I just talk about principles.”

Long days and nights

  Her sandwich is gone. I can see she’s thinking about her next appointment, maybe appointments, but she remains polite and engaged. She appears tired so I ask her about a typical day.

  It begins early with a therapy session with Mazuko, her 13-year-old cat, the first of two each day. [Dragana and Marian have three other pets, all of them are rescue animals. These are their children.] She then opens the restaurant, after which begins a series of meetings around town related to either her animal protection activities or city council duties. She ends up here, at her restaurant, between 6 and 7 p.m. before returning home, where the work continues into the night. Sometimes she eats – Marian does the cooking – but often not.

  She points to her husband of 14 years, sitting nearby, and says: “If it wasn’t for him I don’t know if I’d be alive today. I get depressed at times; he makes me laugh.”

  With this information, the topic turns to her health. Dragana admits to having frequent migraines.

  “I am very emotional. It stresses me out when things are going in the wrong direction, so I get headaches a lot.”

  “Do you ever take time off to recharge?” I ask. She laughs at that comment, but it’s not a happy laugh. She explains: “I don’t remember having one relaxed day in the last 10 years. Weekends are the same as weekdays.”

  There was an attempt at a vacation a few years ago but each of the 16 days away from Skopje with Marian were spent with her laptop while sunning on a beach. She’s only 37, but her family worries about her future if she maintains this lifestyle: “My father tells me every single day, ‘Take care of yourself.’”

  I’ve only known her for 60 minutes but it’s hard to imagine Dragana operating any other way. Before departing, to underscore her will to continue her crusade, she tells a story of hiking to the summit of Mount Korab, at 9,068 feet Macedonia’s highest peak. She was not in shape and had no business being on the mountain. After six hours up and three hours down, she made it, even after almost passing out at the top.   At the bottom, her mother laughed at her; a haggard Dragana looked like she could not walk another step.

  Yet, a few years later, still woefully unprepared, she climbed it again.

  “You see,” she says, “I never give up.”

  Could you do it again today? I ask.

  “Yes, I could.”

  I believe her.

Editor’s note: Second in a series of articles from a reporting trip to North Macedonia Aug. 14-16, 2021.

-PHOTO-

  SKOPJE, North Macedonia – I’m sitting in front of Vegan365Kitchen waiting for an 11 a.m. appointment with its owner, Dragana Velkovska.

  She’s running late. A man on a bike turns up, removes his helmet and asks: “Are you the reporter waiting for Dragana?”

  “Yes,” I respond.

  He introduces himself as Dragana’s husband, Marian.

  It had taken some time to set our meeting as Dragana’s daily agenda reads like a metro train schedule. Restaurateur is but one of her many occupations and interests.

  Regarding her schedule and the delay, I ask Marian: “So, this is normal?”

  “Her life is like this all the time. Mine, too,” he says, but not in a stressful way. 

  This Balkans country on Greece’s northern border is years behind the United States in basic social services. So, it’s not surprising that a woman dedicating her life to changing the way a government serves its people leads a frenetic life.

  Suddenly, Dragana appears and takes a seat across from me.

  “Sorry,” she says.

  “No worries.”

  Dragana is hungry; she’s had no time to dine this day.

  “Do you mind if I eat while we talk?” she asks, as her husband heads into their restaurant to hustle up some lunch.

  No problem, I respond.

  My interest in Dragana stemmed from her background as an animal rights and environmental activist and as a current member of the Skopje City Council. Macedonia – officially North Macedonia [see previous article] – was one of six states in the former Yugoslavia, a socialist country that dissolved in 1992. All six are now independent nations. Macedonia is among the poorest and least developed of them. Government corruption, slow-paced reforms in basic programs and services and a general morose attitude among much of the population over change of any kind has kept the country lagging behind.

Dragana's news

  On that topic, Dragana, munching on a vegan cheese and apple sandwich, has some news: Earlier this day she submitted a list of 45 independent candidates for the city’s council and mayoral election scheduled for Oct. 17.

  “It’s the first time in history an independent list of candidates was created for an election in Skopje [pronounced Sco-pee-uh] ,” she says of the group of like-minded candidates she has worked with on various projects.

  She knows most of them won’t be elected – there’s a stringent certification process in place that likely will disqualify a number of them – but she’s OK with that: “The main thing is we expect to get more visibility and share our message with the public.”

  Not one to celebrate – “I’m not usually joyful” – she nonetheless is pleased with this accomplishment. She explains: “When I started volunteering for various organizations it was a dream of mine to assemble a capable, intelligent group of people who work together.”

  Her activism can be traced to an early age. She grew up in an apartment complex – typical for Skopje – with a younger sister and her parents. They were both workers but not Socialist Party members, which meant they struggled financially. Young Dragana, maybe 7 at the time, recalls finding stray kittens in the streets around her home and returning them to their owners at the insistence of her parents.

