I’ve been living in Belgium since I was three years old. My parents fled the war in Kosovo in 1998. My dad was a radical man, especially when it came to my education and independence. Those were the two things our world revolved around. Nothing else mattered.
Although at times people had mixed opinions about the way he raised me, he really wasn’t bothered by it. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he didn’t give a sh*t about what other Albanian parents said about my developing identity. Which, to be honest, didn’t really match the traditional Albanian stay-at-home kind of girl.
His biggest nightmare was me getting married before the age of (at least) 25 and ending up without a diploma. He would always describe my degree as the ticket to freedom, something a lot of Albanian women don’t have — kind of like a contract that said: “I am my own person and you can’t take advantage of me. I don’t need you in my life.”
In our household there were no taboos. There was a very open mindset around romance and all four of us shared our opinions, experiences and feelings with each other.
Around the age of 14, I first experienced romantic feelings toward someone. In my case, a boy. Since my parents had always given me the opportunity to talk freely about everything I thought and felt, I figured this was something I could talk about as well. So, I told them both about the boy I had fallen madly in love with.
They were shocked at first but still heard me out (read: my mom freaking out because I was too young and my dad trying to analyze the whole situation). They both disapproved of my relationship, because they felt that I was too young to combine school and a boyfriend. After giving it some thought, I decided that they were right, and I broke up with him that same week. I shed some tears because at the time it felt like my life was over, but then I got over it.
After that, while I was growing up, we often talked about relationships. My parents would even ask me if there was someone I liked or talked to occasionally, to check up on me and create a safe environment for me to talk about this topic. They preferred me communicating openly about my personal life, rather than me making all the “mistakes” typical teenagers make.
But they also made it clear that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you are honest about it and learn your lesson. In our household there were no taboos. There was a very open mindset around romance and all four of us shared our opinions, experiences and feelings with each other. Even gay relationships were discussed, which is quite extraordinary for an Albanian family.
This doesn’t mean that they shared all my opinions. They were still Albanian parents, but we talked about stuff, so that was at least something.
To make sure that I didn’t get the feeling that my younger brother had more freedom or rights (since he is a boy), he wasn’t allowed to waste his time dating until he reached a certain age either. Again, school came first and outdoor activities came second.
Unlike my brother — who was very sporty — I was a real bookworm. I’d visit the library every week, and after a while I started writing as well. As a teenager I used to write love poems, and at the age of 18, I had the brilliant idea of publishing my first poetry book. I talked about it to my dad, and he told me to look for a publisher myself.
When I was starting to get insecure while taking those steps, he encouraged me to try since I had nothing to lose. He told me about female Albanian writers who had to write books and publish them under their husbands’ name because women weren’t allowed to be intellectuals, and nobody would publish them otherwise.
“You have all the luxury in the world, nobody is stopping you,” he said. So, I did.
To make a long story short, I published a little poetry collection when I was 19 and paid my publisher with the money that I had earned by working in a bread factory every Saturday morning for a year.
“Now you get to say that you did it all by yourself,” my dad said proudly.
As I got older, our yearly visits to our family in Kosovo turned into match-holidays. For those who don’t know what I mean, match-holidays are holidays during which aunts, neighbors and cousins will try to match you with a bachelor who, according to them, would make a perfect future husband for all kinds of reasons.
I was 18 when this all started. Although my mom would dare to show some interest in some of them, my dad wouldn’t care about how many degrees, houses or how much money the guy had, and refused to even listen to what he had to offer me.
“When she graduates and feels ready, she will find someone herself,” he would say. “She is not for sale.”
Even when I did go on a date with someone, he told me that he wouldn’t approve of me moving in or getting engaged before I had acquired a degree.
“You can talk to him and date as much as you want, but I’m not going to sit here and look at you ruining your future by becoming a housewife,” he would say when having this conversation. “When you graduate, you can do whatever you want.”
