In-depth | Migration

Decades of departures

By - 16.09.2019

The Kosovars who sought a better life elsewhere.

Each year, the summer season sheds a light on the diverse experiences and stories of Kosovar migrants. 

Most Kosovars living abroad still choose Kosovo as their annual holiday destination. Within family conversations, those in the cafes and in media coverage, discussions often focus on whether things are “better here or there,” the long waits at border crossings, the remittances sent back to Kosovo — that continue to be vital to Kosovar society — or even the plans of politicians and experts to attract their investments.

But each summer visitor also has their own story of departure, as do many who have since returned — willfully or otherwise — to Kosovo. 

For decades, and across generations, driven by economic and political circumstances, Kosovars have felt forced to leave behind their homes, and the familiar, in search of a better life elsewhere. It’s a trend that continues as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.

As the summer draws to a close, K2.0 brings you four unique but overlapping stories of those who have sought a better life outside of Kosovo over the years — the dilemmas, the struggles and the support received along the way.

Waiting for the visa

For many years running, Agron and Fikrie Gashi had tried to get visas to leave Kosovo. 

In the first few days of 2011, the couple from Prishtina, who had married two and a half years previously, checked their documents one last time before going to the Hungarian Embassy in the capital.  

They weren’t leaving simply to find work, but also to carry out medical checks for their  18-month-old daughter; they say she was having persistent health issues and that they feared she may have been suffering from some underlying illness that they were yet to identify. Their concerns grew due to their doubts in Kosovo’s health care system

Both Fikrie and her daughter applied for a medical visa. Agron tried to leave by applying for a tourist visa, the latest of many attempts having unsuccessfully tried on numerous occasions in the past.

“We didn’t have any money flowing [into our bank accounts],” Agron says. “I got paid cash, and my contracts were not properly regulated, despite the fact that I had worked for many years running… all my work was worthless.”

Agron Gashi left Kosovo with his wife Fikrie and their 18-month-old daughter in early 2011, but their next steps were far from easy. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

The family’s difficult economic condition had already deteriorated a few years previously. In 2008, Fikrie had lost her job at UNMIK, and she had been unable to find another job since. They survived off Agron’s income, which he gained through his work as an electrician and maintenance man, working for a security camera company in Prishtina.    

But he says that late salary payments combined with rent payment obligations made their life very difficult. Not only did they have to prove to the Embassy that they had sufficient funds for tickets and accommodation, their biggest concern was actually acquiring these funds. 

Agron’s family helped out. His mother, who worked at Kosovo Police at the time but has since passed away, secured a 10,000 dollar bank loan and gave the money to Agron, Fikrie and her daughter. She paid the installments back herself.

Within a few weeks, Fikrie and her daughter saw their visas approved. In late February 2011, they left to Hungary and then Germany, where a relative would host them for a few days. 

Ten days later, Agron got his tourist visa approved. In the first week of March, they all met in Germany. Within a few days they finished the procedures for their daughter’s medical visa; they soon found out that their daughter was not suffering from any underlying medical issues.  

But the family did not plan on going back to Kosovo.

“The night we arrived in Brussels, we decided to stay at a hotel, to eat and shower and report to the police the next day.”

Agron Gashi

From Germany they went to Belfort in France, where they sought asylum on March 11, 2011, with the justification that they were suffering from severe economic conditions. However, French authorities rejected their request for asylum within a few days — Aaron and Fikrie were asked to leave France voluntarily, otherwise they would be deported by the police.

The family obliged.

They took a train to Germany and stayed there for a few days, after which they moved to Belgium. Their relatives had told them that Belgian authorities “had become more relaxed and were giving permits more easily,” and also that it was possible to find work there.

“The night we arrived in Brussels, we decided to stay at a hotel, to eat and shower and report to the police the next day,” Agron recalls.

After seeking asylum with the same justification that they had used in France, they settled at an asylum seekers center as they waited for their request to be reviewed.

“Most [people in the asylum seekers center] were from war [zones],” Agron says. 

They believed that if they tried to find work — which had been promised to them by some of their friends — and to rent an apartment, it would be easier for them to receive a permit to stay in the country. But despite taking these steps, their request was rejected.

After staying for 5 months in the asylum seekers center, the family was ordered to leave Belgium, and to cover the expenses themselves. The poor living conditions in the camp, coupled with fears that their daughter would get sick again, convinced them to stop trying and to return to Kosovo, despite the fact that they had to pay the costs themselves.      

Throughout their travels, they spent over 80 percent of the money that they had received from Agron’s mother.