  “As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to take care of animals,” she says.

  A tattoo on her right forearm underscores her position: “Animal rights are human rights,” it reads.

  Another life-defining experience also occurred at a young age. The bully in her building – a girl one year younger than Dragana – enjoyed beating up neighboring kids, boys and girls alike. She often targeted Dragana’s best friend, but to get to the friend she had to go through Dragana.

  “I would defend my friend because I didn’t want people to get hurt, and I wanted to fight injustice,” she says.

Animal rescue movement

  In college, Dragana studied languages which led to her first career as an interpreter beginning in 2008. Two years later she signed up as a volunteer with Anima Mundi Animal Rescue and her path was set.

  She remembers the early days: “The city had a place that was supposed to be a no-kill shelter. But they killed the animals in the most vicious way, by drowning and decapitating them.”

  It took time - Dragana ended up working with several groups - but eventually progress was made.

  “Not only did we save animals from the streets and found them homes, but we also worked on improving laws protecting animals,” she says.

  Dragana learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

  “I realized the only way to change things was through developing a strategy and getting laws passed. Had I not been exposed to this I would have spent my entire life trying to get animals off the streets and I would have never succeeded.”

  Taking this thought process further, she ran for city council in 2017 and earned a seat as a member of the Levica [Left] Party. It was not a good experience. Promises made by the mayor on issues she cared about were not kept. And she was not happy with the direction in which the party was going.  Another lesson learned.

  After one year on council, she left her party and became an independent, setting the stage for a movement culminating in today’s announcement.

  I ask how she would describe her political views.

  “The things I’m striving for – free education, free health services, good public transport, a safe environment – are normal things and how everyone would want to live,” Dragana says, with conviction. “So, I never label myself anything. I just talk about principles.”

Long days and nights

  Her sandwich is gone. I can see she’s thinking about her next appointment, maybe appointments, but she remains polite and engaged. She appears tired so I ask her about a typical day.

  It begins early with a therapy session with Mazuko, her 13-year-old cat, the first of two each day. [Dragana and Marian have three other pets, all of them are rescue animals. These are their children.] She then opens the restaurant, after which begins a series of meetings around town related to either her animal protection activities or city council duties. She ends up here, at her restaurant, between 6 and 7 p.m. before returning home, where the work continues into the night. Sometimes she eats – Marian does the cooking – but often not.

  She points to her husband of 14 years, sitting nearby, and says: “If it wasn’t for him I don’t know if I’d be alive today. I get depressed at times; he makes me laugh.”

  With this information, the topic turns to her health. Dragana admits to having frequent migraines.

  “I am very emotional. It stresses me out when things are going in the wrong direction, so I get headaches a lot.”

  “Do you ever take time off to recharge?” I ask. She laughs at that comment, but it’s not a happy laugh. She explains: “I don’t remember having one relaxed day in the last 10 years. Weekends are the same as weekdays.”

  There was an attempt at a vacation a few years ago but each of the 16 days away from Skopje with Marian were spent with her laptop while sunning on a beach. She’s only 37, but her family worries about her future if she maintains this lifestyle: “My father tells me every single day, ‘Take care of yourself.’”

  I’ve only known her for 60 minutes but it’s hard to imagine Dragana operating any other way. Before departing, to underscore her will to continue her crusade, she tells a story of hiking to the summit of Mount Korab, at 9,068 feet Macedonia’s highest peak. She was not in shape and had no business being on the mountain. After six hours up and three hours down, she made it, even after almost passing out at the top.   At the bottom, her mother laughed at her; a haggard Dragana looked like she could not walk another step.

  Yet, a few years later, still woefully unprepared, she climbed it again.

  “You see,” she says, “I never give up.”

  Could you do it again today? I ask.

  “Yes, I could.”

  I believe her.

Editor’s note: Second in a series of articles from a reporting trip to North Macedonia Aug. 14-16, 2021.

Cover Photo
Cover Photo

Source: Facebook

  Postscript

  Dragana was one of two independents elected to Skopje City Council in the October 2021 election, which was a first. Around the country, almost half of the 80 municipalities elected at least one independent. In a number of towns two or three were elected.   Surprisingly, some of the independents won seats in smaller rural municipalities.

  In exit polling, voters supporting the independents said they were dissatisfied about voting time and again for the same two parties - conservative and liberal - as there had been little progress in moving Macedonia forward in the 31 years since gaining its independence.

  There is little doubt Dragana was smiling on Election Day. Last month, she celebrated her 15th anniversary with a night on the town. As you can see from the photo of her and Marian, she looks happy that evening as well. It appears she even had time to eat.