With all due respect to people who decide to quit school to stay at home, he just didn’t want me to make the impulsive decision to quit school just to be with a guy. That kind of lifestyle just wouldn’t make me happy and a relationship like that wouldn’t survive. He knew that.
One time, he got so sick of people trying to match me that he told the old lady in our neighborhood who tried to introduce me to her grandson that I sometimes have boyfriends in Belgium — just to shut her up.
He thought it was hilarious, especially seeing her reaction. I, on the other hand, stressed out about the rumors she would spread about my non-existing crazy lifestyle in Belgium.
Some of my dad’s Albanian friends called him crazy for giving me that much freedom.
“I don’t care what people say about you,” he said whenever I worried about other people’s opinion. “I raised you and I see you every day, I know you better than anyone. If you care about what people say, you could as well lock yourself in the house and never do anything with your life.”
In my first year of college, I was elected as head of the student board. Looking back, I had no idea what responsibility I had taken on myself, but I wanted to mean something for my school.
In all honesty, I felt really cool calling myself president. Especially being a woman with a migrant background. Since I had a crazy schedule with classes and meetings, it became difficult for me to travel back and forth every day. My dad and I therefore decided to look for a student dorm, since that would be more practical.
Some of my dad’s Albanian friends called him crazy for giving me that much freedom. Some of them even claimed that I was just lying about being the head of the student board, just so I could stay out all night and party. They would tell him that they didn’t understand how he could be so naïve and trust me so much.
Not even the local newspaper’s full-page article — and the big picture of me — about my presidency and other engagements were enough to convince them that I was being useful in my spare time and that it had nothing to do with boys, drugs or alcohol. Even though some of his Albanian friends gave him the idea of showing up at my dorm sometimes without letting me know (to catch me while doing something “bad”), he never did. He trusted me and believed that I was smart enough to know what I was doing.
My dad loved that I called myself a feminist, because he was convinced that it would make me stand stronger and care less about what people might say.
Over the years we had built up a trustful relationship, so he figured that I would tell him if I was doing anything “bad.” When he wanted to come over to drink some tea out of my second-hand porcelain teacups, he’d first call and ask me if I was home.
One day one of my favorite professors, Henk Vandaele, invited me to testify as a Kosovo war refugee at a protest against the anti-human policy towards Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees. My testimony made the media, and the next day my parents saw the live recording of my speech on Facebook. Again, my mom, who was really trying to raise a “neat” Albanian girl, freaked out. My dad found it really amusing to see me stand up against the secretary of state for migration. His reaction was the complete opposite of my mom’s.
”He texted me, and I copy, “Haha, bravo, kopje e jemja je!” which translates to, “Haha, bravo, you take after me!” referring to his own youth in which he was an activist against the Milošević regime. Another element that influenced both me and my surroundings was how I started very actively identifying as a feminist, something a lot of people would find “unattractive for a young girl to do.
My dad loved the fact that I called myself a feminist, because he was convinced that it would make me stand stronger and care less about what people might say behind my back. This stimulated my feminist growth and, as my feminism grew, it also made me care more about the atrocities we create by dehumanizing refugees.
I soon started to participate in campaigns to raise awareness about how our government was treating refugees, I got to tell my story multiple times in front of different kinds of audiences and I got to write columns for one of my biggest heroes, Bleri Lleshi. Looking back, it was the best year of my life. Everything was perfect.
That same year, my dad got diagnosed with terminal cancer while I was on vacation. When he finally told me, after I came home from spending five weeks at the pool in Kosovo, my world collapsed. The person who supported me every step I took wouldn’t last the year, according to the doctors. Chemo could push it back a few months, but it wasn’t going to make him better.
I decided that I wanted to quit school and all my other activities and just stay home, because I wanted to spend every moment he had left together. But he wasn’t okay with that. Actually, he forbade it. “I didn’t raise you to be a quitter,” he said. “You’ll ruin your future and you’re much more than that!”
