About 120,000 people left the young Republic of Kosovo during the past months, mainly to Germany and Austria. Economic despair, political apathy, sickness from a corrupt international elite and the feeling of being caught in this tiny Balkan country led almost a tenth of the population to move West — and rumors.
The European Dream
It is another world there. The towns and the multi-story buildings never end. People drive sleek cars and have amazing houses. It’s like paradise. Everyone does his own job and no one has problems with anyone else. Everyone works and builds a good life, and even those who don’t work, live well. The fields are full of fruit and vegetables that we’ve never seen or heard of here. When you don’t have enough money left, you go to the bank and ask for more and they’ll give it to you, without asking you to pay back a thing. The girls are lovely and they never turn you down. It’s an earthly paradise there. There are endless seas, as well as blue rivers in each town. The shops are called “supermarkets” because they have super foods. The honey is sweeter there than ours, and the snow on the mountains is as tasty as ice cream. Their dogs never bite and their mosquitoes don’t sting; instead, they just lick you. They leave their house doors open day and night; no one steals anything, because everyone has everything. Over there, it isn’t just the hens that lay eggs, but the cockerels too. There, it is joyful. There, everything is paved and plated with gold. There, it is just like a good dream that you want to last forever.
(from the theater play “Peer Gynt from Kosovo” by Jeton Neziraj)
The school bell ringing intrudes Bashkim Bytyqi’s office like the crackle of an empty bag of crisps. The curtains are closed. On one cupboard, three dictionary-sized trophies acknowledge triumphs in ping-pong, chess and soccer tournaments. On his desk, next to a small flag of the Republic of Kosovo, there is a Tesla coil the size of a toaster. Bytyqi, the sturdy 50-year-old school director of the Mirash school, is turning its crank to produce the little blue lightning bolt between the coil’s transmitters.
“Be careful not to touch it,” he says, “you’ll get a shock”. Then he himself touches the coil, twitches, and laughs, resembling a little boy who just got caught pulling the cat’s tail.
Since last November, 20 pupils left Mirash school. They went with their parents to seek asylum in Western Europe. Altogether 80 residents of the 1700 people in the village packed their stuff and headed towards Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. By now, the end of March, ten have returned.
“They are very depressed. They know they have gambled with their fate,” Bytyqi says, who was the mayor of Mirash from 2007 to 2014 and also a History teacher.
“It is quite sad and painful to see that so many people left our village. Most of the people who left were employed. They had an average salary for Kosovo. Until today I cannot think of any reason for them to leave.”
Prishtina-based think tank GAP estimates that about 120,000 people left Kosovo since the end of 2014. The media called it “The Big Exodus”. An editor of the local newspaper, Koha Ditore, told me that the migration wave allegedly started in Mirash.
“Rumors say that three young men got caught breaking into houses. To avoid their conviction they flew to Germany and kept their friends at home updated via Facebook, telling them what a great time they had on the cozy premises of the German government. So their friends followed them. And the word spread to other communities.”
In his office Bytyqi serves Turkish coffee. He then puts his hands together and tells about the distress that was cast upon them: “During the past decades 400 residents of Mirash have legally migrated. And there is this one guy who’s living in Germany since a while. He said freedom of movement would be possible now. And within 24 hours ten of our residents left to Germany. This echoed in our village and then it became an euphoria. In the beginning there were only young people. But then also entire families left.”
Bytyqi is wearing a black suit, blue tie and a name badge. Not like anyone in the village would not know him. He’s been a politician since forever. He is particularly upset because some of the refugees were beneficiaries of a Luxemburg foundation that invested 500,000 euros in Mirash during the past four years. With that money the school got refurbished and equipped a health centre. Also 60 larger greenhouses were given to families to grow vegetables for the local market, which is actually the only means of income in the region.
Mirash consists mainly of reddish one-story mudbrick houses scattered along the bumpy road like beads on a string. Unemployment rate is at 40 percent, which is actually 30 percent below the Kosovo average.
Bytyqi mentions that one of the village’s lost sons, Valmir Murati, returned just four days ago and immediately found a job at a fruit plantation. He makes a quick phone call and then I rush to meet the guy. Twenty minutes later we’re under a wooden refuge in the middle of seven hectare of apple trees and strawberry seedlings. Valmir, who is on lunch break, sits next to his former teacher, Bytyqi.
He talks only when asked and gives one-sentence answers. His green eyes are gazing to some unknown place behind me as he speaks. He’s only 19, but looks older, because of the physical work, Bytyqi explains and gives him a fatherly pat on the back.
Valmir went to Germany last November in search for a better life. “I wanted a stable future, some kind of progress and a nice car,” he tells me. He was willing to work any kind of job. He had heard from a friend who knew someone who knew somebody else that there’s a high possibility for foreigners to find jobs there. So, having his family’s blessing, he just packed his things and left. The rumor was enough for him and another co-villager who travelled with him. “On my last evening some friends passed by to say farewell. I made no fuss about my plans,” he says.
On November 1st they went to the bus station in Prishtina and embarked on a bus to Belgrade. He thought they were going to get caught by the police in Serbia, but instead it happened in Hungary. “They kept us for 24 hours, then gave us this paper and our money back and asked us to go to Szeged, where the refugee camp was. But we didn’t go there, we walked to the train station.”
From Budapest, they took a train to Munich, and then to Stuttgart. There they went to the police to ask for asylum. That’s when he got separated from his friend, because he was driven to a camp in Karlsruhe and his buddy some 300 km further away.
Valmir shoves his hands into the pockets of his red vest, leans over the table, and remembers the place: “It was quite dangerous at that improvised camp with containers because there were stabbings, killings every day.” As for him, he stayed close to the peaceful Albanian community and avoided trouble.
