Blogbox | Education

Letters from Zagreb, Whatsapp calls from Florida

By - 11.10.2022

Two generations of missing Kosovo from abroad.

My father was born in 1956 into a poor family in the village of Broliq. He had a difficult childhood. The villagers were farmers and traveled with their meat, dairy, and produce to sell in the city of Peja at the chaotic loma. The villagers would bring whatever they had to sell to Peja’s city folk, the Pejon, who worked in schools and factories and often looked down on the villagers. 

As a child, my father hated when grandfather made him go to Peja to sell goods at the loma. He was a skinny, studious boy who struggled with the harsh manual labor amid the cacophony of livestock and people. Sometimes, my father was tasked with unloading bales of clean yellow straw and hay called dongji. Other times, he would carry squawking hens stuffed tightly in mud-splattered cages. 

My father, in worn-out traditional clothing and sweat trickling down his face, had to rush about taking care of his animals, refilling their water or feed buckets or scaring away mice from nesting in the hay. When he wasn’t tending to his animals, he had to tend to the people: his Pejon customers who turned up their noses at the odor of urine, mud and manure and who made belittling comments about the villagers’ sweat-stiff clothes, calloused hands and sunburnt faces. 

After my father’s father died in 1970, my grandmother, the oldest of the forty people who shared their small, timeworn brick house, became the family’s matriarch. She, then, would go to the loma as the head of the family. On early Tuesday and Saturday mornings, after she fed the cows and let the chickens wander the yard, she would order my father and his cousins to load livestock or hay onto the tractor, cover the day’s goods in a run-down tarp, and go with her to the loma. The older, muscular boys did the heavy lifting, but grandmother wanted my father to be there too — even though he would rather read than unload a tractor. She would always have him handle the brainier work: writing down the prices or handling the money. 

I think he was my grandmother’s favorite child, but I get the feeling that he was never allowed to really be a child. He never had toys to play with, nice clothes, or comfortable shoes. He wore opinga, thin black shoes made from cheap rubber. As he walked, prickly straw from the pasture would inevitably find its way into his already uncomfortable shoes. The Pejon children wore nicer shoes, made from leather.

At school he was teased for being a farmer, at home he was teased for going to school.

My father told me that he used those opinga to carve his own path to school through the once-untrodden countryside. There were no good roads to Kryshec, where the closest school was, so he would dash through the meadows, scraping his knees on the briars that would also get caught on his handmade wool socks. He told me he would get scared by strong gusts of wind or when he saw nearby bushes rustling and wondered what animals were hiding in them. Over time, he wore down a small dirt path from his village to the school through the meadows. Each school day, after his arduous journey, when he at last entered the school yard, he was greeted with sneering children and name-calling.

“Katunar.” “Qen.” “Çoban.” 

“Peasant.” “Dog.” “Shepherd.” 

At school he was teased for being a farmer, at home he was teased for going to school. The men in his family would make fun of him for using his pocket money from the loma to buy books or notebooks, and they would yell at him for reading too much and using up the lamp oil, which my grandmother and the other women needed to knit. The worst was when he was needed at the barn or pasture but found lying beneath the shade of a tree chewing on a stalk of sweet grass and reading, they would spank him with a thupër, a thin branch from a willow tree. 

Even after withstanding bullying from the boys for his rural upbringing and from the men for his studiousness, my father kept pursuing his education. Over time, he left the fields behind to pursue his medical degree in Prishtina, and then left Kosovo entirely for Zagreb, Croatia for his residency. My father had to carve  a new path through the concrete streets of a foreign city. He went from the chaos of the loma to the new chaos of a busy, metropolitan hospital. Even being from a household of forty people and toiling in the crowded markets of Peja, my father, when faced with Zagreb’s swarming streets of cyclists, automobiles, fire trucks, and ambulances — a far cry from Broliq’s tractors— must have been shocked. 

My father didn’t talk to me much about his time in Zagreb until I came to the U.S. as a graduate student, and he began to open up about his struggles in a foreign city. In Zagreb he didn’t wear the same shoes filled with prickly hay, but he still felt uncomfortable when he walked down the noisy streets bustling with strange faces he didn’t know.

He was no longer sprinting through the knolls of his home village, but was now moving slowly through the city, taking note of every landmark, building and park so as not to get lost. He didn’t have scraped knees, but he would get caught in the rain without an umbrella or slip on the sidewalk and nobody was there to help. He had to work 24-hour shifts on the weekends on top of his weekly residency to afford the apartment where he ate his simple meals and continued to read. 

He told me he wished he could sit in the room filled with the smell of hand-rolled cigarettes and raki.

This past winter, my father and I were walking on a trail in Prishtina’s Gërmia park. It was raining and, between looking down to make sure we didn’t step in the puddles, we managed to make some conversation. He asked about my studies in the United States and was surprised when I told him that I wasn’t struggling as much as before. Every conversation I had with him during my first year abroad was about how foreign I felt, my insecurities about speaking English, and how lost I was. And each of these conversations would end with my father asking: “Do you wish you could leave?” 

