Nova Scotia·Opinion

Fleeing Kosovo: a refugee's reflection, 15 years later

Arta Rexhepi, a Kosovar refugee, reflects on her life in Canada 15 years after she and her family fled the war-torn region.

This year marks the 15th anniversary since Kosovo was torn apart by war

Macedonian police supervise as hundreds of ethnic Albanian refugees gather in Macedonia to be relocated to refugee camps after crossing from Kosovo May 18, 1999. (Enric Marti/AP)

Fifteen years ago, I never pictured my 15th anniversary in Canada to look like this. I had dreams, just as all children do, but experiencing war in Kosovo perhaps shrunk them. I would need to write a book to tell my full story but here's an insight.

Late one night, more than a decade ago. Myself and my family were staying in a refugee camp in Stankovec, Macedonia.

I remember staying in a tent. My brother and sister were really sick. Sleep was very short since the crowds were huge and children's cries were endless.

During the month my family spent in the refugee camp while my country was being torn apart by war, I celebrated my 13th birthday. It was a gift. I was there, I was alive and I was whole with all my family. We were lucky to survive.

A few weeks later, it must have been 10 or 11 o'clock at night, two unknown women in their late 30s came by our tent to find out if we were ready, packing for our flight to Canada in the morning. That news came as a surprise to us.

There was a tent shortage and they needed one for their family. We could relate to that. The men in my family often slept outside in the pouring rain. 

We had no idea what the ladies were talking about. We didn't know we were scheduled to fly to Canada. My dad had signed up to leave for possible destinations in a couple of Western countries. He wasn't that eager to leave, until my sister and brother started getting sick.

Packing didn't take long, we had very little with us. Everything we had was left behind in Kosovo. By then everything was probably ash. The next morning, I felt confused. I had a million thoughts going through my mind. I didn't know what to expect. 

Starting over

More than 15 hours of travelling later, we landed in Nova Scotia late in the evening. We were greeted by Red Cross Volunteers, teddy bears, reporters and officials. I was exhausted. I didn't want to go through all the blood tests, fingerprints and long lineups.

I remember my first breakfast though, it was amazing. It was just like home. Finally some food that wasn't canned. Shortly after arriving, we were then transferred to the Military base in Windsor Park in west end Halifax.

I had a great time at the military base, it was sort of like going to rehab. I made new friends, some of whom remain close. We really were very welcomed. We felt a sense of belonging, and we could relate to other people from Kosovo with whom we would exchange our stories.

I was very eager to learn English.

At the military base we had English as a Second Language tutors and I immediately started attending classes. I tried to not think about the war back home in Kosovo, something that was easier while at the base. I was surrounded by many great people there and it kept my mind off things.

My dad played a huge role in healing us from the trauma, using art and music to do that.

We met many amazing Canadians during that time, including the Red cross volunteers who always had a smile on, military personnel, doctors, the Jubilee group who assisted us for a couple of years into settling in Nova Scotia.

We also met some great reporters like Rob Gordon who, after he did a story on my family, decided to invite us to his house for a BBQ.

It may have been just a simple BBQ, but what Rob Gordon did for us was life changing. He gave us a feeling of home again, after being homeless.

My dad, who worked as an artist and musician in Kosovo, lost much of his artwork when we fled our home in Kosovo. 

Every one of his paintings had an amazing story to go along with it.

I was intrigued by the stories of his art work. People were amazed visually, but I always wanted to know the story behind it.

I think that's when my curiosity of storytelling got planted in my mind. My curiosity, along with Rob Gordon's inspiration, made me want to be a journalist.

'I'm here for a reason'

War is never good, but good things can come out of it. I think my experiences with war have made me a better reporter because of it.

I believe I'm here for a reason and maybe I'm supposed to tell the stories of those who didn't made it.

I've had many great opportunities in Canada, like getting the opportunity to intern at CBC. They've been extremely supportive of my learning. I'm also very grateful to NSCC and my instructors, who have been great mentors, really pushing me towards my journalism dream. 

Since my family came to Canada all those years ago, they have also had many opportunities. My dad Zeqirja has his work displayed on murals all over the Halifax Regional Municipality — making HRM prettier, I think.

My sister Tringa has shared her talent in musical theatre and she recently joined Shakespeare by the Sea for this summer's productions. My brothers are involved in art design.

However, my oldest sisters, Ema and Yllka, and my mom have taken a different route. Both of my sister's are laboratory technicians. My mom Bea, a former actress in Kosovo, has a hair shop on Windsor Street. 

I imagine people have mixed feelings about the 15th anniversary of Kosovar refugees coming to Canada.

For me, it's a happy anniversary. I'm happy I've been able to come to this amazing country, even though I wasn't happy at the time.

It's happy because the war ended, happy because we got a second chance at life. It's sort of like being reborn. For some, those who've lost family members and who've gone through extreme torture and agony, it's devastating.

Experiencing war and conflict is never easy but it prepared myself and my family for any tough challenges on the road ahead. 
Fifteen years later, I have two beautiful children who are Canadian. And next month I graduate from NSCC in Broadcast Journalism. Who knows what's ahead but so far it's been a great challenge.
Happy anniversary to all refugees who came, the ones who went back and everyone that worked with us during the time.


Arta Rexhepi is a graduate of the Nova Scotia Community College in broadcast journalism. She and her family fled Kosovo and came to Nova Scotia in 1999.