Flamur, Kosovo

I am Flamur, from Kosovo.  I grew up in a very big family, in a big community, a neighborhood of about two hundred people and they are all my cousins.   That is very unusual.  I have never found that anywhere else and I’ve been looking for it.  Everyone has the same last name.  That was my childhood, with a lot of support and a lot of people around. Essentially kids were raised by the community.  People would marry people from the nearby villages.

I really enjoyed living there.  I didn’t appreciate it enough until I moved here and found myself with no community.  That was very hard.  Having people around, we know that it keeps people healthy and happy, especially mental health.  I never knew what a psychiatrist or a psychologist was until I came here. There was no need for that there.  Grandma and Grandpa were the psychologists and the counselors.

I grew up in this small area called Suhadoll.  I went to school for one year there in the city of Lipjan, which is about ten kilometers south of Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. Then the following year I lost my school because of my ethnic background.  In Kosovo you had ninety percent Albanian and you had some Serbs and other ethnic groups, but the Serbs had power over the country.  In 1992 I lost my school, but I did not know why or how that had happened.  I was only seven.  We were kicked out.  The building was still there but it no longer had any Albanian students.  The Serbian kids were still there. All the Albanians were pushed out of school and we were told by the military that we could never go back again. I went home crying and looking for answers.  I was looking at my books that I had just purchased for school, but I couldn’t go to school.   It became illegal for Albanian kids to go to school, throughout the country.  That was the case for the next seven years.

I did not stop, though. I am education driven.  It is a thing that runs in my family. I never give up.  My friends and I and some of our teachers found hiding places, secret meeting places to continue our education. Sometimes it was outside, sometimes it was inside someone’s house or an abandoned building. These were teachers who had lost their jobs and they were not getting paid very much. Sometimes they would be paid by the parents, but most of them were volunteers because they wanted to help us. I remember going to these meeting places with a lot of firewood in my arms and trying to start a stove and warm up our place.  In the summer we were outside, even on spring rainy days we were outside under the sides of buildings, any place we could find some shelter.  There were about twenty students, depending on the day. This was happening all over the country. At some point we made connections with others.

Many times we would want to go to these places and we would be stopped by Serbian kids or adults. It was illegal to carry a book written in Albanian.  I was many times beaten up for wanting to go to school.  I was also turned away from certain streets so I had to find another path to get there. Many times I remember walking on the train tracks, which was very dangerous.  It was exhausting.  It was scary. Now I think, “How did I do that?  Would I do that again?”  Of course, it only reinforced my love of education. It bothered me a lot when I would see people live next to the school but they didn’t go to school.  What was that?  Now I understand there are many reasons, but distance is not one of them.  But for me, nothing was going to stop me.  My parents were very supportive.  They wanted us to be educated.  My brother and sister also went to go to school, so we would all go together.  My brother is three years older and my sister is three years younger.

Besides outlawing school, Albanians were kicked out of work.  There were no places in government, no authority in law in the courts or anything like that. Universities were there, but they were closed to Albanians.  It came down to human rights.  You couldn’t do anything because you were Albanian, because you spoke Albanian. If you wanted to survive you could try to speak Serbian to disguise your identity.  But it is a small country, less than two million people, so it is hard to disguise.  My city has about fifty thousand.  It is hard to try to disguise your true identity.  Everybody knows you.

Albanian is a completely different language than Serbian.  And Croatians speak Serbo-Croatians.  Bosnians speak Bosnian, but it is also a similar language.  Albanian is a completely different Indo-European language, one of the older languages in the region.  That was a great divide in itself.

