KOSOVA VISIT 2022
KOSOVA - TWENTY YEARS LATER
On August 17th, 2022, I traveled to Kosova with my dear friend and assistant, Genevieve Feiner. We set out to visit the families I lived with during the 1980s and 1990s, to understand as much as we could about the changes taking place there, and to promote my newly published book, "An American Woman in Kosova."
The last time I visited was in 2002 – twenty years ago. It was so amazing reuniting with Albanian friends and family—like swimming in an ocean of love—so emotional, profound, and powerful. I almost never cry, but being with these families and communities after so many years, remembering all we went through together during the years of hardship and violence in Kosova, filled me with tears, again and again.
On our first day in Kosova, we had the honor of meeting President Vjosa Osmani—an intelligent, gracious, politically savvy woman. We talked about the work I had done in Kosova, my love for her country, the incredible changes that have taken place in the society, and the challenges she is facing. Mostly, I wanted to commend her for her courage in navigating Kosova’s path forward. Bravo ju koftë, Madame President!
Our next stop in Prishtina was the rehearsal hall of Shota, Kosova’s professional folk dance ensemble. It was here, as a guest member of the ensemble in the early 1980s, that I learned about Albanian dance from Xhemali Berisha, the Artistic Director at that time, and from Kiki, Fatmire, Haki, Skender, and all the Shota dancers. The current Artistic Director, Ylber Asllanaj, welcomed us into the beautifully renovated building and I had a chance to dance again in that cherished space. As everywhere in Prishtina, much had changed, but the memories of dancing there long ago came flooding back.
That first afternoon, after a lovely stroll down the lively downtown promenade, we left the city and headed to the mountains. Destination: Opoja, a mountain district in the southwest of Kosova on the border with Macedonia and Albania where I did my dissertation research in the late 1980s. It felt as if no time had passed since my last visit 20 years ago. Our first morning in Opoja, we were treated to the perfect Albanian breakfast: chicken soup, sauteed peppers, scrambled eggs, sheep cheese from the Sharr mountains, tomatoes and cucumbers, yogurt, and tiny glasses of sweet tea for dessert.
It was great watching Genevieve experience all this for the first time!
Thus began two weeks of our immersion into the lives of the communities I had known in Kosova – in Opoja, Vitia, Ferizaj, Has, and Prishtina. I am still so in love with the Kosova countryside: golden plains surrounded by dramatic mountain expanses, and in the summertime, afternoon thunderstorms that stir the soul and bring life to the land.
A COUNTRY TRANSFORMED
Beyond the beauty of Kosova’s beautiful landscape and generous humanity, the country was completely transformed since the war in 1999 that ended 100 years of subjugation under Serbia and led to Kosova’s independence and statehood.
Albanians attribute their survival as a people, and their independence as a nation, to Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright (who convinced NATO to intervene and stop the Serbs in 1999). They also hold in high esteem Richard Holbrook (Clinton’s special envoy to resolve the crisis in Kosova), Wesley Clark (Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO during the war), and Senator Bob Dole (who championed Kosova Independence before the war). Everywhere you look in Kosova there are American flags, and street signs and statues dedicated to these heroes. As soon as locals realize you’re American, they make sure you know that Albanians attribute their survival as a people to the USA. It is deeply moving and inspiring, being in a place that loves America so much. We heard it every day, expressed in many ways, such as:
“America is our beacon of light.”
“America is the oxygen we breathe.”
“We are still here because of America.”
“We don’t just love America, we are America.”
“Only the USA has always been there for us, it’s the only country we can depend on.”
Mustaf Tafa put it beautifully: “America reflects freedom and democracy all the world should respect and embrace. It was our greatest fate that we should have a friend like America. It is not just our generation that is grateful to America, but all future generations.”
It was incredible to see what Albanians have accomplished since the war. Thanks to the intense euphoria that came with independence, the tremendous energy of Albanians, their natural business savvy, and the massive investment from migrants living abroad, everything has changed there since the war ended. Big, beautiful houses, restaurants, and businesses are everywhere. The towns we visited (Prishtina, Vitia, Ferizaj, Prizren, and Dragash) were buzzing with activity. Streets and cafés were full of people, the traffic was crazy, everything was in motion.
Labor migration, mostly to Europe, is the key to all this. Out of 1.8 million Kosova Albanians, at least one-third are living abroad, and they are all building big houses back in Kosova. Walk down a village road, and from the look of the houses you would think you were in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland.
But the migrants don’t actually live in their fancy houses, which are built for show (a very conspicuous symbol of a migrant’s success), for big family reunions during the summer, and for retirement. Retire in Kosova? Really? The houses are, to me, a poignant expression of the “myth of return”—the migrants’ idealized notion that they will one day return to Kosova.
Why is this a “myth”? Because the children of migrants now have children of their own who are growing up as Europeans. After assimilating to life in the west, there’s no way these kids are moving back to Kosova. They enjoy summer visits in their parents’ village (at least for now), but they see their future in Europe. And the grandparents want to be where the grandkids are—not back in Kosova, in their beautiful homes, alone. They’ll grow old in Europe because they adore the grandkids, and also because there are no homes for the elderly in Kosova. Children take care of their parents, at home, wherever that is, until they die. That’s the way it’s always been.
When asked if he will return to live in Kosova, Faruk Tafa, our friend from Vitia who has lived in Nurnberg for decades, summed it up like this: “The emotional answer is Yes. The practical answer is No.”
It’s a painful paradox: In a society where family is everything, part of every family is abroad, or trying to get there. The thing Albanians want most—the chance to make money abroad and have a stable job and social security—is undermining the thing they cherish most: being together. On one hand, migration has transformed an underdeveloped country into a modern society. On the other, families are separated, villages are half-empty, and the exodus shows no signs of slowing.
