The Kiril P. Kiriakovs are amazed at the changes eight years have made in their lives. This Bulgarian family fled communism, lived in Algeria, and finally found The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in France.
In 1963, the Kiriakovs were living in Sofia. Kiril, who is a dental technician, was secretary-treasurer of a Bulgarian government medical center. It was a respected position, but life was not easy. He journeyed to a nearby village on weekends and secretly moonlighted as a private-practice dental technician, an illegal act in Communist Bulgaria.
Then it was announced that a dental technician was to be sent to Algeria under a foreign aid program. Bulgaria’s Communist government was to take back all but $240 of the $600 a month salary the position was to command, but it would still be a big improvement in income for a Bulgarian.
Seven persons sought the appointment. All secretly wanted to leave Bulgaria. A Greek Orthodox, Kiril prayed before the seven applicants drew lots for the position. He won, but the others insisted that they draw again. Again and again they drew. Kiril won the winning slip six times in succession. On the seventh drawing, the others made him take the last slip. But again he won. Though religious faith is discouraged in Bulgaria, several of the losers marveled that it was a “miracle of God.”
But he still did not get the appointment. His wife, Nevenka, even appealed to a relative whose husband was a high Communist official—but to no avail. Retorted the relative: “Why do you want to go to Algeria? To get a few more rags?”
All the Kiriakovs could do was wait and pray. Then, about a month later they received their assignment to Algeria.
“Arriving in Algiers, I thought we were in paradise compared with our country,” recalls Nevenka. “Every store was full of merchandise, clean and well arranged. People were so nice, so kind. In the state stores in Sofia clerks would say, ‘Go away. We don’t have your size.’”
In Oran, Algeria, their post, the Kiriakovs were to live with the Bulgarian colony, but there were no vacant apartments there. Thus they had to find their own apartment, in a French section.
Julia and Pierre, the Kiriakovs’ teenagers, associated with youth from the Western world for the first time, and they started thinking about how wonderful it would be to live in a free country.
Pierre, a talented musician, played in a popular musical group. As a child of seven he had rated as one of three top violinists in national competition.
Life in Oran was so much more pleasant than it had been in Sofia that Kiril excused himself from a government-paid vacation home. As his two-year mission was ending, Kiril wangled permission from his government to return by way of France, but his family was supposed to go directly to Sofia—the Communists’ usual policy to discourage their people from defecting. However, the Kiriakovs forged the words “and family” on Kiril’s exit permit. Then they hurriedly obtained tourist visas for France and took a ship to Marseilles.
Fifteen days after their departure, a bloody coup d’etat, led by defense minister Colonel Houari Boumedienne, toppled the Communist-leaning Algerian president, Ahmed Ben Bella. All Bulgarians were immediately flown to their country, but the Kiriakovs were now safe in France.
They wanted to defect but didn’t know where to go or what to do. Arriving in Marseilles, they bought a map and took a train to Rennes in the northwest province of Brittany. They wanted to go far from Paris, where the Bulgarian Embassy was located. Also, Rennes was the home of a French girl Julia had met in Oran. They hoped that her family would be able to help them.
At Rennes, the Kiriakovs formally asked for political asylum. Kiril obtained a job as a dental technician, Nevenka as a dressmaker, and Julia and Pierre entered a French school. The French government helped them financially, but they lived constantly in fear. Every knock at the door startled them.
On an April afternoon in 1966, about a year after they arrived in France, Julia was home studying for an exam when she heard a knock on the apartment door. Two young men introduced themselves as missionaries from “a church with a very long name,” as Julia recalls the incident.
Julia was afraid to let them in and kept the chain on the door. But she said they could come back in the evening when her parents would be home. All afternoon the young men, elders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, anticipated the return of Julia’s parents. That evening the Kiriakovs invited them to stay for dinner—simply to extend their usual Bulgarian hospitality.
Eventually the Kiriakovs started studying the Book of Mormon. Fluent in French, Julia quickly read the book, and then reread it. But Kiril and Nevenka were struggling to learn French, and as they began reading the Book of Mormon they often found as many as twenty-five new French words on a single page. They pinned up pieces of paper with the new words in both Bulgarian and French. Sometimes they stayed up until three in the morning studying and praying, struggling through one hundred pages of the Book of Mormon in a single long day.
The Kiriakovs began attending the Rennes Branch, going to meetings in a modest one-room rented hall. A Latter-day Saint family with ten children, the LeBras family, took a special interest in them.
One day Nevenka came home from work and suddenly found herself singing several Latter-day Saint hymns in French. “I had heard them sung only a week before. All at once my mouth was opened and I began to sing. Oh, it was wonderful! I understood!”
The Kiriakovs were baptized in the English Channel in July 1966, barely six weeks after the missionaries had first knocked on their door. Later in 1966 Julia won a scholarship to Brigham Young University under the honors program, and she arrived in Provo in December. Pierre followed her in December 1968.
Meanwhile, Kiril and Nevenka had their trials. Shortly after Julia left for the United States, Kiril was stricken with pneumonia. He was out of work for a year. In December 1967 the Kiriakovs received a threatening letter from the Bulgarian Embassy, which had finally tracked them down. They were ordered to return at once to Bulgaria with their two children. Hurriedly they packed and moved to Paris.
In April 1969, exactly three years after finding the Church in France, Kiril and Nevenka joined Julia and Pierre in Utah.
The Kiriakovs stayed with newfound friends for a month and a half while they were trying to find a place in Salt Lake City to live. They had been able to bring few household effects along, but Latter-day Saint friends gave them dishes and other needed items.
Now they are living in a modest apartment and working at their old skills again—Kiril as a dental technician, Nevenka as a seamstress in a furrier shop. They have been attending adult education classes to improve their English.
The Kiriakovs are now active, happy members of the South 13th Ward in Salt Lake City. And recently they were sealed as a family in the Salt Lake Temple.
Leaving Bulgaria meant leaving all of their relatives behind, but like thousands of other refugees over the past centuries they’ve found new loved ones in fellow members of the Church.
Their experiences recall the words of a hymn—“God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.”
Nevenka puts it this way: “We wanted to go to Canada because of the French language, but God helped us to come to the United States.”
A former regional editor of U.S. News and World Report, Dr. Haroldsen has been associate professor of communications at Brigham Young University since 1969. He has served in the Church as a bishop and high councilor and is now secretary to the Aaronic Priesthood-Adult group in the Orem 14th Ward, Sharon West Stake.