By Indira Kartallozi
It was late April, 25 years ago, that I left Kosovo and became a refugee. Over these years, much has changed. I am now a British national who calls Great Britain her home. And beyond our island the world keeps changing: developments in science allow us to predict and react to threats faster than ever before, we have seen our economic system failing some. We have embraced technology and creative industries more than once thought possible. Yet the plight of migrants and refugees remains the world's most pressing challenge. These 65 million people inhabit a very different world, more imbalanced, more frightening and more unfair than ever.
Go back 25 years and I am an asylum seeker whose university education and work experience is not deemed fit to serve the British economy. I try to reinvent myself, open my heart, embrace the changes before me. "How bad could it be?" I ask myself. "How hard could it be, to be true and honest and to embrace my reality, my new identity as an asylum seeker and to be open and proud of my new life in the United Kingdom?"
Harder than expected, as it turns out. I am merely an outsider who speaks three languages fluently. I am fit and able, yet I have to suppress my desperation and file for unemployed benefits because I am not permitted to work. I have to swallow my pride to feed my 10-month- old son. "Yes, I am an asylum seeker, I was forced to flee and I am deeply grateful for the freedom and the protection the UK offers. But it wasn't a choice to be here." I practice and repeat those words so many times when my roots are questioned by strangers. I move on.
I learn the 'do' and 'donts' of being an asylum seeker. Do keep your status a secret. Do take any job because it's better than nothing. Don't hire a cheap lawyer who'll take you for a ride. I meet others in the same situation as me. We exchange the knowledge and the wisdom we've acquired through our battles. We live in a world of uncertainty and fear as we fight to show our abilities, to keep our identity in shape, to mend the broken reflection we see in the mirror.
Then one day, if we're really lucky, our papers arrive. And as I read it aloud to my 6-year old son, I weep. He is baffled and confused. He sees my happiness, but how do you explain to a child the importance of such paper? Or the sudden explosion of emotions and the hurricane of thoughts? Is this it? Is this the missing piece of the puzzle that will fill the void in my life? I am a refugee now; no longer an asylum seeker. I move on.
I have by now completed hundreds, if not thousands of hours of volunteering without ever being given a chance to progress into a paid job. I have endured insulting remarks, like being called 'this foreigner' while working at a place that supposedly existed to 'serve' refugees. I stay focused, ready to embrace the next chapter of my refugee experience.
I am fit and able to give my best to this country that offered me protection and freedom. By now I have a decent job and a car which is just as well because by now I also have three children and a broken marriage. I move on, into the world as a single mum.
I want to spread my wings and create change. I have become a fully-grown refugee. I'm wise and smart and at last I am free to use the skills and experience I gained back home. Who is tp stop me? Yet still I have to suffer the remarks of the alarm security engineer who comments suspiciously about how I could have acquired such 'wealth'. I ignore him, thank him for his services and I move on.
Then comes the period of being British, possessing not just a certificate but the feeling of 'being at home'. I work harder and decide to go back to education. I bulldoze through the barriers of academia in another language and graduate with a masters degree at distinction level in my pocket. I walk tall as I leave my house to drive my kids to school, only to have my neighbour still telling me to go back to my country. I ignore him and move on. I am British. I am Kosovan. I tell my kids: be proud of who you are. You are both of these.
Here I stand. Today, I travel the world and attend conferences where I'm able to speak my mind and share the knowledge I have accumulated over my 25 years of experience as a refugee. I am the director of a company and the founder of Migrant Entrepreneurs International. I seek solutions to the world's problems and I find them amongst likeminded people. I, the refugee, not only overcome all the obstacles in my way to reshape my existence but I supported hundreds of others along the way. This is what I do best because I relate to all the refugees out there. Wherever they're from, whatever language they speak, whatever the reason they were forced to flee, I connect and I understand. And when I do so, I make all that I have been through, mean something.
So many of us refugees share these attributes. We thrive in the midst of the challenges forced upon us. We open our minds and hearts when our identities are crushed. Our resilience is built from the roots of our vulnerabilities and our suffering. We value human life and freedom. We express our passion and love for humanity through hard work, creativity and art. Despite all the turmoil around us and behind us we transform, reintegrate, regenerate. When pressed to divide, we want to come together. We don't want to be victimised by society any more than we want to be demonised. What we want is to be partners in building our shared future. That is what we're celebrating now. Happy Refugee Week!
Indira Kartallozi is a human rights activist, migrant rights advisor, educator and social entrepreneur. Director at Kaleidoscope Futures & Migrant Entrepreneurs International
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