Uncle Skender and Gezim

When I woke up this morning, I realized that it was the 6th year of independence of Kosovo. For a moment, I wondered how many people in the world might be aware of this fact. Nietzsche once said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” I got ready, put my earplugs on and started walking towards my favorite thinking place, Verrazano Bridge. In about 10 minutes, I was at the sidewalk by the bridge. The view was the same as always – dazzling. A turbulent and foggy ocean washed the shore, which is girded by a belt of granitic rocks. I proceeded walking as the fresh air concurred my lungs. I sat at one of the benches and inhaled the view.

As an immigrant, I learned to look at the horizon as if it was a treasure vault. I have hidden in it all my memories, both the happy and the sad ones. I realize that no matter where I am, the only thing that I will always have with me is the horizon. On this day, I looked at the horizon, thinking of the question that I had asked myself earlier in the morning. The music was playing slowly in my ears. “Non so piu cosa fare” by Adriano Celentano began playing, merging with the theme of Kosovo’s independence and my childhood memories. Suddenly, I entered my mind palace in search of a memory that would satisfy me.

Enter memory.

Blood, tears, and chaos. Cars on fire and black, thick clouds of smoke were all over the place. People with ripped clothes, some with one shoe, others with no shoes, running from one place to another. If they were lucky, they made it. Lots of gunshots were heard. Armed soldiers walked the streets and shot everything that was moving. Some soldiers shot just for fun. These were the first images on every TV channel. It was not the trailer of a new Hollywood movie. It was the bitter year of 1998.

At that time, many people in the world were unaware of the war between Kosovo and Serbia, but for an Albanian, this was the central topic of every discussion. I remember when I was a seven-year old boy in Albania, sitting on the carpet watching TV; my father would often turn on the news. Scary images would appear on the TV, images that I felt would never leave my memory. Serbian soldiers were beating senior citizens or middle school kids to death. I was shivering as my skin turned pale white at the sight of the horror. The idea that I could be one of those kids terrified me.

The war was unfair. Compared to Kosovo, Serbia had significantly more military power. The Kosovo Liberation Army was mainly composed of volunteers. They also lacked a lot of equipment; meanwhile the Serbian Army had tanks, warplanes, and all the equipment they needed at their disposal. Because of the Serbians’ armed offensive, many Albanians from Kosovo, approximately 750,000, crossed the border to the mother country of Albania. These people had to run for a long time under terrible circumstances in any type of weather. Because they had to run for their lives, they did not have time to pack up their belongings.

During that time, I was in first grade. Peshkopi, the city I was born in, was one of the first cities where the people from Kosovo arrived. It was the end of March, but it seemed that we were in the midst of January. The temperature was below zero and there were no signs of life outside. Then suddenly, a long line of refugees moving towards our city appeared on the horizon. They were in terrible shape. Ripped clothes that did not match, jackets one over the other, open shoes for the lucky ones that actually had shoes. The refugees were of different ages, seniors, babies, males and females, and a lot of teens. The image of their condition upon arrival has never left my mind and I doubt that it ever will.

The arrival of this group was just the beginning. Every day on my way to school, I saw new faces come into our city. My friends and I speculated where these people came from, what they wanted from us, and why they had come. We talked about UÇK, the Kosovo Liberation Army, and how the members of UÇK were willing to give their lives for the freedom of the country. Their courage and determination inspired us.

The Albanian government declared a state of emergency. The dorms of high schools and universities were given to the refugees in need while dormers moved temporarily back with their families. Some dormers from other cities stayed in the houses of their friends in Peshkopi. Employees in these institutions volunteered to work overtime in order to ensure that the refugees had good accommodations. The people from Kosovo received the best food and the best services that our country had to offer. The government sent food and clothes to satisfy their basic needs. Many hotels opened their doors for our brothers and sisters and accommodated them for free. Several families offered to shelter these people in their own houses, free of charge. These Albanian families shared everything they had with the Kosovars for more than half-a-year.

