diaspora n.: “The dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland.”
Diaspora. A term that has followed me ever since I was born.
A term that was mentioned during my very first memories and in the songs my parents listened to. There are a bunch of songs about the diaspora and everyone seems to use the term as if it is self-explanatory.
For me, it was not as obvious and self-explanatory. I had to learn what diaspora meant throughout my whole life.
Having been born and raised in Germany — I am 21 now — I was confronted with a pretty static idea about what diaspora means. It means being called by the humiliating term “shaci” in my second homeland Kosovo and on the other hand being called “Ausländer” (German: foreigner) where I am local.
Now, the confusion starts already here.
Can I define my homeland, and if yes, how do I achieve this? Is my homeland, the one I was born and raised in or the one my ancestors are from?
Surely, this leads me to consider the possibilities of multiple social identities. The question of identities has been well-discussed in literature and never really answered. Neither can I answer it fully. The only thing I can do is try to show what diaspora and therefore growing up in the diaspora means to me.
This also means growing up with the question that most Albanian children living in the diaspora are asked to this day: “Is it better here or there?”
A question I could never answer right away. For the people living in Kosovo, it was clear that living “there” must be better and therefore is better.
Only now am I realizing why I couldn’t answer the question that quickly. I could say I know both realities, but I don’t since I’ve never had to live in Kosovo for longer than 10 weeks.
But I can talk about the reality of growing up in a country where it’s normal to be reduced to a term like “Ausländer” and to be asked on a daily basis: “But where are you really from?”
Arriving in a country without having an organized diasporic community waiting for you must be one of the most alienating ideas we can imagine. So alienation becomes daily companion and the center of your world is now your own established community and the family you left behind.
I often ask myself how my parents were able to live such a selfless life where everything was more important than them. Their life consisted of building homes in which they would never live and traveling every year to their beloved homeland.
This did not only affect their own lives. It affected the lives of us children, who were taught to be as selfless as they were. This resulted in Albanian children who weren’t able to live up to the high expectations their selfless parents had foreseen.
Most Albanians in Germany create communities out of their family. The Albanian community they missed at work, in their everyday lives and on the streets of Germany where nobody looked familiar.
The emotional work children of Albanian migrants had to do is unimaginable. They had to be friends, family and children all at once.
I remember being at the doctor with my uncle when I was 5 years old, trying to translate what the doctor was saying. Something my German friends at the kindergarten did not have to do.
I have innumerable memories like this.
Reflecting on it now, I realize how sad it must be to only have your daughter as the person you can turn to.
Other memories include being the secretary for our parents since we kids learned the language more naturally and their shame at talking with an accent was often too big. Being the secretary for our parents sometimes also meant writing job applications for them (while still being in school) since they often hadn’t attended a German school at which to be taught how to survive in the German job market.
And above all, sometimes we children were the only ones there to comfort our mourning parents when their family members that still lived in Kosovo were ill or died.
My mom told me once: “You were like a sister to me.”
First I thought: Wow, what an amazing relationship we have. Reflecting on it now, I realize how sad it must be to only have your daughter as the person you can turn to and with whom to mourn.
These are the conditions that reproduce alienation.
Bureaucracy, deportation, othering
Although no community was waiting for them in Germany, the reality shows that some things waited for sure. These were bureaucracy, fear of deportation and a long odyssey of being racially othered in everyday life.
Deportation is such a normal term in our family since almost everyone in the diaspora is related to someone or knows someone who was deported.
I had the privilege that my family received early exceptional leave to remain. But we still didn’t earn German citizenship right away. My parents had to do immense bureaucratic work and invest a lot of money. Many trips to various embassies, such as the Serbian one, were part of the odyssey of our German citizenship.
But still, in 2016, I received a letter from my insurance company asking me where I’m from, since Yugoslavia does not exist anymore. Contrary to our expectations, you are never fully German since you can not erase your past and all the years that you were not a German officially.
And let’s be honest: How do you integrate into a country where right-wing parties are winning again and the long past of Nazi ideology is rather disremembered than processed?
When talking about integration, school is often pictured as “the way” to integrate into society. What most people forget is that school is just another bureaucratic obstacle we have to undergo.
The German school system, in particular, is established on the concept of segregation. From the end of the 4th grade your future is already decided, since the teachers segregate the children into one of three secondary schools, based on their grades.
Hauptschule (from years 5 to 9) is the basic level of education, after which your future options tend to be very limited since you can only receive professional training to become a tradesperson, baker, industrial cleaner, etc. The next level up is the the Realschule (from years 5 to 10), which can allow you to enter professions such as the police, management assistants, laboratory assistants, etc. The top level is the Gymnasium (from years 5 to 12 or 13), which allows you to complete your A-levels before virtually having your pick of professional training or university.
Technically, you can pass up the levels by completing the previous one, although in reality such mobility is rare.
My elementary school was the definition of structural racism since they sent almost every child with a migrant background to the Hauptschule.
Although there are variations in different parts of the country, in the part of Germany that I grew up in it was normal to see yourself and those around you classified and separated off into avenues with such a varying range of future prospects — at the age of 10.
And yes, racism and the inequality of opportunities did intensify the segregational process.
In my case my elementary school was the definition of structural racism since they sent almost every child with a migrant background to the Hauptschule, like in a bad nightmare.
My parents didn’t know their rights back then and could not fully save my big brother from initially being assigned to this school. He eventually got into the Realschule after my mom pressured the school to let him take an extra test.
They learned that racism was a real threat for our future, and when I got to the third class my new teacher (who was set to be the same person that would decide my fate in the fourth class) happened to be my brother’s former teacher who had tried to send him to the Hauptschule. Immediately, all my grades started to drop.
But my mother saved me, because she had the courage to fight for a change of school — something that is almost impossible in Germany. My new school was less racist and only my school achievements were important there, so I managed to make it into the Gymnasium.
For the other kids with migrant backgrounds at my old school this was a dream that never came true. I still know them and had to see them go to lower schools and have it much harder to achieve something afterward. The Albanian children in the diaspora were also affected by this system.
The reason I mention this is that in Kosovo the predominant picture of “shaci’s” is that we are not educated, without acknowledging the extra obstacles that we have to overcome besides accomplishing a normal school life. These assumptions divide Albanians and exclude the Albanian diaspora from debates in Kosovo, since we are often depicted as uneducated and old-fashioned.
I want to stop recalling memories and telling anecdotes about my life as a child of migrants since I can only depict the surface of a broader reality. But this side of the “shaci” coin is often not talked about and is forgotten.
This includes coming to the homeland of your parents, that which many people from the country you actually live in assign to you, but realizing that you do not belong there either.
So please, having all these challenges in mind, I urge you to think about the other side of being a “shaci” before rolling out that casual phrase that cuts deeper than you may think.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.