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  • Foto van schrijverMira Kaloshi

#Personal 3 generations on their quest to find a liberal world in Schaerbeek

Bijgewerkt op: 7 feb.

In the light of #RefugeeWeek, I wanted to take a moment to share a deeply personal story about my family’s experience, particularly focusing on my dad’s aunt who spent a significant portion of her life in Schaerbeek, the very place I coincidentally reside and work in now. This story sheds light on the struggles, resilience, and integration that my family and many refugees have experienced firsthand.

The first generation escaping Albania

During the communist regime of Hoxha, numerous Albanians sought to flee the country by attempting to cross the Yugoslavian border. While some succeeded in their endeavors, many tragically lost their lives at the hands of Albanian border soldiers. Yugoslavia was perceived as a gateway to the liberal West, but crossing the border came with its own perils. Individuals faced capture, death, or being subjected to Yugoslavian authorities who often coerced Albanian refugees into spying, resulting in a cycle of back-and-forth border crossings. Surprisingly, there is a lack of international research on the escapes during the communist era. Despite this, I have gathered valuable insights through the firsthand accounts of my family members. This story is a testament to the importance of preserving and sharing such testimonies to ensure that these stories are not forgotten.

Finding a home and freedom in Schaerbeek

Pregnant at the time, my dad’s aunt embarked on a treacherous journey, crossing the Korabi Mountains with her husband and their one-year-old child. Although they successfully crossed into Yugoslavia, they were subjected to the authorities there. The subsequent events that unfolded are too numerous to capture in this story, but what matters for the purpose of this is that they eventually found refuge in Schaerbeek, Belgium.

Discovering that Schaerbeek had been a haven for many Albanian political refugees during the 1970s was a revelation. The reasons behind this concentration of refugees in the commune remain unknown to me, but it was in Schaerbeek that my dad’s aunt managed to establish a home for herself and her family. Determined to provide for her children, she worked tirelessly, holding down three jobs even beyond retirement age. She lived a long but challenging life, passing away in her 90s and burried in the cemetry of Schaerbeek. Her home.

In the year 2000, my father also sought freedom in Belgium due to political instability in Albania during the 1990s. Just the other day, while walking with me in Parc Josaphat, he shared that his aunt used to bring him there as a way to “walk away his depression.” It was during this conversation that he first opened up about his own struggles with mental health that were brought upon by leaving his country, and his career.

A serendipitous return to Schaerbeek

At the age of seven, I, too, fled to Belgium with my family. Our first night was spent in Schaerbeek, but we eventually settled in Flanders. When I contemplated on moving to Brussels in my late twenties, Schaerbeek wasn’t the number one commune on my list. I had a job in the European bubble of Ixelles and I spent six months searching for an apartment there. After countless visits I stumbled upon an apartment in Schaerbeek, and without hesitation I said ‘yes’. Soon after, I posted a picture of a cute dog belonging to the owner of the coffee bar in my neighborhood and wrote:

“Unlike the dog, I have not been here long but, like Winok, I feel an intense urge to protect this neighbourhood from all that is artificial. From everything that has nothing to do with community and only with ‘self’. That sense of community had been dwelling in me for some time but somewhere along the way I lost it. Perhaps this is the age when nature commands me to be more concerned with ‘us’ and less concerned with ‘self’. ‘Life becomes more ironic by the day because I traded the commune where everyone I love lives for a commune where I have never loved. However, I have never felt so full of love.”

A couple of months after writing this caption, I was offered a job in Schaerbeek — a job that has connected me with the diverse population of Brussels in ways I could never have imagined. I found out my dad had a cousin who owned a restaurant and a bakery here. I found out, I had whole community, three generations in fact, who had sought safety but above all freedom, and had found it here in Schaerbeek. Serendipity? Who knows.

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