As I trailed behind my father on that narrow path in Gërmia, he told me, “When I first got to Zagreb, I didn’t want anything more than to be able to leave.” He told me he wished he could have gone back to Broliq and sit in the room filled with the older men who reeked of cheap hand-rolled cigarettes and raki. He told me he grew weary of eating dinners alone and of envying his Croatian peers for their privileges and comfortable lives.

He told me about the roommate he had in the dormitory during the first month of his residency. “He was a short, skinny-looking guy who reminded me of your uncle, Demush,” my father said. “I felt like I had to look after him and make sure he ate more.” Each day, he told me, he would return to the dorm after a long hospital shift, covered in cheap cologne to mask the smell of blood and body odor, and head to the shared kitchen to prepare them both a meal. 

“I even went to church with him on Sundays because he didn’t want to go alone,” he said. Then one day Qamil, my father’s youngest brother, visited and brought homemade suxhuk from Broliq. When my father called the roommate to join them for a meal, he didn’t get a reply. My father said that he thought his roommate couldn’t hear him over the heating unit or the noise coming from the traffic outside. My father said, “When I called him again, he slammed the door in my face.”

The roommate knew my father was from Kosovo, but somehow didn’t realize he might be Muslim. Something during Qamil’s visit revealed this apparently terrifying fact. My father said that his roommate, along with others in Yugoslavia at the time, had ideas that Kosovar Muslims were dangerous, potentially murderous. Even though my father was deeply shocked, and he tried to explain that it wasn’t true, his roommate didn’t listen. After the month was over and he left the dormitory, he told me he never saw or heard from that roommate again.

It was then that I remembered reading my father’s letters from Zagreb, ones that he had sent to my uncle Qamil to read aloud to my grandmother. I thought back to a warm summer day in Broliq. I was sitting on the floor in the living room of my grandmother’s house sipping some tea. Everyone was milling about and talking, and I was sifting through a dusty photo album, looking at worn family photos and this collection of letters from Zagreb while trying to ignore the noise of my family members laughing and talking over each other. I unfolded one of the letters and read: 

“I dashtun vlla,

I am writing to thank you for the suxhuk, the dairy, and produce you brought from home.

I am well and happy. I have been working long hours, but I have also made friends. I met Kadrija and she told me that her cousin, who you went to school with, is also in Zagreb. We are meeting soon. I am happy to meet people from home. Brother, I am doing well here. Tell mother not to worry about me.

How are things back home?

When are you leaving for Switzerland?

T’fala mi ban nàns,


The letters were short, but he always wrote that he was well and happy. He wrote about his adjustment to Zagreb, the food he ate, and the friends he made. Nothing about feeling out of place. Nothing about people believing that he wanted to slit their throats. Nothing about wishing he could go back to Broliq and sit in the room filled with older men reeking of cheap hand-rolled cigarettes and raki, and nothing about wishing he was somebody else. 

Most of my conversations with him from Florida, where I now live, are short too. I don’t send him letters, instead we chat over Whatsapp. The first few minutes of each conversation is always the same. “Can you hear me?” “Is your camera turned on?” We express our love implicitly through everyday questions. “What did you have for lunch today?” 

He still asks me if I want to leave. I don’t tell him this, but I almost always wish I could. Most mornings, while I drink my coffee in the kitchen I share with two American roommates who think Kosovo is somewhere in Russia, I dream of returning home. I dream of sitting across from my father in our little cramped kitchen in Prishtina and enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee while watching him work on his crossword puzzle. Sometimes when he asks if I want to leave, and I can’t bear to tell him the truth directly, I smile and ask “When you were in Zagreb, did you wish you could?”

Feature image: Gashi family archive / K2.0.

  • 30 Dec 2022 - 17:29 | Urani:

    Faleminderit që ndatë këtë histori prekëse me ne, më bëri të mendoj për udhëtimin e ngjashëm të babait tim. Ai ishte nga Gllogjani i Deçanit dhe shkollimin e kreu në Pejë, pastaj studimet e larta i vazhdoi jashtë Kosovës. Ai si babai juaj ka pasur përvojë nga Loma e Pejës, Gjakoves, Deqanit etj. Gjate studimeve ne Pejë nuk kishte kushte për të blerë opinga, kishte këpucë te mbaruara prej lëkures postermes... Imagjino bullizmin nga pejont! Ju uroj shendet dhe studime të suksesshme në SHBA.

  • 30 Dec 2022 - 10:06 | Enis:

    Shkrim e përshkrim për çdo lëvdatë! Suksese të mëtutjeshme, Era. Krenar me historinë dhe me arritjet e popullit tonë, përkundër kushteve në të gjitha drejtimet.

  • 12 Oct 2022 - 20:10 | Arta:

    Përshkrim i mrekullueshëm👏👏👏 qysh ka thënë aj i moçmi: Dardhë pikë nër dardhë📚📚📚📚📚📚 Suksese😇

  • 11 Oct 2022 - 17:32 | Servete:

    Te lumtë Era! Shendet dhe suksese....