‘Howl’ as a train ticket to Munich   

Less than a year after Fikrie and Agron returned to Kosovo, Fatlum Sadiku finished his studies at the gymnasium in Vushtrri. He wanted to go on to study journalism. But for this he had to wait, because his family was not doing well financially. 

His father, who was working as a taxi driver, was the only one in his family who had a job. So Fatlum decided to work as a waiter.

Despite this, in August 2013 he applied to the Journalism Department of the University of Prishtina’s Faculty of Philology, knowing that he might not be able to attend classes even if he was accepted. He passed the test. 

Intent on utilizing this opportunity, he took the decision to finish his studies and to look for a job.

“I wanted to be a journalist,” he says. “I felt that I could contribute this way.”

On October 1, he started his studies, and for the first few months he was supported financially by his family. Within a few months though he got a job working as a journalist at a new portal in Prishtina so he moved to the capital and started living in a rented apartment with flatmates. 

“I was quite underpaid — I even struggled to pay the rent,” says Fatlum, adding that from time to time he also worked as a waiter to bring in enough money.

As much as he tried, he didn’t believe that he could make it like this. By the end of his second year of studies, he decided that it was time to leave Kosovo. 

But he worried about how he would secure the funds to make the trip. “It was hard to ask my family for money because I knew they had no savings,” he says.

“My illegality in Germany was paid for by the money we made by selling some land.”

Fatlum Sadiku

But in the evening of January 26, 2015, Fatlum received a phone call from his father.

“I have the money,” he was told. “Seven hundred euros might be enough.”

With mixed emotions, he immediately called the two friends that he had talked about leaving with and broke the news to them. 

They agreed to buy tickets to Subotica, Serbia, from where they planned to cross the border illegally to Hungary, and then head to Germany. This happened at the peak of the mass migration wave by Kosovars, in early 2015, when tens of thousands irregularly migrated; according to official data, more than 50,000 Kosovars illegally entered European countries in a matter of months.

“My illegality in Germany was paid for by the money we made by selling some land,” says Fatlum, explaining how his father sold a small parcel of land in the village of Pasomë to secure the funds.

On the evening of February 2, the three friends set off to Prishtina bus station, accompanied by their friends and family to wave them off. Just before they left, Fatlum bought the novel “Ulurima e Ujkut” (“The Howl of the Wolf”) by Kosovar writer Ag Apollon from one of the kiosks at the station so that he had something to read on his way to Subotica.

When they reached the city in northern Serbia, they encountered a group of people — among them many immigrants from Kosovo — and sought help for their onward travel.

“They told us that we had to give 150 euros each to cross the border,” Fatlum recalls.

“I think the book that I had bought in Prishtina saved me."

Fatlum Sadiku

The trio didn’t want to spend their money so they decided to cross the border themselves. After walking for six hours, they reached the city of Mórahalom in Hungary. From there, they went to Budapest, where they would attempt to take a train to Munich in Germany.

But the trip ended there for one of his friends. Fatlum recalls that there were many police officers at the train station stopping and checking for undocumented immigrants.

He managed to get onto the train, but even there he risked being caught by the police, as they were asking everyone for their documents. Luckily, they skipped Fatlum.

“I think the book that I had bought in Prishtina saved me from the Hungarian police on the train,” he says, recalling how he pretended to read the book when the police got close to him.

Fatlum and his friend travelled for more than 30 hours together on their journey from Prishtina. They stopped to change trains at many stations along the way, but Fatlum didn’t dare to buy food, fearing that he would get caught by the police. 

Eventually, they arrived in Munich, where his friend stayed. But Fatlum continued on his journey. He headed to Cologne, where he was hosted by a relative, who found him some work and a place to stay.

Fatlum Sadiku going to his place of work in the city of Cologne in Germany. Photo courtesy of Fatlum Sadiku.

After staying in Cologne for a month, he decided to report to the police. He applied for political asylum, blaming politicians in Kosovo for the severe economic situation. 

He stayed in asylum camps for a month, after which he settled in an apartment with four other young people from Klina, Mitrovica and Ferizaj. During this time, he was provided with 300 euros per month in financial support by the German authorities. 

But since he was living in an apartment and wasn’t under constant surveillance, he also worked illegally with one of his relatives. He kept some of the money for himself, but most of it he sent back to his family. He wanted to pay them back, and he managed to do so within a few months.

He says he didn’t feel alienated because he started to make friends. He was especially welcomed by Lara, a social worker.