Religion was also important.  Most Albanians identify as Muslim and the Serbs are Christian Orthodox.  The Croatians are mostly Catholic.  The Bosnians are Muslim and Christian.  There were a lot of other religious groups.  In Kosovo you had Muslims and Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox and a Jewish community.  Really everyone was there.  We lived a very tolerant life.  We had mosques next to churches without even a fence in between. Religion is mostly cultural.  Practicing is a more recent thing.  When I was growing up it was my grandparents who practiced religion, not my parents’ generation.  In my generation many people started later.  For myself it was when I was seventeen that I realized I was Muslim.  I didn’t know that because it was never a discussion.  All the religious groups did things together, lived together, worked together and intermarried.  During the time of the Holocaust, Albanians saved one hundred percent of the Jewish refugees. In my culture the guest is treated as a holy person, whoever that guest is, even if that guest is your enemy.  You have to open your doors to your guests.  We never looked at religion as a diving point. Once nationalism sinks in that becomes a problem. You don’t look like us.  You don’t speak like us. You are my enemy by default.  That is the environment I grew up in.

My parents’ generation had lived with Serbs before the war so there was a connection with Serbian people.  With my generation in the 1990s when Slobodan Milosevic came to power and there was a very nationalistic narrative and the divisions were happening on a mass scale.  You had to identify, you were either a Serb or you were not. And if you were not a Serb you were an enemy by default. I grew up with that mindset, that no matter what I do, we are going to be enemies, going to be at each others’ throats at some point.  There was no cooperation and I didn’t want to socialize with them. There was conflict and there was fighting.  I grew up with that.

For my parents it was different because they had lived through the time of Tito, who was the leader of Yugoslavia, who was a multiculturalist and pluralist.  He was himself a Croatian in a Serbian majority country.  In Kosovo there was an Albanian majority but it didn’t matter because it was such a small country and it was part of this bigger picture called Yugoslavia. It was a lot better in the time of Tito in the 1960s and 70s when Yugoslavia was doing great economically.  There was so much happening. I would ask my dad in the 1990s, “Why didn’t you move like everyone else?  Why didn’t you immigrate somewhere else?”  He told me, “I didn’t have to.  Yugoslavia was an amazing place.”  Compared to many European countries, Yugoslavia was much better, there were factories and there were schools and universities being built.  Things started falling apart in 1991-92.  For us, for my generation, it was about survival.  If you were not a Serb the doors were closed. As a child I didn’t understand a lot of those things.

The human rights violations made it so that you just couldn’t do anything; there were barriers everywhere. You can see that in Israel and Palestine today.  There were checkpoints everywhere.  I have seen it myself and I know how limiting and frustrating checkpoints are. There were checkpoints turning you away because you were Albanian.

Many Albanians started to go against the regime, rebelling because of the pressure.  I don’t think it was just one thing, it was a lot of things.  Albanians were saying, “This is enough.  We are not going to take this anymore.”  People started fighting with the police, small skirmishes throughout the country were becoming frequent.  I was not part of the resistance, I was only fifteen.  I wanted to join, but I was very young.  I mentioned it to my parents and my dad said, “What do you know about war?”  My dad was in the military, drafted.  He knew a lot about it.  He said, “You don’t know anything about it.”  In my community we helped with logistics and food because we had a lot of resources, we were self-sufficient.  Nobody that I knew joined the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army.

In 1997 is when the war started. Then we couldn’t go to school anymore.  It was too dangerous.  People were being killed left and right.  Throughout the country there were massacres happening, and some in our area only miles away from our house.  In the next village thirty-five people were massacred, and then fifteen somewhere else.

In 1998 it was so hard to leave your house.  You just had to stay home and survive with the food that you had. But our community was there.  We traded and shared.  If you had chickens I bought chickens and eggs from you and I gave you vegetables.  We would exchange.  That’s how we survived.  We depended on our skills for a while.

It was 1999 when war came home. That is when the Serbian soldiers came and took everything we had.  But they didn’t want us to leave.  They wanted us to serve the Serbian military.  They had a base about two miles away from our house.  They said they were going to come back.  They had these masked paramilitary guys ready to shoot us if we said no.

