He grew up in Albania, a nation hardened by a half-century of state atheism. He had hoped to enter university. But one day in March 1991, when he heard that an Italian military ship and a fishing vessel were close to port, he decided to flee his troubled country.
The 17-year-old swam two miles to reach the boats, which had not docked at the port for fear of the crowds that wanted to embark.
Once in Italy, Gjimaraj wandered from city to city, until he found a job as a barber in Trivigno. He soon heard about the Catholic faith, became interested, and began the catechumenate. On Christmas Eve 1992 he was baptized, confirmed and made his first Communion.
"I began to live a normal life as a Christian," he told the Italian newspaper Avvenire. "Increasingly I dedicated more time to discernment and less to amusing myself. I was impressed by a poster of St. Francis' face and the phrase: 'Lord, what do you want me to do?'"
After a period of discernment, he realized God was calling him to the priesthood.
"I know that a story like mine might help someone," said the priest, recently ordained in the Archdiocese of Potenza. "But it is above all with the little ones, with children, where there is work to be done. Many missionaries are already doing this in Albania: Our hope for the future lies with children."