Choosing Canada

Tom Fennell March 27 2000

Choosing Canada

Tom Fennell March 27 2000

Choosing Canada

Tom Fennell

They fled any way they could: on foot, on tractors and by horseback. By the time their exodus from the bombing and “ethnic cleansing” of Kosovo had ended, nearly one million Albanians living in the Serbian province had fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Macedonia and Albania. A year has passed since their tragic journey began. Most of these refugees would spend months in camps before being airlifted to countries around the world. Nearly 7,500 would come to Canada during the Kosovo crisis—and, so far, only 1,900 have chosen to return. The rest are slowly rebuilding their lives, nearly all struggling to get by. In interviews with Macleans, three refugee families say that, while they have not ruled out going home, the past years hardships will be worth it if they can achieve one goal: a peaceful and prosperous life for their children in Canada.

SADNESS CREEPS INTO NITA GASHES brown eyes as she glances at the framed colour photo hanging on a bare wall in her tiny apartment in London, Ont. “It’s upsetting,” says the dark-haired 22-year-old, “it’s all we brought with us.” The print is of a two-storey house belonging to her family in the central Kosovo city of Pristina. Nita and her husband Muje’s lives were shattered last March 27 when Serbian militiamen kicked in the door of their home and

told them to leave within five minutes or be shot. They spent the night outside in the rain and the next day, along with her parents, were ordered onto a train at gunpoint and eventually shipped to a refugee camp in neighbouring Macedonia.

Like so many ethnic Albanians who fled Kosovo for Canada, the Gashis are haunted by memories of happier days before the war. While the passage of time has healed some of their emotional scars, they are often overcome with despair. “My mother, Nehale, has throat cancer and does not want to die here,” says Nita. “She cries. She wants to die at home.” They would like to fulfil her last wish, but the Gashis do not have the money to send Nita’s 49-year-old mother home, and she will soon die in a land that she has barely come to know.

Two years ago, Nita expected her life to take a very different course. Her husband, Muje, now 23, had been studying economics at university, and she had hoped to become an elementary-school teacher. Those ambitions vanished as the couple huddled outside on that first terrible night. Though deeply scarred by the ordeal, the Gashis are slowly beginning to turn their lives around.

The year began optimistically when Nita gave birth to a baby daughter, Elsa. “She is a Canadian,” Nita says proudly of the three-month-old sleeping peacefully in her stroller. In an effort to keep the family together, Nita and her parents each found one-bedroom apartments in the same three-storey apartment building in London’s north end, where they chose to relocate to join Mujes brother, who immigrated nine years ago.

MAN KOSOVO REFUGEES have decided to stay

Muje has yet to find work, but they manage to live on the $1,050 they receive from Ottawa each month. The money, which all the Kosovo refugees receive, is based on provincial welfare rates and will continue until the fall of 2001. And as he cleaned the interior of a 1989 Mazda sedan that his brother, an unemployed factory worker, gave him, Muje seemed ready to start life over in Canada. “I would like to go back to university,” he says in a voice that still betrays

uncertainty. Nita, however, has no doubts about the future. “I love Canada,” she says. “The

people are very kind. I will stay here.”

i lost my store, my house —everything. I think I an forgive for this, but for people who lost family, it is hard to forgive.’

Nexhmedin Ballaca with his wife, Haxhere, and their three children

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD ERMIRA BALLACA bounces off the faded yellow couch in her parent’s two-bedroom apartment in Saskatoon and races to the phone. “My Dad’s here, I will get him,” the first-grader tells the caller in perfect English, before handing the phone to her father, Nexhmedin, who cannot help but smile. After all, just a year ago when they fled Kosovo, Ermira could not speak a word of the language.

As Ermira rushes off to play with her sister, Diturie, 5, and brother, Endrit, 3, Nexhmedin pours strong cups of tea for his two fellow refugee brothers sitting at the kitchen table. Once again, their conversation quickly reaches the same trou-

bling saw off: to stay in Canada or return to Kosovo. Two of the brothers, Sabedin, 42, and Bejtush, 29, are undecided, but Nexhmedin, 34, says he would like to stay. “I don’t have words,” he says, “to say how happy I am here.”

Before the Serbs drove them off, the brothers, their wives and eight children all lived in the same tiny farming village where they operated a food wholesale business. The trio remains virtually inseparable. Nexhmedin and Bejtush live with their families in the same two-storey apartment building, and Sabedin and his family have an apartment across the street. They are so close that if his brothers do decide to return, Nexhmedin may follow. “My brothers are still

making a decision on whether to go,” says Nexhmedin. “If they do not stay, I may not stay alone.”

Until they make a decision, like hundreds of their fellow Kosovo refugees, the Ballacas are struggling to find work. They hope eventually to enrol in a local community college in a course that will lead to a job. While Bejtush would like to become a hairdresser, Nexhmedin is not sure what he will do. At the same time, their children are happy in school and the family regularly worships at a local mosque. In the end, the presence of a strong Muslim community in Saskatoon could be the determining factor that convinces the brothers to stay. “This is important,” says Nexhmedin, “because we are religious.”

Even if he returns, Nexhmedin still finds it difficult to imagine ever again living with the Serbs. “I lost my store, my house—everything,” says Nexhmedin. “I think I can forgive for this, but for people who lost family—it is hard to forgive.”

Makfire Hoxha baking in her new home in Lethbridge, Alta., with her daughter, Blerina: ‘We have nothing left to go back to, it’s all gone'

BLERINA HOXHA’S FRIENDS were plucked from refugee camps and scattered across the globe. Before they were driven out, the willowy blond 19-year-old would often gather in the evening with her friends in a café in their home village near Pristina. Hoxha had just graduated as a hairdresser, and the conversations over tea would often turn to careers and marriage. But her future suddenly turned bleak when she was forced to flee with her family. “I miss my friends so much,” says Hoxha, who now lives in Lethbridge, Alta. “But I don’t know where any of them are.”

Despite not having any young friends in her new home, Blerina still seems happy as she gathers with her parents in the kitchen of their rented two-storey home for a supper of pita bread stuffed with ground beef and onions. She chuckles as her father, Rexhep, 46, a former factory worker, tries to speak in English. Despite his difficulty, he manages to pronounce a clear “no” to any suggestion that the family might return to Kosovo. And Blerina quickly comes to his rescue with an explanation. “We have nothing left to go back to,” she says, “it’s all gone.”

To help the family start over in Canada, Rexhep and his wife, Makfire, 43, are studying English. And their 14-year-old son Gezin is enrolled in public school. (Another son is 22 and studying engineering in Albania.) “Job, yes,” says Rexhep, looking forward to the day when he can start working again. For Blerina, a career is also back on her mind. “I need to get my papers for hairdressing,” she says. “I will get a job.”

Blerina is undeterred by the spring blizzard that blanketed her new home last week. “We have snow in Kosovo,” she laughs. “I don’t mind.” Like most of the refugees, she has been struck by the kindness Canadians have shown towards her family. “The people are so nice,” Blerina says. “I want to stay.”