My dad said, “We are going to leave.”  So we left, with three of my uncles and their kids and families.  We took the main road to try to go to another village where we heard it was safer, but you had to go through town. There were so many checkpoints.  The soldiers earlier had warned us not to take the main road because anyone who is Albanian will be killed.  We thought we were going to be killed anyway, so we thought we would take the opportunity.  We drove about two miles and then we were stopped at a checkpoint.  One of the soldiers aimed his gun at us and waited for us to get closer to shoot us.  As we got closer and closer my dad slowed down, but he said, “I’m not going to stop.”  Once we got close, another soldier standing by the sidewalk called my father’s name because he recognized him and our car.  Our father was well known.  He had one of the first restaurants in the city. A lot of soldiers and police officers ate there.  He called my father’s name twice and this confused soldier lowered his gun and walked away.

We passed through the city.  There was a lot of burning and looting happening. People didn’t bother us because they were too busy looting.  The people looting were Serbians.  Most of the Albanians who lived there had already fled or were locked inside waiting for something to happen.

We didn’t bring much with us.  Not a single photograph from my childhood survived.  We brought some food and our documents because we didn’t know where we were going to go.  We stayed in another village with some cousins.  It was very expensive to buy food.  You had to pay more than ten dollars for a loaf of bread.  We didn’t have much money because we hadn’t been able to work in the years prior to the war.

We decided to leave that place, also with those cousins. We went to this train station, which was full of refugees.  There was not enough room.  My parents pushed us through the windows. They also got on the train.  We left everything.  At some point the train was stopped and the police came and grabbed our documents, took everything to the back and burned them.  Then we had no evidence that we belonged there.

During this time, from 1999 NATO was bombing Serbia and Kosovo.  We could hear all of these bombs around us.  So we took this train to the Kosovo/Macedonia border.  We spent a few nights there waiting for soldiers to release people.  Serbians wanted to release people because they wanted to “cleanse” the country.  They wanted the majority of the Albanians to leave. They wanted the minority that stayed to serve the military. The Macedonians in the beginning were not very welcoming, but the US pressured them to accept the refugees.  This is the time of President Clinton, who is seen as the savior of the Albanian people, at least in Kosovo.  There is a huge statue in Pristina, the capitol.  People go there and visit it.  He does, too.  He goes often and visits there.

So, the US pressure didn’t work in Serbia because they wouldn’t cooperate, but in Macedonia they did.  So Macedonia took in a lot of refugees, over three hundred thousand.  We stayed there for about two weeks in a camp, with very little food.  It was really bad. The camp was very crowded, surrounded by barbed wire. Lack of sanitation was becoming a problem.  There were kids with us who were sick because it was March and it was very cold. There were a lot of people walking around trying to find family members, trying to find out who was where. We met a lot of people that we knew in these camps.

There was a lot of waiting in line.  When trucks would come to deliver water or food or clothing we had to wait in line. Different countries took different sections to provide for people.  In the section where I was we were under the Israelis.  They would try to do things with kids, maybe keep them distracted with educational activities.  Many countries were there.  Americans had a section of the camp and sometimes these countries would actually take these refugees and transport them to their home.  America took about seventy-eight thousand Kosovars through those programs. Many European and Middle Eastern countries did the same.  I was fifteen and I don’t remember a lot of it.  I remember sleeping outside and we would just pile a bunch of cardboard and sleep just with some blankets. I haven’t actually thought about that in a long time.

I remember having my collection of poems with me the whole time, in a notebook near my chest.  As a child I loved literature and poetry.  Shakespeare inspired me.  I wrote a lot of poems and I kept them with me.  I was always afraid I was going to get caught because they were in Albanian.  They had to do with my family, my heritage, my country and my people.  And they all survived.

We stayed in Macedonia for two weeks and went into the Italian program.  The Italians took six thousand people and we were transported to Sicily. We were taken to an abandoned US military base. There are US bases everywhere, over eighty countries.  For me this was a good thing because Americans were helping end the war.  Americans were very supportive.  We couldn’t come to America because we didn’t know anyone living here at the time. So we went to Italy.  We stayed there for about a month. All of my family stayed together wherever we went.  We were about twenty-five people. We stayed together.  We were given apartments in Italy.  There was enough food. I was able to go to school finally.  I met a lot of people from my own city in Italy.  I was only sixteen.  I love languages so I picked up a lot of Italian.