“We couldn’t meet each other — it was too late. The police wouldn’t let us.”

Fatlum Sadiku

Fatlum and Lara began to hang out with each other a lot, and within a few weeks they had started a relationship. 

They would particularly watch a lot of movies together, with Fatlum remembering watching “Django Unchained” with her many times on DVD, and discussing “the privileged, the exploited, the submissive.” They also often went out to dance and to listen to music, especially Red Hot Chilli Peppers songs. After seven months, their relationship had started to get more serious than they had foreseen. 

But they would soon face trouble. 

In the early hours of the morning on November 19, Fatlum heard a knock at the front door of his apartment.

“I was still awake. I knew that the only people who would come this early were the police,” he says. “I opened the door and they were looking for me. They told me that they had to take me to the airport.” 

The police had come looking for him after Fatlum had refused to leave Germany voluntarily because he still believed that he could justify his request for political asylum. But his justification, like similar justifications given by thousands of other asylum seekers from Kosovo at this time, was not considered to be valid. 

The German police gave him time to collect his belongings and then took him to the airport, where he took a plane to Prishtina. 

He called Lara to give her the news.

“We couldn’t meet each other — it was too late,” he recalls. “The police wouldn’t let us.” 

He then called his father on Viber to ask him to meet him at the airport in Prishtina in a few hours. 

‘Hajmet’

In June 1990, four years before Fatlum had even been born, Selatin Gashi was waiting to receive a Greek working visa. But after he met one of his friends, a successful businessman in Norway, he changed his mind.   

“Come to Norway,” Selatin was told by his friend, in late spring of that year. “You’ll be paid 2,000 marks per month, and you can seek asylum. I’ll find work for you.” 

Selatin had retired from being a boxer in Prishtina a year earlier. Then his plans had taken a turn for the worse. His wife and their 6-month-old child had left Kosovo to go to Poland — her country of origin — because they saw no future in Prishtina due to severe police repression.  

Selatin thought that it would be easier to reunite with his family in Norway than in Greece, and that they would live a better life there.  

Before leaving Kosovo, Selatin leased the part of the house in which he had lived, while his mother and brother would continue to live in the other part of the house.

Former boxer Selatin Gashi decided to leave Kosovo in 1990 to try and find a better life for his young family. Photo: Trëndelinë Halili / K2.0.

In September 1990, with international travel still relatively straightforward, he went to Norway, where his friend made good on his promise of finding him some work. “I was paid very well for that time,” he recalls.       

A couple of months later, his wife and son joined him in Norway. They soon gave birth to their second son in the Scandinavian country. Although they were living well, they believed that it would be very hard to acquire Norwegian citizenship, so 13 months later they moved to Sweden, where they believed it would be easier, and applied for asylum there instead.

But they didn’t manage to find jobs in Sweden, and spent most of their time in asylum centers. 

“Life was very expensive [in Sweden], and I had been used to making my own money since I was a child,” Selatin says.  

After staying for a couple of years in Sweden, they decided to move to Germany.

On February 25, 1994, Selatin and his two sons moved to Hannover, where they sought political asylum. His wife would join them a little later. After staying for almost a year in asylum centers, which in ’90s Kosovar immigrant discourse were known as hajme (after the German word heime, meaning “house” or “shelter”), they were granted permits for temporary stay in Germany, as well as the right to work.

For the next six years, Selatin worked as a house painter. 

After settling, he turned his thoughts to bringing his younger brother to Germany. When the war started in Kosovo in 1998-99, he paid around 6,000 marks to people smugglers to get his brother out, but it didn’t work as his brother was unable to leave Prishtina.  

Activism on the road

In early spring 1981, when Selatin was still actively engaged in boxing in Prishtina, Osman Osmani was already thinking about leaving Kosovo.   

He was pursuing his second-year studies at the University of Prishtina’s Faculty of Law, but — just like Fatlum three decades later — he was faced with tough economic conditions that made it difficult for him to continue his studies. In early March he and a friend made plans to go to Slovenia after hearing that there were jobs there and knowing some people who could help them to achieve this goal.  

But, before he could leave, Osman and his friend first needed to secure the money.

“I couldn’t ask my parents for money because they didn’t agree with my plan to quit school,” says Osmani, whose father was the only one in the family in work. “But then again, they didn’t even have money.” 

They eventually managed to get the money from various friends who were working at the time. With the support of other friends, they made their way to Valjevo in Serbia, where they took refuge before continuing to Postojna, Slovenia. 

But just a few hours after arriving, a conversation with a police officer changed their entire plan.

