When you live in a heavily westernized society, the eastern world seems like an enigma. In America, history books bleed with red, white and blue. The average student can most likely recall America's involvement in WWI and WWII, but probably isn't aware of the relevant implications it inflicted within many other nations.
I, myself, am the average student. The world is so vast, and we can only be taught so much. I rely heavily on my interactions with others to become more aware of the many groups and conflicts that define our world.
Think about Kosovo. What comes to mind? If you are anything like me, your initial image may be a complete blur. You are probably thinking it's in Europe. Yes, that is correct! But what else is there to know? Wasn't there a conflict or something there? Yes, that too is correct! Most of us would stop right there. If it isn't extensively covered in your history class, why should you care? Well you should!
Fast Facts about Kosovo
- Kosovo declared its independence in 2008.
- Prior to its independence, Kosovo was a part of Serbia.
- The majority of people within Kosovo are of Albanian ethnicity.
- Tensions between the Serbs and Albanians led to a series of brutal killings and ethnic cleansing (see Kosovo conflict, 1998-99).
- Many fled during the time of conflict, becoming refugees.
This post is all about Noli's story. Fleeing Kosovo as a baby, Noli has little memory of the dangers he overcame to reach America, but takes great strides in reconnecting with, and preserving, his culture.
Meet Noli from Kosovo
Where are you from?
I’m from a town called Peja, Kosovo. My sister and I were born there, as well as my mom. My dad is from another town [in Kosovo]. It’s a small town in a small country, but it is becoming more of a city. When we go visit, my aunt has a house right by the mountains. Everyone knows everybody. When I walk through town with my mom, she gets stopped every five seconds. The town is very close-knit. When someone dies, everyone mourns.
Do you wish your experience in America was as close-knit as Peja?
Yes and no. It’s nice to go on the street and just talk to everybody and know everybody, but it is also nice to do something without the entire city finding out. It’s nice to have privacy. Here you can go without running into people you know. It’s nice to do your own thing without everyone getting involved.
Why did you leave?
There was a war going on at the time. It was a huge conflict. People that live in Kosovo are ethnically Albanians (Albania is the country right next to it). The Serbians believe that Kosovo is theirs, but it’s not. It started back in World War I. When Yugoslavia was formed, the region was a mess because they put so many ethnicities into one country. It didn’t mesh. The region was also communist and had a heavy Soviet influence. When the Soviet Union fell apart, there was a tug-of-war. Kosovo was a part of Serbia. On my passport, it says I was born in Serbia. Kosovo didn’t get their independence until 2008. During the war, they started killing a bunch of people. It was not safe for a mom, dad and two small children. So we left.
When did you leave Kosovo?
In 1999. I was about 6 months, so I don’t remember anything. My aunt and uncle have lived in the States since the 80's. They lived in New York, so that’s how we got here. Not everyone has the chance to get a visa to come over to the States. I was 8-9 months old when we moved to New York, my sister was 2. We lived with my aunt in Rhode Island until my parents got adjusted and landed jobs. Then we moved to the city.
When and why did you move to Florida?
I was around 3 or 4. My uncle moved down here first. We came to visit all the parks and my parents thought the weather was nicer. They thought New York is too busy and crowded. It wasn’t the place to raise two small children. When we came to Florida, my parents really liked it. My uncle allowed us to move in with him until we could afford our own place. So we stayed there for a couple of months until we moved out. We’ve been here ever since.
Do you visit Kosovo often?
Last time I went was two summers ago. I went for about a month. Both my parents went last summer, and my sister went over the winter. It’s not worth going if you are only going to stay for a week. Tickets are, at least, $2,000. Whenever we go, we stay for an extended period of time. It’s hard to find time to go. I’ll probably be back soon though, like within a year.
Would you live there?
I wouldn’t live there again, but I like visiting a lot. It’s nice to have a change of pace. Here, everything is so fast. We have to do something, or else someone is going to do it before you. It’s too much pressure to get things done. Over there, you can chill and not worry about too much. Here, you have to drive everywhere you go. There, you walk everywhere, or just take a taxi. It’s not as difficult to get around [in Kosovo]. The weather is nicer, the air is cleaner and everything is just calmer. More peaceful.
Do you remember the first time you went back and truly took it in?
The first time I went back was when I was 4, so I don’t remember. The time I better took it in was when I was around 8 or 9. Even then, I didn’t fully grasp that this is where I’m from, and this is who I am. I was still young, so I didn’t understand what happened. My parents never told me why we moved. When I’ve gone back as a teenager, I realize that the people that live there are different. I couldn’t live there because after living in the States so long, it’s a lot harder [to adjust].
