Artist Zenon

Kunstenaar Zenon

"I didn't want to leave the animals alone"

For five years, Zenon* was exploited in the circus. He was paid in alcohol, occasionally struck, and several times trampled by animals. Yet he didn't leave because he didn’t want to leave 'his' animals alone. But primarily because he had nowhere else to go. The circus and the alcohol were his only escape.

Zenon's room in a protected living facility run by the Salvation Army is colorful. The walls are adorned with various murals. A drawing of his former home in Eastern Europe sits on the corner of his dining table. He has also prepared many cookies and drinks, which he offers several times. His guests should want for nothing.

Zenon appears small, slender, and somewhat stiff. However, a smile spreads across his face as he talks about his childhood. Zenon originally comes from a small village in Eastern Europe, surrounded by forests and close to nature. He is the oldest of four children in his family, which he describes as 'wonderful'. Although they had to work hard, there was rarely any conflict at home. After completing high school, he started working as a handyman, renovating houses where he earned good money. While painting a house, he met his ex-wife. The twinkle in his eyes, present when he talks about his childhood, disappears. "I wish I had never met her."

"I chose my children"
From the beginning of their marriage, things did not go well between Zenon and his wife. She wanted him to go abroad, believing he could make money more easily there. "I didn't want to leave," explains Zenon. "I could earn just as much money in my home country as abroad. But my wife threatened to divorce me. So, I left for Belgium to find work."

In the early 90s, Zenon arrived in Belgium. He took various jobs, from renovating houses to working in hospitality or a factory. Initially, his wife and two children came to live with him. But when his in-laws got involved, his family returned to Eastern Europe. As a result, Zenon only saw his children during holidays. His own family also gradually faded from view. His wife did not want him to visit his parents. "I always had to choose between my family and my children. I chose my children," Zenon says emotionally. He gets up and walks away for a moment.

Old wounds
The strained marriage between Zenon and his wife eventually ended in divorce after a severe argument. His children sided with their mother. They packed up Zenon's belongings and showed him the door. 'You don't need to be here anymore.' Since then, Zenon has had no contact with his children. It deeply affects him. He becomes emotional again and walks away. Telling his life story reopens old wounds. The trauma from his failed marriage seems greater than his exploitation in the circus.

"That's true," explains his counselor, Donja, later. "He lost everything and has since been somewhat wandering. That's how he ended up in the circus." His interpreter also points out that Zenon is very susceptible to influence. "How could that woman determine so much for him?" Donja agrees. "He has such a kind heart; he's always ready to help everyone. It's extra painful that he was taken advantage of like this."

The circus
Zenon first heard about the circus through an acquaintance. He could stay there for three months and earn money. Having nothing else to return to, he agreed. Zenon soon realized something was wrong but stayed anyway. "I was just drinking and working," he explains. "No job was too menial. It helped me forget my problems."

Initially, Zenon and four others were responsible for caring for the animals. He started with the horses but soon also took on responsibility for the llamas and camels. It was dangerous work; the safety of the animal caretakers was not considered. "I knew how to handle these animals," Zenon explains, "but someone from Bulgaria lost all his teeth from a llama's kick. No medical help was allowed." Zenon was also trampled several times. "When the animals entered the show, a signal was usually given. Sometimes it wasn't, and I was trampled."

Besides being unsafe, the work also became increasingly difficult. The people with whom he cared for the animals left, leaving Zenon alone. He also had to cook for the people in the circus and help with setting up and taking down. "Sundays and Mondays were the worst days," Zenon recalls. "We worked from 7 a.m. to midnight because we had to dismantle everything and set it up again."

Paid in beer Initially
Zenon sometimes received 50 euros per week. Gradually, he was paid more in beer. "They didn't even ask what I wanted anymore. I was just handed a crate of beer. If I asked for money, I was sometimes beaten." The housing was also substandard. Zenon was housed with nine others in a trailer. The trailer was divided by partitions, and there were five bunk beds. But Zenon barely noticed. He worked seven days a week, never had a day off, and was often drunk.

Year after year passed, and Zenon saw many people come and go. As the circus moved from place to place, Zenon was unable to build a social network or friendships. Additionally, he did not speak the language of the respective countries and had no money for taxis or public transport. Escape was impossible. The atmosphere in the circus was harsh. "People were not happy," he reflects. "Behind the scenes, it was just hard work. Whether it rained or not, we always had to keep going." Only once did Zenon gather the courage to go to the police. "I didn't speak the language and couldn't show my ID. It had been taken by the circus. The police didn't take me seriously." However, Zenon did not leave on his own. He had no place to go. The alcohol, the circus, and the animals were his only escape. "At one point, I just started talking to the animals. I preferred talking to them rather than people."

After five years of exploitation, an escape route finally opened for Zenon. The police raided the place. They offered Zenon the option to leave, which he eagerly accepted. Zenon was placed in temporary accommodation and eventually ended up at the Salvation Army. "Zenon was a wreck when he first came here," his counselor Donja recounts. "He was a depressed, anxious, and suicidal man who no longer knew what to do with his life. Together, we began working on his recovery. Step by step, his confidence grew, and he started making choices again. One of them was to seek treatment for his alcohol addiction. Zenon has now quit drinking and absolutely does not want to drink anymore. That's really wonderful to see."

After a period of rest, Zenon is now taking on small projects again. For instance, he painted the communal living room of the facility where he now resides. Behind the building, there is a day-care center with various animals. Zenon faithfully takes care of them. He has also cautiously started restoring contact with his family. Recently, he met his children and grandchildren for the first time in years. Since then, there has been regular telephone contact. Zenon's trauma from losing his children is finally beginning to heal.

Check the socks Zenon designed ->