'They haven't forgotten us': Former refugees meet Kosovo president

President Hashim Thaçi, who is in Nova Scotia this weekend for the Halifax International Security Forum, says he wanted to visit CFB Halifax to say thank you.

President Hashim Thaçi visited CFB Halifax, where hundreds of refugees arrived in 1999

Arber, Zeqirja, Bea, Arta and Orges Rexhepi met the president of Kosovo on Saturday at CFB Halifax. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Eighteen years after fleeing the war in Kosovo, Bea Rexhepi met the leader of the country she left behind in the place that first took her in.

Rexhepi and her family were among 5,000 Kosovar refugees who arrived in Canada in 1999. Like so many, their introduction to their new home was CFB Halifax.

It's where the family was met by military personnel before moving to temporary housing, and where, nearly two decades later, they met Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi.

"I'm so happy, and I'm so proud of you coming and visiting us and seeing where we live, so thank you," Rexhepi told Thaçi on Saturday.

From Macedonia to Halifax 

The Rexhepi family came to Canada somewhat on a whim. 

They had spent six long weeks at a refugee camp in Macedonia — some of that time without a tent, which meant they slept  in the rain.

When the kids got sick, Rexhepi's husband Zeqirja made an application to come to Canada, a move that worried his wife at first because she didn't want to move so far from home.

Zeqirja and Bea Rexhepi settled in Halifax after coming to Canada as refugees. (CBC Archives)

Memories of those first days in Canada are still vivid for Arber Rexhepi, who was 11 at the time. He remembers watching Disney movies with the other kids and eating lots and lots of food.

"I always remember Nanaimo bars," he said with a laugh. "I had Nanaimo bars there and for some reason I couldn't remember the name because I didn't really read the labels, and it took me a good like 18 years to figure out what they were."

Independent at last 

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and Canada was one of the first to recognize it as its own country.

Thaçi, who is in Nova Scotia this weekend for the Halifax International Security Forum, said he wanted to visit the base to say thank you for what Canada did. His own country, he added, has changed a great deal since the late '90s. 

"[It is] a free, independent country, a multi-ethnic society, equal society," Thaçi told reporters through a translator. "It has come a long way."

Zeqirja and Bea Rexhepi met with President Hashim Thaçi on Saturday. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Thaçi said he's proud of those like the Rexhepis who've made new lives for themselves. 

"The emotions we felt here were both painful but also emotions of pride and happiness to see that they have been integrated successfully in society and they live in pride, both for being Canadians but also for seeing Kosovo free and equal," he said. 

'Haven't forgotten us'

The president is using his visit to Nova Scotia to meet with more members of the city's Albanian-Kosovar community.

A special gala has been planned for Saturday night at the Lord Nelson. 

There was a special ceremony to welcome President Hashim Thaçi at CFB Halifax, where hundreds of refugees arrived in 1999. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Ardian Hasanaj, president of the Albanian Canadian Association of Halifax, said the Kosovar community in the city is small, but mighty. 

They get together often to celebrate, and the association runs a school on Saturdays to teach children the Albanian culture and language. 

"We all live here but we haven't forgotten our first country," said Hasanaj. "We feel great when they acknowledge us still, and they haven't forgotten for us."

About the Author

Emma Smith

Reporter

Emma Smith is a web writer and radio producer from B.C. who fell in love with the East Coast. She's interested in reporting on rural communities and Indigenous issues.