“What’s with all the ruckus?” asked the police officer. “What are you seeking?”

Osman Osmani first attempted to leave Kosovo in the early spring of 1981, but his political activism saw him briefly return to help organize the wave of mass protests that year. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

He was referring to big student demonstrations that had begun in Prishtina on March 11 that year. Initial demands for better conditions within the University were soon transformed into a mass student movement, which would herald the first banners declaring “Kosova Republic.”

Osman had been on the road and he had no idea what was happening back in Kosovo. 

Before they had left for Slovenia, he and his friend had been involved in the “illegal movement” of Albanians who were engaged at the time in attempting to stop the increasing military and police repression of Albanians, and to achieve economic equality and Kosovo’s secession from Yugoslavia. When they heard about the protests, which matched their political objectives, they decided to return to Prishtina. 

Back in Kosovo, they started to prepare for the next protests, which were held two weeks later. Demonstrations were also held in April of that year, but by then many of the people involved were under police surveillance.   

In October 1981, some members of the “illegal movement” were arrested, causing concern among the others. So as not to endanger the existence of the movement, Osman and three other members decided to leave Kosovo. Together with Abdullah and Nexhmije Prapashtica, and Faton Topalli — who would later become a Kosovo Assembly deputy — he decided to leave to Turkey. 

From Fushë Kosovë, they went to Belgrade by train, from where they set off on their journey to Istanbul.  

“Our alibi for leaving was that we had a family issue in Turkey,” Osmani says. “Abdullah sold his Fiat car and had some savings. I didn’t have any money, but we made the trip.”  

However, they didn’t have enough money to live in Turkey. Another member of the “illegal movement” who lived there helped them out by giving them money and providing them with a place to stay in Ankara.

“Albanians who lived in Turkey helped us a lot, even though they were struggling themselves,” Osmani recalls.

“Abdullah said, ‘Osman should go and work in the movement, especially since his family back home is struggling as well, so he can help the cause and his family simultaneously.’”

Osman Osmani

The help they received also enabled them to continue their political activity, and they soon came into contact with other illegal Albanian movements that acted within the Turkish state. These movements were more active in Germany and Switzerland, so Osmani and his friends considered moving there.  

“Abdullah said, ‘Osman should go and work in the movement, especially since his family back home is struggling as well, so he can help the cause and his family simultaneously,’” Osman recalls. 

His trip to Stuttgart in Germany was paid for by the Albanian Embassy in Turkey through a consul, who was Osman’s friend from Peja.

When he arrived, Osman lived in the apartments of Albanians who were engaged with the “illegal movement.” During this time he worked with the monthly magazine “Zëri i Kosovës” (Kosovo’s Voice).    

In 1983, activities organized by the movement pushed Osman and Faton to travel to Switzerland. But on their way back, Faton was stopped by Swiss police because his passport had expired. Osman decided to stay in Switzerland with his friend and, with Faton facing potential deportation back to Yugoslavia, they both sought political asylum.

For a few months, they stayed between asylum centers, “the heimes of Switzerland,” as Osmani recalls, and houses owned by Albanians who were willing to help them. Due to the repression against Albanians in Kosovo they were allowed to stay in Switzerland, where he still lives to this day.K

Where are they now?

It wasn’t until the late ’80s that Osman Osmani managed to send financial aid to his family. For the past 10 years, he has been a member of the Swiss union Sindikata Unia, serving as the national secretary for South East Europe. He has also continuously advocated for labor rights in Kosovo.

Having been granted citizenship in Germany, Selatin decided to return to Prishtina in 2008 to open a restaurant. But his new business didn’t survive, and after around 18 months he returned to Germany, where he still lives today. He currently lives with his eldest son in Berlin. Selatin continues to cultivate his passion for boxing by supporting boxers in Kosovo and North Macedonia when he visits the Balkans each summer.

During this year’s visit, Agron, Selatin’s nephew, received a Croatian working visa. In August he started to work in Zagreb. From the money he makes working in Croatia, he intends to send remittances to his wife, daughter and 17-month-old son, who still live in Prishtina.

After returning to Kosovo, Fatlum Sadiku kept contact with Lara. She visited Fatlum in Kosovo about 10 times in less than 18 months, since it was not possible for Fatlum to travel to Germany. They are now married. Since May 2018, Fatlum has lived in Cologne, where he works in a restaurant. He continuously tries to help his family by sending remittances, especially so that his sister can finish university.

Feature image: From Osman Osmani’s private archive.

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