Guest blog by Arber Gashi, @gashiarbs_ on Instagram (Writer, Oral Historian and Visual storyteller)
My Mother, Firdeze, and Father, Mehdi (Dini), in the early days of their relationship – photo was taken in Kosovo, which at the time was a part of the Former Yugoslavia, 1985
Being a refugee is a difficult space to exist in. Having to leave your home due to persecution and repression is something no person should have to experience. There is also a profound difficulty in reconciling the fact that you may never be able to go back to the place you have always called ‘home’. I am privileged to say that I have never experienced this but was raised with parents and two older sisters who did. My parents left the former Yugoslavia fleeing ethnic-based persecution in the early 1990s.
Making their way in London induced a complex set of emotions. While they were immensely happy that they were given the right to remain in safety and stability in the UK, their minds and hearts were perpetually drawn back to the family, friends, and native land they left behind in Kosovo.
Seeing the former Yugoslavia collapse in the violent way it did year after year in the 1990s was traumatic for my parents. But with deep resilience they built a life for themselves in London, and their family grew. Me and my sister came along in the late 1990s, coinciding with the Kosovo war. Through the years my parents shielded me and my sisters about what happened in Kosovo and their refugee experiences. Up until a certain point where they didn’t and started invested time in telling us their experiences. I was particularly drawn to hearing their narratives. This as practice I started in my early teens stemming from interest, would follow me to this day in my work as a writer, oral historian, and visual storyteller.
These refugee stories shaped me as a person, and I would like to pass on the wisdom I gained from them to those reading this piece today. My Kosovar-Albanian father is a very proud man, and the fact that he had to resort to leaving the country he was born and raised in, still pains him today 30 years later. But he put his pride aside and did what was right for his family. My father always referred to a particular story that sits so poignantly in my mind.
When my parents first came here, they understandably did not have access to the traditional foods, ingredients, spices, and herbs they were used to in Kosovo or the Balkans. Not knowing where to find these products, they spoke to the difficulty they experienced consuming foods that were not nutritious for the body, mind, or soul. They also unknowingly consumed foods that went against their religious dietary restrictions as Muslims, because they were uninformed and not fluent in English. The issue of food became deeply difficult for them, for food isn’t just a piece of bread to put in one’s mouth. It massively contributes to a groups culture, identity, and even mental and emotional wellbeing. But I must say, my parents were still deeply grateful to have something to put in their mouths – knowing so many others were going without.
My father, Mehdi (Dini), with me (Arber), in an East London park, 1998
But one day my father decided to explore the local area my family had been placed in. My family was settled in the East London/ Essex area, immersed in many other immigrant and refugee communities. My father still wonderfully illustrates through his words the awe he felt when he first stumble across the bright lights and colourfully decorated shops of Ilford lane. But what was most important, was that he found fresh fruit and vegetable stalls, a halal butchers, the right kind of flour to make the Kosovar dish my parents loved so much and a little resemblance of home.
My father told this story to me in a way that emphasised how important it was for him that he was able to find a sense of home amongst older migrant and refugee communities in London. Ilford Lane has a very large South Asian community, that has been here since the 1960s/70s. Although our historical experiences are different, my father was able to find some sense of support, through the act of buying food, from this older immigrant community in London. He would tell me this narrative as a way to make me, his son born and raised in London empathetic to the refugee experience. So that I too one day could help those refugee communities settling in London.
My mother, Firdeze, in post war Kosovo with two of her daughters and her brother Sabri Qerka, 2000
Similar narratives of selflessness were echoed in the experiences of my mother. My Mother is one of the strongest people I think I will ever know. Her refugee stories centred around her children and her innate desire to keep them safe. When she took that first sigh of relief as she touched British soil, she decided that she would spend whatever time she had focused on her children, so that we were raised not wanting and needing.
While I am so grateful my mother did this for me and my sisters, she should have also prioritised herself. However, her desire to nurture and help others extended beyond my immediate family. My parents come from a part of the world where people being multilingual is commonplace, skills that are extremely sought out for. So, a big part of my mother’s refugee story centred around her work as a volunteer interpreter for refugee children and families in local schools in my area. My mother whose native languages are Turkish and Albanian, who also learnt Serbo-Croatian in school, and learnt English living in London used these skills to help other refugees fleeing from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo. Even though she was often in despair about the difficulties what her native Kosovo, and its people were going through – she often put that aside and focused on the task at hand. Being a consistent force in helping other refugees find their feet in their new homes, despite still undergoing that experience herself.
These are but two narratives I wanted to share with you all about my parents’ experiences, there are many more. To be a refugee has become somewhat of a politicised identity nowadays, especially within the British context. Refugee communities often experience stereotyping and misrepresentations within British media, that presents refugee people from all walks of life as a monolith.
Refugees are people seeking a deeply human feeling, a universal emotion many forget is a right for everyone, and that’s freedom. We must centre refugee voices when we speak about them, so that we hear their stories, and not create false narratives about who people are and what they want. I hope that by sharing my parents refugee stories, people thinking more carefully about how they speak about refugees, for these people are not the way media presents them. Their stories are diverse, multifaceted, beautiful, difficult, and so much more.