My family was one of those that offered to take in some of the refugees. We welcomed a family of five to our home. They were from Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo. The oldest one, the father, was 65-years old. His name was Skender and he was six feet tall. He had a distinct face, brown eyes, and thin cheeks. He wore glasses and had great knowledge on geography. Skender told me different and interesting stories every day. He had three daughters between the ages of twenty five and thirty five whose names were Vlora, Saranda and Merita. Skender also had an eighteen year-old son, Gezim, who was a tall and handsome young man who was also a great soccer player. Back in Kosovo, Gezim had been playing with one of the local teams and there was a bright future ahead of him in the sport.

My family allowed them to stay on the first floor of our house. We provided them with food, clothing, and everything else that they needed. Our families got along very well. Gezim and I often played soccer together, and his father taught me about the history and the people of Kosovo. He spoke about Isa Boletini, a great warrior who fought bravely for the independence of ethnic Albania in 1912. We watched the news together, commenting on the events and praying that the war would be over soon.

Nearly all of my friends’ families had offered their houses and taken in refugees. My friends and I often discussed the things that the Kosovars were teaching us and the bond that we had with them. Uncle Skender, as I now referred to him, taught me the capitals of nations all around the world. Flori, a friend of mine, was taught how to paint by the family that was living with him. At school, we shared the news about our adopted families. After our conversations, we ran home with the hope that we would learn something new and exciting from the new members of our families. As soon as I arrived at home, I threw my backpack somewhere and ran downstairs to sit on the couch and talk with uncle Skender. He was always ready to talk and would always begin by questioning me: “What is the capital of France?” “Paris!” I screamed with joy. “How about the capital of Italy?” “Rome!” He would smile after testing my memory and seeing that it had retained the information that he had provided. “Very good. Now here comes the hard one. What is the capital of the United States?” “New York!”  I answered. Uncle Skender looked at me with a sneaky smile. “New York is a very important state in the United States, but the capital is Washington DC.” I was listening very carefully and looking forward to sharing this new information with my friends the following day.

Six months had gone by before the war finally came to an end with the help of the United States. We were watching the news when the speaker, smiling, announced that the war was over and that Kosovo was now under the protection of the United Nations. It was a joyful moment, as everybody began hugging each other. Our families celebrated that night like we had never celebrated before. A great joy could be seen on the faces of everyone.  However, in the midst of all the joy, I felt a hint of sadness. Since the war was over, the refugees would return to their homes, which would mean that uncle Skender, Gezim, and the rest of their family would soon depart. It was a difficult moment to say goodbye, but all of us knew that this day would come sooner or later. It was just a matter of time.

After they left, we kept in contact. We called each other on holidays and birthdays. One-day uncle Skender came to visit us. We had a great time together and he invited us to visit their family back in Kosovo. We accepted his offer and went there to stay at their home for a week. As the years passed, the friendship between our families continued to grow. Although we no longer shared a home and lived in separate countries, we had built a bond that knew no distance.

Enter present.

Suddenly, the honk of a car on the expressway to Coney Island brought me back to reality. I looked around confused for a second or two and then put myself together. I began reflecting on my thought, how this event has shaped my life and ideologies, how this event has influenced the lives of millions of children at that time and millions that were unborn. It saddened me. I thought of current events, how millions of people are experiencing the same hardships of war all over the world. How many children get killed daily in Syria? How many wives do not see their husbands at night in Afghanistan? How many siblings do not see their brother or sister in the morning in Egypt? Mankind is stuck in this vortex of hate, where death persists, incapable of liberating itself.

And yet, it is the same conditions that awaken our values, those values that purify our soul from selfishness and dictate upon us to take care of someone else. An illuminating idea enlightened my mind. It was full of warmth, full of hope and full of happiness. It was the idea that there are people in the world that are opening their doors and hearts to other people in need.

Courtesy of Youtube