Blogbox | Diaspora

From brain drain to brain gain?

By - 18.10.2019

Why it’s high time for us to come back and reclaim our country.

I first left Kosovo to live abroad at the age of 21, when I headed off to Belgium, as part of an exchange semester for my studies. At the time I was excited to have an opportunity to not only live in another culture, but specifically experience another system of education, explore different places and challenge myself. 

That first experience of studying abroad taught me many things, including my academic interests that I wanted to pursue further. 

But it also had a bigger impact on me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a move that would cause a constant tug on my conscience — an ever-present feeling of being torn between the scale of opportunity and discovery “out there” and the desire to use everything that I learned to help improve my country back home.

In the short term, one thing became very clear to me: I knew I did not want to pursue my master’s studies at the University of Prishtina. When confronted with a “proper” European study system, the system at home seemed incredibly flawed and I did not want to put myself through it for longer than I had to.

At Oxford, critical thinking was not only allowed but encouraged.

After I graduated from the Faculty of Law, I knew I wanted to pursue a master’s in criminology, but I also knew I did not want to pursue it in Kosovo — I needed to study properly, and I just couldn’t do that here. 

So I worked for some years until there was a scholarship announcement for an MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Oxford — I applied and was ultimately successful.

I studied and lived in Oxford for a year during 2013-14 and nothing was the same as in the University of Prishtina. Not even remotely close. The workload was like nothing I had seen so far, we had to read hundreds of pages per course weekly, and had papers to write continuously. The exams lasted 3-4 hours. 

Above all, critical thinking was not only allowed but encouraged. 

This was what baffled me the most as it was unprecedented for me given where I had come from. At the Faculty of Law in Prishtina, in most courses we had to think the same as our professors and that was it. So much for critical thinking. 

‘It’s still just a diploma’

After my master’s studies I came back to Kosovo all energized and eager to work on “changing the system.” The system as I knew it was filled with nepotism and corruption, so I was hoping that maybe by following small steps I could help in starting to change that attitude. 

Getting a job within would maybe be a start? I wasn’t sure. Upon returning I was faced with people looking down at me and frowning upon the fact that instead of UP I had chosen to study somewhere else.

In a way, they held me responsible for thinking that other countries have better education to offer. And they held me responsible for thinking that my country did not offer enough and that I had to seek more elsewhere.

I was continuously faced with unfounded conspiracies, instead of being allowed to work with the actual data.

I’ll never forget what a former professor of mine once said to me: 

“Furtuna, you were always such a good student, I will never understand why you decided to pursue a master’s abroad rather than here? Who cares where you do a master’s — it’s still just a diploma after all, so why bother?” 

These words still ring in my ears and make me giggle even to this day. 

I worked for several years in Kosovo in different projects, refusing very reputable job offers in favor of those that I believed would enable me to help change the system, at least a little bit. 

But the system was so flawed that it never allowed us to change a thing. I was continuously faced with unfounded conspiracies, instead of being allowed to work with the actual data we possessed. 

Between here and there

Eventually, it all came to a point where I started to feel drained and found myself at a crossroads. Quitting and getting out to regain some perspective was the only thing that would enable me to be in Kosovo — even if that meant leaving it for the time being. 

I decided to pursue a PhD. I needed to get creative again and find something that challenged me. I had great interests at heart that I wanted to research further, but I needed money to do so. 

After almost two years of searching for funding and writing a research proposal, and finding professors that were interested in supervising me, in 2016 I finally got full funding to start my PhD studies in Leuven, Belgium.

Every time I’m back I’m still faced with resistance from the system, but I also always notice positive changes.

I moved to Leuven, but decided at that moment that I wouldn’t lose touch with Kosovo. In order to stick to this, I spread my fieldwork across the three years of the PhD just so that I would be present in Kosovo as much as I could. 

For the past three years, my life has therefore been split between two places; primarily living in Belgium, but coming back to Kosovo for at least 3 months a year to conduct fieldwork, and even while I’m in Belgium I still try to keep active with issues in Kosovo by writing legal analyses and advice on various issues for different entities. 

That division was (and still is) incredibly difficult for me as I have been changing apartments and cars and books and clothes every three months since I started; but I knew the price I would pay when I started, so I just rolled with it. 

Granted, every time I’m back I’m still faced with resistance from the system, but I also always notice positive changes. 

The famous question: ‘Why do you keep coming back?’

Being a relatively young woman from Kosovo and living abroad and alone for so many years has definitely had its ups and downs, but it also teaches you a lot. The main things I have learnt while being abroad have been crucial in helping me to decide that I’m coming back to Kosovo. 

No matter how well you’re doing — no other country will ever be your home. It’s true that Kosovo is no piece of cake — it’s a bittersweet love story. But it needs all the substantial help it can get. 

My desire to keep coming back doesn’t stem from the young and naive mind that returned after my master’s studies. I’ve grown a lot since then and I am utterly aware of all the pitfalls of the system, of the incredibly difficult ways to navigate Kosovo, of the struggle one has to go through only to survive here, let alone be a factor — I know all of this.

When it comes to academia, there are more and more youngsters like me willing to come back and contribute in Kosovo.

But there is one reason above all that I have decided to always come back. It has nothing to do with national pride or even the fact that I love my country. They both stand, but they are not the main reasons.

The main reason is the future of my generation and that of those to come.

I want to work for the day when youngsters don’t feel the need to leave Kosovo because they’re not appreciated here. I want to work for the day when students don’t have to study abroad in order to access quality. I want to be able to only want to leave my country when I want to go on holidays, and not necessarily to seek a decent life. I want us to have decent lives here — where we’ve been born and raised. 

Everyone that has been abroad knows that in one way or another we have options to stay and work there and create a life for ourselves. And I cannot speak for all layers of the diaspora, but when it comes to academia, there are more and more youngsters like me willing to come back and contribute in Kosovo. My years abroad have enabled me to establish a network of people that are as eager as me to change the system. 

Will we be provided the space to do so?

There are different incentives that could pave the way for the engagement of skilled people in Kosovo. One of those might consist of the establishment of quotas in the public administration and universities that, through legal provisions, are given to highly skilled youngsters from Kosovo from abroad based on a well-defined set of criteria. 

People with degrees and postgraduate degrees from reputable Western universities ought to be given space to ensure their engagement in areas where such expertise is needed the most, and not feel forced to abandon their country.

This is our country, and it's up to us to fix it.

This could be just the start of what the country can do for us. And I am not talking about the governments that have ruled us until now, because, if anything, they have continuously tried to keep us out. I am talking about upcoming governments that are serious and that are willing to make a visible change. 

In their election campaigns these past weeks, parties have said that they want to see more qualified people returning to help Kosovo, and that they are going to take action to gain back the diaspora brain — so now is the time for them to show that they actually mean what they have said.

I used to believe that the strong ones leave. But in these past few years I’ve come to understand that, on the contrary, staying takes guts. This is our country, and it’s up to us to fix it.

For a better future, not for a better profit margin.

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.