As I said, he was very radical. So I continued my studies and my engagements. I even took up more activities, because he told me to take any opportunity that came my way.
While other people expected for me to stay at home more and help my mom in the house, my dad decided that that wasn’t going to happen. “I’ll hire a nurse if it’s necessary,” he said. “My daughter won’t give up her education because of this. That’s not why I came all the way here. Besides, I’m not that sick. I’m good.”
He passed away while I was in Gent, giving a presentation about the sacrifices he had made in his life as a refugee.
But he wasn’t. Since somebody had to come over and help my mom who had been experiencing some health problems for the last 10 years, my brother decided to take a year off. My dad figured that he, as a boy, didn’t need empowerment, since men are usually seen more as individuals in the Albanian society.
For me, as a girl, he wanted to be reassured that I had the ticket for my future in my hands, since our women are still in a vulnerable position in society. Four days before his departure, he told me to never look back and always keep going. “If you think you can do it, you should give it a try,” he said. “Never listen when people say you can’t do something.”
He even asked me to not cancel my seminar about being an inspirational refugee in Gent, which was planned four days later. “No matter what happens,” he said. “You told them you’ll go, and I want you to go.”
He passed away while I was in Gent, giving a presentation about the sacrifices he had made in his life as a refugee so that his children could have a good future. I wanted him to be the inspiration of the night.
During my life as a teenager and young adult, my dad was often judged for the way he sat me free. He wasn’t raising me to become an Albanian bride, but rather an individual who developed all her capacities and chose a career that she is passionate about.
People were worried that if he continued like this, he would lose his control over me. But controlling me was never his intention. Nor was being liked by everyone.
His biggest dream for me was to never have to worry about my future or work multiple jobs just to have food on the table. Whenever one of the Albanian girls we knew got married at a young age and subsequently would quit school, his heart would break and he would blame her father for letting her make such a big mistake.
“Our girls should be empowered,” he would say. “They’re living in the capital of Europe. It’s a shame if they end up listening to a man and asking for his approval every step they take.”
Having a feminist father made me into the person I am today. Most important was that he simply wasn’t affected by other people’s opinion of us. He just didn’t care about anything but my well-being and success.
I have to admit that he was very strict, despite being correct. And never think that we didn’t argue, we argued plenty! But he would always consistently stand for my freedom and his morals — in that order.
Whenever he caught me lying, which throughout my teenage years happened more than I’d ever admit to anybody, he’d make it clear why lying was bad for the both of us. He made me understand where his worries and wishes for my future came from.
He talked to me and invested time in our conversations and, most importantly, he always listened. If I had better arguments, he was willing to change his view on a certain subject. The one with the better arguments always won. Every conversation, no matter how hard we disagreed, we would finish with a hug and him telling me that he was proud of me.
Most importantly, he always taught me how to be my own person, how to live and even how to live without him when he’s gone.
Thanks to him putting me first and talking to me about the consequences of the choices I’d make (even when talking about relationships, which might have been awkward since I was his daughter) I came to the realization that he simply cared and wanted the best for me. I understood that I was very lucky to have had such a great mentor in my life, whose goal wasn’t to deliver a wife to a man but a citizen to the world.
When I got elected as the youngest member of the city council for the Green party, I dedicated all my achievements to my father who was no longer among us. To the person who made me into the person I am now.
Today I still think about how my father understood the importance of empowering and educating me and teaching me that my voice matters. He taught me not to allow or accept assigned (gender) roles society thinks fit me if they are in any way harmful to my own capacities, future or freedom. He taught me how to respectfully but shamelessly say “no” when I don’t agree.
And most importantly, he always taught me how to be my own person, how to live and even how to live without him when he’s gone. He understood and defined true fatherhood. And finally… He let me go when he saw that, even though I’ll miss him every day forever, I was going to be just fine. His baby girl was going to be just fine.
Feature illustration: Arrita Katona / K2.0