In conversation with Desa: a Kosovar refugee

In September, the United States lowered the total number of refugees they will be allowing into the country to a 30,000 person cap, the lowest it has been since 1980, and less than one third what it was under the Obama administration. Part of the reason this cap was lowered was to deal with processing the 800,000 current asylum-seekers.

In the wake of this, The Student caught up with a woman currently living in the United States who received political asylum in 1999 when her home country of Kosovo was invaded by Serbia. Her story provides a stunning image of the role political asylum plays in the lives of refugees.

This is an interview with a woman named Desa, chronicling her journey from growing up in war-torn Kosovo to arriving in the United States.

First things first, when and where were you born?

Gjilan, Kosovo in January of 1991

What was life like in Kosovo as a young girl?

Our family had lots of land, our house was really nice, and the children were able to just go outside and play with no worries at all. It was a very free neighbourhood.

I definitely lived a very simple life and wore lots of hand-me-downs. I can’t remember ever owning toys, the kids just made up games. We played hopscotch or cat’s cradle. We were just happy kids. We were oblivious to the political turbulence that was happening.

However, Serbia was trying to invade Kosovo and claim our land as theirs. My father worked in the government, and lost his job one year before I was born. Although this left us with no income, we were fortunate enough to have land, animals, and food.

It wasn’t until I was six or seven that I started realising something was going on. We had a small TV that we rarely turned on, other than to watch the news. I began to see rallies and riots, tear gas being thrown on crowds – a bunch of nonsense. That was when I realised maybe there was something going on. Also, other things would occur: we wouldn’t have money to buy oil or other necessities. This, along with what we were seeing on the news made it clear that something bad was happening.

During the occupation, how did your daily life change?

The biggest change was the lack of resources coming into my household. Sometimes there just wasn’t enough food to go around. My parents always let the kids eat first, they would sacrifice their own hunger to let us eat first and then they would eat whatever was left over.

My dad did everything he could possibly do, he was a very smart man. He used to travel to Macedonia and import fruit or gas, he would do whatever he needed to for income. My mother had to stay home to watch the five kids, but she would make thin crochets and sell them to anyone who would buy them. Towards the end, when we needed more income, she had to sell her gold – her jewellery.

How much do you remember about your family’s decision to leave your family’s home, was there a specific breaking point?

It was by force. In 1999 it became really destructive in the country – riots left and right – you couldn’t go into the city without seeing a riot. People were angry with our government because it had been corrupted by Serbia. That’s why my father lost his job, he refused to compromise his ethics and take the Serbians’ side.

Ultimately, they dominated us with force. They entered Kosovo town by town. They would enter towns in the middle of the night and deliver a simple message: if you don’t get out we will kill you.

It happened early in the morning, around five. It had just started to get light, and my uncle who lives next door rushed in and told us we had to get out – we had to get out or they were going to kill us.

There were seven of us in the house. My parents were rushing around trying to get documents and anything else we could fit in our car. We took as much food, flour, sugar as we could, and the bear necessities for clothes. We all got in one small car, I can’t begin to understand how we all fit in this tiny little car. We went to the only place we could go, my grandmother’s in the city.

Here, there were numerous inspections where Serbian soldiers with big guns would come in to inspect, but really take our money, take our gold, and just harass us. When the sirens went off everyday around four o’clock, you knew to rush home, because the soldiers could kill you in the street and no one would come out to stop them.

At night, with all our lights off we could see the sky light up with explosions. We would hear helicopters and watch bombs go off. Even as a child, I could tell something was getting bigger and bigger. We couldn’t turn the light on at night, especially on the second floor, because then we would be a target. The soldiers would throw gunfire at that light.

At what point did your family decide to leave your grandmother’s house and become refugees?

One day, my parents just told us to get ready, and said we had to go. With all the checks they were doing in the houses, it was only a matter of time before they killed one of the men.

As we were leaving, I remember looking down at my feet. I had on these hand-me-down sneakers that were so big that I had tied the shoelaces around my ankles. I looked down, and then back up at my grandmothers house for the last time, and that last image is burned into my memory.

We went to the bus station, with one small bag for all seven of us, and the bus was full because everyone was going away from Kosovo. We were headed for Macedonia.

At one point, soldiers boarded the bus and took my father, brothers, and some other men outside. Some came back in, some didn’t. They kept my father and brothers outside. I remember thinking I would never see them again.

Luckily, my father was able to speak Serbian. He gave the soldiers all the money he had left, and rush inside with my brothers right before the bus left.

Eventually we reached the refugee camp in Macedonia. It was awful. It was this sad-looking place with green-brown tents. We walked inside the first tent and there were hundreds of people inside. We spent the first night in this tent with everyone else while they processed our paperwork. We slept through the night with my parents taking turns, one sleeping one watching out.

They let us in. From there we got into the camp with thousands of other people. The tents were packed in close to one another, and we were forced to share our tent with three other families. Here we had a little bit of a cushion to sleep on, but conditions were still very rough. We stayed in these camps for a month. For food, we ate whatever they would give us. Typically peppers, feta cheese, water, and bread. This is all we ate for one whole month. My parents did the best they could, kept us very close to them, fed us, and kept us as clean as possible.

While we were at the camp there was a small playground that was always packed with children. At this playground, NATO and other charitable organisations would bring toys and dolls. They set up something like a lottery system. We were picked at random to go into this tent, and if there was anything left when you got inside, you got to choose one item. It was so exciting, when I walked in I got to choose one toy. I can still remember the joy I felt. It was amazing, I felt like a human again – like a child. For the first time in months, I wasn’t fearful of my life.

What was the process like that brought you from the refugee camp to the United States? Was America your first choice?