Every morning at 7 o’clock he would wake up and go search for a job. With the provisional papers that the German authorities gave him, he went from door to door in the villages near by until 7 pm. Then back to the camp just to start over again with the same routine the next day.
When asked about people’s reaction, he shrugs his shoulders. “Some of them were making fun of us, most of them were friendly but said they are not allowed to take persons without a working permit.” Nevertheless, he kept on knocking on doors for fou and a half months. He now believes that there’s no chance to get hired in another country unless you know someone or have relatives there.
So, towards the end of March, he got tired of waiting around for an answer from the authorities. Especially since all of his friends who sought for asylum received a negative feedback. He borrowed 80 euros from relatives and bought his plane ticket back. German authorities usually take care of the return ticket, but he volunteered to leave. All in all, this adventure cost him 580 euros.
Valmir hides his head between his shoulders, then gives Bytyqi a glance, as if looking for approval. His former teacher is playing absently with his car keys and a ruined button on his jacket. The young man then says, as if to apologize: “I was the first one who left the country, but I never told anyone that it’s good to go there. I told them what I suffered to go there.”
Back in Prishtina I meet a man who gets introduced to me as “the driver”, although his official title is the director of a national aid organization for refugees called Balkan Sunflowers. His name is Muhamet Arifi, a 42-year-old, broad-shouldered man with thick dark hair. He ends his sentences with “yes?”, which sort of forces you to constantly say “yes” back. He takes me to Plemetina, a village of 1400 inhabitants, six kilometers away.
Arifi borrowed his brother 1500 Euro to get smuggled out of the country, which is not quite consistent with his work. “First of all, there is a right for every human being to choose the place where they want to live. And who can you blame for leaving given the situation?” Arifi asks on our way to Plemetina.
His brother together with his wife and four kids, fled to Germany last summer. “He applied for asylum and he knows that he probably won’t get it. But meanwhile he’s receiving about 1500 Euros of social welfare per month. So think about how much money he could save there, even given his expenses. He couldn’t earn that in a lifetime here. He tries to stay as long as possible. Isn’t this understandable?”
He looks at me through the rear view mirror and pauses until I give a sign of understanding. He says he pities only the children because they will miss one year in school.
Arifi then makes me leave the car, a new Opel station wagon. Otherwise it would be too heavy to climb into the yard of the organizations’ Learning Center in Plemetina, where they work on social inclusion of marginalized groups.
This village also witnessed a wave of emigration, though it is not comparable to tidy Mirash. The streets are littered with millions of little plastic pieces. The stinging smell of burning chemicals is climbing to the air. Kids are rummaging through waste containers. Others are playing in a swing of rags they improvised on the pole of an electric power line. Some circle through the village on makeshift bikes.
About 400 members of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian minorities were settled in Plemetina after the war in 1999. Most of them live in two high-rise buildings, erected in 2005 next to the train tracks. On nearly every balcony there are clothes hanging to dry.
Reigning over them there is the single biggest source of pollution in Europe: two lignite-fired power plants exhaling long brown clouds. According to studies, the risk to get cancer here is 30 percent higher than anywhere else in Kosovo.
Back in Prishtina, Bashkim Ibishi, head of the NGO KAAD (Kosovo Agency for Advocacy and Development) tells me: “Actually, the Big Exodus didn’t start in November. That’s when the Albanians started to leave in large numbers. But the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians left first, in June.” According to his figures, 2867 members of the three minorities fled Kosovo in the last eight months. That’s about 8 percent of them.
They live segregated from the ethnic Albanian and Serbian population in Kosovo. Their communities suffer from an unemployment rate of 99 percent, according even to government figures. Kosovo has the strongest minority rights in Europe. “But they only exist on paper,” 50-year-old Ibishi says. “They generally don’t have equal access to healthcare, education, jobs, you name it.” Back in June, he alerted the government about the wave of migration. He sent press releases to the media, but no one had reacted at all.
Not everybody is weighing their chances as realistically as Arifi’s brother. One of the rumors that made people leave, he says, is about a quota for refugees in Germany. Allegedly the Germans have a law that says there has to be a certain amount of black and white refugees. And since there were so many “Africans and Arabs” coming to Germany recently they now need more white refugees, like Albanians, to balance it out.
Another rumor that a reporter from K-TV told me is that Canada would take the Kosovars that get stranded in Germany. It’s because they need all the foreign workers they can get but there aren’t enough refugees going their way. So they asked the German government for the Kosovars who are not granted asylum.
Another rumour goes like this: German society needs fresh blood. They’re over aged and people don’t have children anymore. Kindergarten and schools will soon be empty. That’s why they will grant young Kosovars asylum.
Kosovo’s population, in fact, is the youngest in Europe. A FES study shows that 55 percent are under 30 years old. And the same percentage expressed willingness to emigrate abroad.
This is somehow a reminder of the big waves of migration from Eastern Europe during the famines of the 19th and early 20th century. Back then families flocked on ships that would take them overseas, driven by the hope of finding a promised land they knew merely from hearsay. At that time it was the United States. Now it’s the European Union, which is obviously more rejective. Only 0.3 percent of the Kosovars who went to Germany are allowed to stay, according to government information.
Towards the end of my stay in Kosovo, I go visit an old desolated amusement park called Fantasy Land. As I make my way to the entrance, I see a colourful merry-go-round, a dragon-train and some go-karts. Figurines are smiling silently at me from across the fence. I want to go inside but someone stops me and says that visitors are not allowed. It’s closed, he says, but you can take a walk through the nearby garden if you want. I just head home, I didn’t come for that.