July 2, 2022 – An 11-year-old Australian-Croatian boy won first place in a Travel Expo school project by introducing Croatian history, culture, traditions and folklore to his teachers and classmates. TCN had the privilege of speaking with his mother, Irena, about their Croatian ancestry.
Arkie Kokoris, an 11-year-old boy from Melbourne, Australia, won first place in a Travel Expo school project, which involved presenting information about a country, where he and his 2 colleagues chose Croatia because of his family ties . They were tasked with presenting a Travel Expo booth, encouraging people to visit the country of their choice, and were asked to provide information on natural attractions, climate, tourist destinations, cuisine, culture, history, wildlife, etc.
Arkie’s display included local products, flags, shirts, traditional costumes, and more. (Photo: Irena Kokoris)
Arkie attends a private Christian school and is currently in sixth grade. It included Croatia fact sheets and a hand drawn map which they put on the wall and a slideshow of interesting facts and Croatian history and culture. They included historical buildings and monuments, natural parks, food and animals. For visual display, they included the flag, various souvenirs from Croatia, traditional food items, sports memorabilia including a Dinamo football shirt, an authentic Croatian costume from Zagreb, a cookbook and another book on Croatia famous landmarks and buildings. One of the students has a 3D printer and made lithographs of famous buildings which would be placed in front of a torch to show the image.
A smaller Arkie with a Croatian football shirt. (Photo: Irena Kokoris)
Her presentation secured first place after a voting process, and a humble first prize of a certificate and a round of applause followed. His classmates had to vote on their favorite display and Croatia won by a landslide.
Total Croatia News interviewed his mother, Irena Kokoris, who, in addition to being a great support for his son in the process of designing and executing the project, proudly shared the feat on social networks. Irena’s heritage story is perhaps one of the most interesting and touching I’ve read, and I’m so glad you can learn from it through her own words.
My parents are from the region of Zumberak, Karlovac. They grew up on farms, caring for animals and the land, going to school and doing their homework by candlelight. They left for Australia in 1971 as a young, newly married couple, hoping to start a new life with opportunities for their future children. When they arrived, they were greeted by a single parent.
Irena with her father Zdenko Rados, her mother Katica Rados and her younger brother, Marko. (family album)
They spent some time in an immigration camp before finding rental accommodation and finding work. They have both worked full time their entire working life and have raised 2 children. They have 6 grandchildren. My father passed away suddenly last year at the age of 69, leaving a huge void in our family. My mum made sure to include the grb on his headstone, he was a very proud Croatian.
Irena’s father, Zdenko. (family album)
What kind of Croatian traditions and customs did you have at home when you were growing up? Were there also Croatian recipes and food?
We always celebrated Catholic holidays as a family, with a spit-roasted pig, lots of side dishes, lots of beer and wine. My parents had lots of Croatian family and friends and we always had some sort of gathering to attend on the weekends. Dinner dances, weddings, holy communion or confirmation, birthdays, etc. Mom taught me how to make sarma, gulas, cevapi, kiseli kupus, and many other traditional dishes. There would be sunka, slanina, kobasice, wine and sometimes rakija depending on the season.
Irena with a traditional Croatian costume. (family album)
Was there a Croatian community where you grew up? Have you been part of it? How?
We are part of Hrvatsko Vinarsko Drustvo, Mladi Hrvati Folklore, Croatian Golf Club, Croatian Saturday School, our church was Sv Nikola Tavelic, and there were many dinner dances organized by the church as well as New Years parties. I danced for many years, until my early 20s, my brother also attended for a few years. Being part of the dance group, attending many events was one of the fondest memories of my adolescence. One year (around 1990) a large group of Croatian singers and Croatian President Stipe Mesic visited the Melbourne Knights football club and we sang the Australian national anthem and danced for them.
Irena with former Croatian President, Stjepan Mesic. (family album)
Have you visited Croatia? What was your impression?
Visited in 1985 as a teenager, spent most of the time in the village, but traveled to Slovenia, Rijeka, Zagreb and Karlovac. Visited Plitvice and a few other places. Spent a lot of time in the forest and on the farm. Cherries picked in the fields and mushrooms from the forest. My parents returned to Croatia in 2014 and took my eldest son Arthur with them for 6 weeks.
Irena’s father, Zdenko, during a trip to Dubrovnik in 2014. (Family Album)
They traveled a lot that time and saw more sites including Dubrovnik and Split and my son really enjoyed his time there. My dream is to come back for a visit and bring my family to see the land of their mother’s heritage. Croatia is such a beautiful country and I feel strong ties. We had planned to go in 2021, but the pandemic changed our plans! My kids are now old enough to travel and it’s definitely on my bucket list!
Irena’s eldest son, Arthur, went to visit Croatia with his grandparents. (family album)
What makes your connection to Croatia so sstrong and special? What do you love most about your Croatian heritage?
Growing up hearing my parents talk about their homeland with so much affection (apart from difficulties). They were anxious to transmit their love and pride in their country to us. We attended Croatian school on Saturdays for many years, learning history, geography and language. I remember our teacher didn’t know English, so we had to speak Croatian all the time! I went there in 1985 as a young girl, I have such fond memories of it and loved the land and the carefree attitude of its people.
The Rados family during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the marriage between Zdenko and Katica. (family album)
I love being of Croatian descent, I am proud of it and proud to have had the opportunity to participate in the Australian Croatian community for many years in my life. After my marriage, I became less involved and became a mother and wife, which I am also very proud of.
In what ways do you try to teach your children to embrace their Croatian heritage?
I always remind them that despite their surname, they are half Croatian! They have all shown an interest at some point in learning the language and have improved a bit over the years. They love all Croatian cuisine – especially kolace! I involve them in learning certain recipes such as paprike punjene, cevapi and raznjici. We’ve been to a few dinner dances over the years and I think my two eldest might attend Croktoberfest this year!
Irena’s children are of Greek and Croatian descent. (family album)
What is your favorite thing about Croatia?
My favorite thing is the culture around folk dancing! I think it’s beautiful, elegant and majestic. The costumes are divine and the music is amazing. I miss dancing so much, but I’m so happy to have been a part of it for so long.
Irena is dancing with a friend. (family album)
Thank you Irene for sharing your story with us!
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