When we had arrived at the refugee camp, my parents had entered their names into a lottery to go to another country as refugees. They put their name in for any country. They didn’t care where we went, they just wanted to get out of the dangerous conditions of the war. We were so fortunate because within a month, we were granted the ability to leave. We got physicals, security checks, and NATO organisations let us in. We could choose to go to Austria, Germany, a few other European countries, and America. My parents had heard that if we chose to stay in Europe we would simply be going from one refugee camp to another, with the added risk of being sent back to Kosovo. They had heard this was not the case in America. They knew absolutely nothing about America, but they chose it because they wanted to get as far away from Kosovo and as far away from violence as possible. I can’t help but think back to how intelligent my father and mother were. They didn’t know the language, they knew nothing about the country, they had hardly even heard of it, but they knew what they needed to do to keep us safe.

I had never been in an aeroplane before our departure to America. I recall during our flight my father had an English to Albanian dictionary, and he was teaching us how to say “thank you”, “hello”, “you’re welcome”, and all the proper etiquette he could find in the dictionary. We entered the plane thinking this was going to be temporary, but we had no idea what was really in store for us. When we got to America, we were greeted by Catholic Charities that gave us a temporary home until my parents could find work, and they gave us about $200 a month for food.

We arrived to the Greater Boston area. My parents took any job they could. My mother started working outside the family home for the first time. My father went from having a respectful official government position in Kosovo, to taking any odd job he could find in America. He had to do anything possible to bring control and stability into our lives.

My parents took a night shift position at BJ’s, a warehouse store. They would get home from work right as we were waking up for school. They were exhausted, but they would make us breakfast and get us ready for school, then go to sleep once we left.

Eventually, we moved in with a volunteer for the charity who we called Mr. Joseph. He was like a grandfather to us. He had a house in a very safe area, and he had agreed to let us stay with him, and he charged us $500/month. It was to be our home until my parents could save enough money to go off on our own. My parents were still working the night shift at this point, so it was great having him there as a sort of security overnight.

Mr. Joseph also exposed us to American culture, and helped us through our journey of learning English. Because of this generosity and my parents hard work, we were able to buy our own house within three years.

It was still tough for me at that point. Although kids were nice at school, I was still the outcast. I knew English enough to get by, but still didn’t fully understand what was going on and couldn’t communicate in the manner they communicated with one another. While my classmates were learning new things, I was learning the same new things and a whole new language and culture.

In 1999, the United States brought 20,000 refugees in from Kosovo alone, do you know of others that followed a similar path as yourself?

When we first arrived in America we shared a home with multiple families from Kosovo, and we somewhat knew one of them. It wasn’t until one random afternoon that my family would be reacquainted with actual family members. I recall one day riding my bike around the house, a bike which had been donated, and I saw a familiar face walking toward me. It caused me to run into the house and tell my parents who I saw. It was my uncle and with him were my cousins. Apparently the charity had been informed that there were other people from Kosovo that had come over, and they saw the same last name, so they connected us. This was the only other family we had, and they made it to America with us. We stayed in touch with them, and a few other people from Kosovo, but over time we got wonderfully accustomed to our lives in America. We didn’t restrict ourselves to only staying with people of our culture. We made significant effort to make friends with a diverse group of people, which would prove to be instrumental in our ability to further adapt to our surroundings.

Now, I volunteer for Catholic Charities as a means to give back. They were an influential force in helping us adjust to our new lives. They provided us with the necessities we needed to one day have the opportunity to be independent. It is unfortunate that during my time of volunteering, it has become apparent that there is a significant decline in the number of refugees able to enter the US. People at the charity have mentioned that with the current political climate, they had to dial back to one third of what they could typically accommodate.

Obviously, the current US administration is less inclined to accept those seeking asylum, especially from a predominantly Muslim country like Kosovo. Do you ever feel as though in a strange way, timing was favorable to you? We can look to Syria as an example. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the same position you were in, and yet, only a few hundred have made it to the United States.

We absolutely lucked out with timing. We were very fortunate that we arrived in the USA with the assistance of President Clinton when America had the resources and the ability to lend a hand to such a high degree. The UN saw what was happening to our country, the lack of resources that we had, and how geographically limited we were in protecting ourselves. I’m sure that’s why they helped. Kosovo had never done anything to retaliate against America or any other country, we were just in an unfortunate situation. Serbia was trying to oppress us, they wanted to kill off the Kosovars, practice ethnic cleansing.

I remember how uncensored news was in Kosovo. We would turn the TV on to see mass graves with our people being thrown in. We would see gas attacks, people being murdered in the streets… Thinking back on all that, we were definitely fortunate and forever grateful to get out of that deadly setting and come to America.

Once we were here, my parents dedicated their lives to working. They didn’t want to be dependent on handouts and worked late night and early mornings. They refused to accept anything more than the bear minimum from the government. We were so thankful for their assistance in letting us be a part of their country that we would work and become financially stable on our own. I admire my parents’ mentality, and it has been instrumental in how my siblings and I conduct ourselves in our communities and work. We understand the true worth of having an opportunity to be in a country as wonderful as America. We also understand all the hard work and sacrifices my parents had to undergo to allow us to be in a land of security. We’ve witnessed my parents’ sacrifices firsthand and we understood that we ought to make the best of our time on earth and owe it to them to work hard in anything we do.

Through the help of many amazing people, multiple organisations and a wonderful country, my family and I have been able to create a life we are proud of. My siblings and I are working in the business, medical and finance sectors and take any opportunity to lend a helping hand to those that need it. To think, who even knows if we would have been alive if we had stayed?

I know we were very fortunate in this system. It would be amazing to be able to see more people have these opportunities and be able to contribute to the American lifestyle. My family and I are forever grateful of being a part of the United States and having the opportunity to create our American Dream.

Image: Sgt. Craig J. Shell, U.S. Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons

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