After a month or so we all decided to move to Switzerland because we have some cousins there.  In Italy we couldn’t work and it would take a very long time to go through the process and so we thought that Switzerland would be a better option because our cousins were there.  They had moved there decades prior. We moved to Switzerland for three and a half months or so.  I learned German.

In June 1999 when the war ended they announced that all the Kosovars could return.  It is interesting because most of them returned, I would say ninety percent returned.  We were dying to see what our country looked like, free, without any military telling us what to do.  My family and I went home, but everything was gone.  Our home was destroyed. But everybody returned and all of us were there, the way they used to be.

Now things are different.  It is fascinating, thinking about community and belonging.  All of the aspects of globalization changed us — the American way of life, media, Hollywood. All of this exposure, which was good in so many ways, in other ways made people become more individualistic.  It became more about “me.”  A lot of the connections and relationships disintegrated because many people became more selfish.  It was heartbreaking for me.  I’ve gone and visited and it’s not the same.  You’ve got a TV and all the movies and the internet.  It is good in so many ways, but there is a negative side.  In a country like this, so isolated, getting all the exposure at once wipes out the local culture. That’s the way I see it.

We had to rebuild without money, without jobs.  You could be working a minimum wage job, fifteen dollars for the entire day.  The rebuilding was very slow.  There was some international help, of course, but not a lot for my family.  They helped repair our roof but everything else we had to do.  We worked very hard for the next six years to rebuild our house and get back on our feet.

Many of the Serbians left Kosovo because many Albanians wanted revenge. People said that it was harsh. People who have not gone through that may not understand. I could see that.  That is what I thought then.  I wanted to get revenge because we had lost everything. But things could have been worse.  We could have all died.  Should I do terrible things to others because terrible things were done to me?  I just couldn’t bring myself to that.  I’m not going to be that person. Very often you see the oppressed become the oppressor.  Oppressed become the oppressors and do terrible things to people because they can.

I was sixteen when we returned.  I was working with my family.  Every single day we went to the market to sell food because that is what my family has always done. I was very lucky during this time to focus on my education.  I went back to the school where I was kicked out seven years before.  I finished middle and high school.  While I was in high school I met these American foreign aid workers who hired me to work as an interpreter.  My English was terrible, I know that, because there was nowhere to practice. I was learning English in high school.  It is now required there. As a third grader you are required to start learning English and another language.  So I started working for these aid workers and I really learned so much.  I was blessed to have this exposure.  I used to hang out with them.  My parents said, “We don’t see you anymore.  Where are you?”  And I said, “I am with the Americans.” Many of them visited us.

One of the families was from Jacksonville, Oregon. They invited me to come here and study.  This family was very insistent that I come.  There were a lot of things that surprised me about the United States.  The culture shock came from all the expectations that I had.  Is this it?  My expectation was Manhattan.  In Jacksonville the highest building was two stories.  Where are the skyscrapers?

My host father took me to their house and it was about a few miles away from the city.  I was shocked.  There were no neighbors.  We were in the middle of nowhere. I had this room with a family that I didn’t know.  This family had four dogs inside.  For me this was hard.  We always had dogs, but they were outdoors.  It was hard to get used to four dogs inside the house, and especially eating around that.  The dogs were everywhere.  I would think, “Did the dogs lick this plate? Did the dogs touch this?”  It was challenging.

I also got sick a lot.  I was eating canned food and bread and cheese everyday.  I often thought, “I’ve never eaten that thing, what is that?”  For example, black beans.  In Kosovo international aid would give us black beans canned and we said, “That looks bad.  We would never eat that.” We always had fresh beans from our own garden.  I do eat canned beans now.  There were so many other things.  I didn’t handle the culture shock very well.

