British Columbia

Refugee of Kosovo War reflects on coming to Canada 20 years ago

Miftar Shala and his 13 family members arrived in B.C. 20 years ago on May 5. Shala admits Canada wasn't his family's first choice, but says it ended up being the best choice they ever made.

Miftar Shala arrived in Canada a teenager — he's now 37 and a married father with children

CBC has followed Miftar Shala's story since he arrived in B.C. as a teenage Kosovar refugee 20 years ago. He now resides with his wife and two children in South Surrey. (Mike Killeen/CBC)

It's been 20 years since refugees from war-torn Kosovo arrived here in B.C.

Among them was Miftar Shala, then 17 years old and trying to cope with the loss of his country and the culture shock of moving to a new one.

"You're in a different place, you still have these memories of what happened back home, which you would believe or would like to go away, but for some reason they never do," Shala said.

In an interview with CBC Vancouver News host Mike Killeen, Shala said not a day goes by that he doesn't think about the horrors of the war.

'I remember midday when the bombing started'

It was July of 1998 when Shala first experienced the violence. 

"I still have fresh memories of dead people I've seen and burned houses torn down, bombings, bullets flying everywhere," said Shala. "You don't know where they're coming from. You know you don't know which way to run."

More than 13,000 people were killed or went missing in the Kosovo War.

Victims of the Kosovo War fled to neighbouring countries, many of which were accepting refugees. (CBC)

Shala and his family, like many others, crossed mountains to escape the conflict. Eventually they ended up in Macedonia along with hundreds of other refugees.

It was there they were faced with a choice that would shape the rest of their lives: Stay and try to recover what they could from their burned homes or pursue a new life on a new continent.

'Canada was our last option'

During the war, nearly every country was taking refugees, providing the Shalas with plenty of opportunities to stay close to home.

"We never dreamed, we never thought that we would end up [in Canada] because it was too far for us."

But his family was approached by a woman from the Canadian government with the promise of being fast-tracked to Canada under an accelerated program for Kosovars with family in the country.

Six weeks later, the Shalas were on a plane to CFB Trenton in Ontario, before finally landing in Richmond.

WATCH: CBC profiles the Shala family shortly after their arrival in Canada back in 1999

Refugees from Kosovo settle in B.C.

2 years ago
The first ethnic-Albanian refugees of the war in Kosovo were welcomed in B.C. back in 1999. 2:44

For Shala, learning English was difficult but made easier thanks to hours spent watching television. His favourite show? Seinfeld.

He graduated from high school and now runs a delivery company.

His parents, two sisters and a brother still live in Richmond.

Kosovar refugee Miftar Shala never imagined life in Canada when he was growing up, but now says 'this is home for us.' (Mike Killeen/CBC)

"Canada gave me a second chance in life, a good life, you know? I go to bed and I don't have to worry about anyone coming to kill me, my family is safe here and opportunities are endless."

B.C. may not have been his family's first choice.

But there's no doubt in his mind it was the best choice.

"I can say with all my heart this is home for us, for my family"

with files from Mike Killeen