One out of every two Albanians still living in Kosova are trying to leave—especially the young people, and Kosova has the youngest population in Europe. Why do they want to go? For jobs, job security, quality healthcare, and education on par with Europe. Why are there too few well-paying jobs? Because there is not enough productive enterprise. Why is this lacking? Because foreigners, and Albanians themselves, fear investing in a region still considered to be a potential political flashpoint. Albanians are investing in fancy houses and restaurants, expensive weddings and cars, instead of industry and infrastructure. Social services are inadequate because Kosova is a new country trying to figure things out, and because of obstacles and conflict in the way Kosova governs itself.
Every day during our visit we spoke with people about the changes in their lives, migration, their personal future, and Kosova’s future. I asked Laura Tafa (Faruk’s niece), who left her parents behind in Vitia to live with her husband in Nurnberg, whether she preferred living in Kosova or Germany. Her answer reflected the feeling of many Albanians: “I have four children. The only thing I care about is their well-being, which means good medical care and a good education. We have that in Germany, not in Kosova. Not yet.” She misses her parents and her homeland, but her children come first. For Laura and her brothers—all of whom are or will soon be in Germany—to take care of her parents, the parents have to grow old there, too. So much for the myth of return.
Albanians are waiting for a political resolution to their problems, hoping that full recognition as a state and admittance into the EU will bring big foreign investment, jobs, and high-quality life – and this will eventually stop the exodus. What are the challenges Kosova is facing? Here are a few:
Kosova became a country in 2008. Out of 193 United Nations countries, 117 have recognized Kosova's statehood, including the US, the UK, and 22 out of the 27 EU countries.
Russia and China, which do not recognize Kosova as a country, have blocked its membership in the UN. Serbian President Vučić has vowed that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
Kosova wants to be part of the EU but can’t even become a candidate until it is recognized as a country by all EU countries and fulfills 94 requirements – twice the number other countries have had to fulfill. (Serbia has been an EU candidate country since 2012, Albanian since 2014, Macedonia since 2005.)
One of Kosova’s top priorities is “visa liberalization” (visa-free travel within Europe). They are waiting for the European Parliament to agree on this – hopefully by the end of 2022. Wouldn’t this just mean more migration? No, say the Albanians. It means the young people could satisfy their desire to see the outside world and wouldn’t have to emigrate to do so.
It is said that a culture is as great as its dreams. In a place where there is great security in the warm embrace of family, but no security about the future of your country, or you, or your children, it’s hard to dream.
I will keep asking the question: What is Kosova’s dream for itself?
In the houses we visited during our trip, the most salient symbols of the Albanian past were gone. No more sofras (low, round dining tables), shilte (pads for sitting on the floor), oxhak (wood burning stoves), magja(kneading box), or vek (looms). Everything is modern, looking very European, just as I expected.
But what is truly important, what drew me to Kosova in the first place, has not changed: the warmth and affection between Albanians, their passionate devotion to family, the deep love for their culture, and a tradition of hospitality that knows no bounds.
It was so hard saying goodbye to Kosova after this visit. I live in a beautiful place (Santa Barbara, California), I’m devoted to my humanitarian aid work (in Rwanda, East Africa), but my heart belongs to Kosova. I know I will return again and again, probably until I finally settle there, in my “hiraeth,” the place where my soul takes rest.
I hope you enjoy these trip photos. The videos are coming soon!
MY BOOK ABOUT KOSOVA
Read the book in Albanian here
When I wrote my memoir about living in Kosova, I wasn’t thinking of publishing it. I just didn’t want the memories to disappear. I wrote it during my rare moments of free time between 2001 and 2010, thinking I might one day give it to friends and family to read in English. But recently I realized that the book should first be published in Albanian and offered for free, as my gift to Kosova.
Thanks to an amazing team – Nazim Haliti who translated, Artan Aliu who edited, and Arsim Canolli who proofed and published the Albanian version of the book was ready in four months. Arsim is publishing the English version online in October, again at no cost to the readers.
I had no expectations of how the Albanian version of the book would be received in Kosova. I wasn’t sure Albanians would be interested in a book about their past—something they know so well. But to my immense surprise and delight, it has been embraced enthusiastically, in Kosova and in the diaspora, by young Albanians who want to understand the “old” Kosova, and by their parents, nostalgic about the past and interested in learning about regions other than where they grew up.
The best part about the release of the book was sharing the printed version with the people I had written about – seeing their faces light up when they saw the pages about their families and photos of loved ones, many of whom have passed away. The book brought back tearful memories of a former way of life that was hard and full of heartache and sacrifice, but treasured by those who have seen the old ways disappear.
The official book promotion was at Prishtina’s National Library on September 1st. To my great surprise and delight, dear friends from all over Kosova came to the event, people from all parts on my past—like an episode of “This is your life.” A celebration of love and lifelong friendships that I will never forget.
Because of the book promotion, I was asked to give interviews on several TV news programs, and did my best, in my imperfect Albanian, to express my love and gratitude to Kosova to so many Albanians, in Kosova and in the diaspora. Interview Links
Now I’m back home in Santa Barbara, and although I am 6,557 miles away from Kosova, I always feel connected, through the photos, videos, and memories, and daily communication with Albanian friends and family via Facebook. One thing is certain: I will return to Kosova, hopefully next summer. Ishallah!
Note: Out of respect to people in the photos and videos, the materials on this website MAY NOT be used for commercial purposes. Please contact me prior to any public display, publication, quotation, or reproduction.