What is it like in present-day Kosovo?
There aren’t as many good paying jobs. Things are tougher and easier. It just became a country, so they are trying to find their footing and get into the EU. They’re trying to find their place in Europe. Here, economically, it is better to live. Although you can live off of €600 a month, which is pretty cheap, things are harder to find. In Kosovo, it’s hard to get established, find a good job and do fun stuff, but they make the best of what they have. My family is definitely not struggling. They all have iPhones, flat screen TVs and Xboxes.
How did you find out why you left?
I was 12. My mom and aunt showed me newspaper clippings from Long Island, featuring refugees. I was in it. They told me stories about how dangerous the journey really was. I never fully grasped that. I never fully understood, until I grew up, how bad things were over there. Things could have been totally different. I could have never even made it here. There are a lot of people who died on the way. My mom’s family’s house got burned down. All her pictures and possessions got ruined in the fire. I was really lucky to have family here to help us get started.
How did this impact the way you now look at life?
Whenever my mom sees the news about the Syrian refugees, she breaks down crying. She donates to help the refugees. Although it wasn’t as bad as the Syrian crisis, she knows to an extent what they go through and how hard it really is. It’s easy for people to say they don’t want them here and that they are dangerous, but it’s not their fault that it is happening to them. My experience gives me a different perspective on what’s going on in current day. People say we can’t let this happen again, but it continues to happen. It really opens your eyes when you understand how hard people have it.
What do you wish people with an anti-refugee stance could understand?
It’s not their fault. Probably 95% would want to stay where they are. They don’t want that to be happening. My dad, especially, wants to move back to Kosovo when he’s older. Although he loves living in America, that is not what he planned. They were in their 30's when they moved here. My mom and dad had established careers in Kosovo. They definitely didn’t want that to happen. They were forced to move. They made the best of a crappy situation. People should understand that refugees' lives are really hard. Instead of bashing them, we should try to help them. Although there are some bad ones, there are bad people everywhere. Just because you are a refugee, you should not automatically be labeled as bad without even getting a chance.
How do you hold on to your culture?
Going back definitely helps. I see my family too. They all have Instagram and Snapchat. We're pretty close, so we talk pretty often. We speak Albanian at home a lot. Half the sentence will be in Albanian and the other half will be in English. My mom often cooks Albanian food. There is also a good amount of Albanian people here in Orlando. My parents are friends with them. We’ll hang out with the Albanian community here by having parties and dinners. It’s not too hard to keep the culture, you just hang out with Albanian people and talk about Albanian things. My mom talks to her sisters there almost every day. I just make sure to never forget who I am. I am not trying to forget the language or never speak it again. I like the food, I like my family. I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t want to ever lose it. I want my kids to learn the culture too. I want them to eat the food. I want them to visit the country.
What do you wish Americans knew about Kosovo?
Although the landscape is much different, and the infrastructure isn’t as nice, the people aren’t much different from us. My cousins spend hours playing Fifa. I know tons of people here [in America] who spend hours playing video games. They like the same kind of music too. Teenagers there are just like teenagers here. They like pushing the boundaries. My cousin and I are a couple of months apart and we like doing the same things, listening to the same music and watching the same movies and shows. It’s very Americanized over there. I mean, my cousin was just watching The Vampire Diaries the other day. A lot of my cousins are very fluent in English as well. They teach it in schools. I want people to know that although we are from a different country, and speak a different language, we are still the same. People are going to do the same things, no matter where they are.
Have you ever been offended by someone because of your background?
I don’t get easily offended by much, but people don’t know where Kosovo is. People assume it is in the Middle East. They say stupid things like that. People just have no idea where it is. It’s in Eastern Europe, but that isn’t something that offends me. It is annoying that people don’t know about my country, but I put myself in Americans’ shoes. You don’t hear anything about Albania or Kosovo in class or anything. It’s cool that I am foreign. I don’t want to be the same as everybody.
What advice would you give to someone who doesn’t have a tough skin like you and for some reason feels embarrassed about their culture?
I would just tell them they have nothing to be ashamed of. It is good to embrace your culture, but your culture doesn’t define you.
Is there anything you wish for the future of Kosovo?
I just wish everyone can move past what happened and that Kosovo will continue to flourish.
When is the last time you celebrated until the early morning?
(answer in comment section)
Thanks for reading! If you, or anyone you know, is an immigrant please let me know. I'd love to showcase as many people as I can. Make sure to SHARE, COMMENT, and SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL (right sidebar) and/or TEXT (txt. @theindie to 81010). New post every Tuesday!