KUMANOVO: The scene was hardly conducive to romance: she was a sick Iraqi in a wave of refugees trying to enter Serbia, while he belonged to the stern Macedonian police force keeping guard.
But Noora Arkavazi, a Kurdish Muslim, and Orthodox Christian Bobi Dodevski quickly fell in love after they met at the muddy border in early March – and celebrated their wedding four months later.
Bobi recalls the rainy day he first saw Noora in no man’s land between the two Balkan countries, when he was working only by chance after swapping shifts with a colleague.
“It was destiny,” the affable 35-year-old said over tea in his small apartment in the northern Macedonian town of Kumanovo, where he now lives happily with his young wife.
Noora, 20, hails from Diyala, an eastern province plagued with violence in the Iraqi conflict. She says at one point Islamic State militants kidnapped her father, an engineer, and demanded thousands of dollars for his return.
Early in 2016, Noora and her brother, sister and parents abandoned their home and began a long journey west, crossing the border into Turkey, taking a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos and eventually entering Macedonia.
Their path was one well-trodden by hundreds of thousands of people escaping war or poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and like many of their fellow travellers, the Arkavazis had set their sights on Germany.
While her family continued on their odyssey, Noora stayed put in Macedonia after Cupid’s arrow struck.
“I had a simple dream to live with my family in Germany,” she says. “I didn’t imagine a big surprise for me here.”
‘Just don’t worry’
When she first met Bobi, Noora had a high fever and was desperate to know if her family could cross the border into Serbia. Balkan countries had just begun closing their doors to migrants, so the fate of those transiting through Macedonia was unclear.
The other police officers all directed her to Bobi because he spoke good English, and he made sure she and her frail mother were taken care of with medical aid and blankets.
“He said ‘just don’t worry, everything will be very good in your life’,” Noora remembers, now laughing over the fact that he couldn’t stop looking at her.
Twice-divorced Bobi says he knew he had found someone special. “When I saw Noora for the first time, I saw something good in her eyes.”
In the coming days, while the migrants waited in limbo in the Tabanovce transit camp, Bobi and Noora spent more time together – he would take her and her mother to local markets to buy food and clothes.
Noora, who speaks six languages and began helping the local Red Cross, liked the way the tall policeman would play with the migrants’ children, unlike some of his more serious colleagues.
The Macedonian force has faced criticism for its treatment of migrants, particularly for firing tear gas at some of those trying to cross the border from Greece.
One evening in April, Bobi invited Noora to a restaurant, where she recalls him being extremely nervous, drinking lots of water and shaking. Then he suddenly proposed.
“I told him no, you’re joking…but maybe ten times he repeated this, ‘will you marry me?’.”
Noora eventually said yes, but she worried about her parents’ reaction to her marrying a non-Muslim.
She told them: “I chose a good man for my life and I will marry him. I don’t want to marry another guy”. But they were “so nervous and angry,” she says.
Noora is reluctant to talk about her family now, except to say she is relieved that they are living safely in Germany.
Noora and Bobi celebrated their wedding in Kumanovo on July 13, her birthday, in front of 120 guests of “every religion”, including her Red Cross colleagues.
The town is one of Macedonia’s most ethnically mixed, with Muslim Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Turks and other groups as well as the ethnic Macedonian majority.
“It was a very beautiful and fun wedding,” says Noora, describing the live music and dancing that continued into the early hours.
The couple now live with Bobi’s three children from previous marriages, and Noora is expecting their first baby.
As a sign of their commitment, the lovers have each other’s names emblazoned on their forearms in matching swirly tattoos.
‘Believe in destiny’
Noora says she misses Iraq “very much”, but the welcoming nature of her new neighbours reminds her of the Iraqi sense of hospitality.
“I feel like it’s my country, the life here is so easy. Nobody here watches me like I’m a refugee.”
Migrant numbers at the nearby Tabanovce camp have dropped off sharply since the so-called Balkan route was effectively shut down, although some still cross the region with the help of smugglers.
Dejan Kladarin, senior protection officer at the United Nations refugee agency in Skopje, says around 200 people are now in Macedonian transit camps.
Noora’s experience “is a nice story and we would like to have more like this…but most of the people are eager to continue” to where there are better economic prospects, Kladarin says.
Bobi hopes their romantic tale will encourage other young people to overcome barriers to be with the one they love.
“Noora and I want to tell people to believe in yourself and believe in love – and in destiny.”