I went to Rogue Community College and then transferred to Southern Oregon for my bachelor’s in psychology.  This was on a student visa. I came to PSU for my masters.  I fell in love with Portland, but I got accepted to go to Canada for my PhD.  I was very excited; it was a dream come true.  But three months before leaving I met my wife.  I said goodbye to my PhD in Canada.  We got married in Portland after six months. A lot of people think that is too soon, but for me, I am happy with this.

We got married and moved to Kosovo together. When I got married I just left everything because we were going to go travel together in the Middle East because my wife got accepted to go to school in Lebanon. I said, “I’ll go with you.”  I can find work wherever I want.  I’ve been very blessed and I’ve had very good work experience.  I’ve been very lucky, actually.  I said, “I will forget about my PhD for now and I’ll support you.” We moved to Kosovo but we couldn’t get visas to go to Lebanon.  They had an inefficient system.  We tried to email and to call but the government was chaos.  We tried and tried for months. I guess it wasn’t meant to happen. It was a struggle. We were very ambitious, both of us, but that didn’t work out as planned.  In Kosovo I couldn’t get a very good job.  I was married and we wanted to have kids, but I couldn’t support a family with two hundred and fifty dollars per month.  Eight months later I got a job in Abu Dhabi.  After that we decided to come back to Portland.

I moved to Portland and I decided to become a citizen. I have dual citizenship.  My hope was always to go to Canada, but it didn’t work out.  Everything happens for a good reason I think.  Applying for citizenship was not an easy process. There was a lot of waiting, a lot of phone calls.  I spent a lot of money on international phone calls.  I made a lot of mistakes in the process.  I should have hired a lawyer but I didn’t have any money.  It was a painful process but it was worth it at the end of the day.

I never paid attention to some of the racism I experienced because I always assumed the best of people because my expectations of Americans were so high. I would give people the benefit of the doubt.  I would think, that’s not possible.  People don’t really mean that.  People would ask me the most ridiculous questions, like “Do you have houses where you come from?  Do you have plumbing?  Do you have running water?”  I said, “I should probably show you some pictures.” And they would say, “This is your house!” I said, “Yeah, we have houses.”  Where I grew up having everything most Oregonians have, and sometimes more.  I became more conscious of the racism later in life, like when they would ask me if I speak English and if I stole this car.  One time I had this conversation and this guy said, “So where are you from? So where did you get this car, did you steal it?”  I said, “No, it’s my car.”  He asked me, “Are you sure?” I could see the racism then, but initially I didn’t pay attention.  Maybe those people were just trying to be funny.  I guess the longer you live here the more you realize that maybe some aren’t being nice.  Ignorance was bliss.

I found education here very enriching.  I was deprived of a lot of that at home.  When you went to a library, for example, you couldn’t browse through the books.  You had to ask, “Do you have this book?  When is it available?”  When I came here and found myself in a library and I was so amazed that I could check out any one of the books.  I would just end up reading and reading.  I found it very mind-opening for me.

I learned so much about myself and about this culture and about my faith.  A lot of people would say, “So you come from a Muslim country.  Tell me more about it.”  I would say, “I don’t know.  I haven’t studied it.” I had never even thought about that.  It was a cultural thing. People rarely went to the mosque or talked about the Qu’ran or anything like that. I got access to a lot of these books and I would just read and reflect.  In a sense America made me Muslim. All the questioning, most Americans are very curious.  “Tell me about this, why is that?” Where I come from people don’t truly ask a lot of questions.  If you ask questions people say, “What’s wrong with you?  Why don’t you know that?”  Here it is the opposite.  You ask questions because you want to know.  I love that.  When I started school I struggled asking questions.  I didn’t want to be seen as the ignorant guy in class.  But that isn’t the case.  The teacher would say, “I appreciate your question.”  Really? You did? So now I ask my students not to be me.  Ask questions.  That is what we are here for. There is so much access and exposure here. There are so many opportunities that sometimes people forget.  The opportunities here are very empowering.