Hugging her two boys on the back of a bus laid Daniela, as she stared out the window and digested her last few moments in her home country of Kosovo. In Kosovo she would leave not only the frightening memories of violence and fear, but also the happy life she lived and the beautiful childhood she experienced before the war began.
The war in Kosovo, generally referred to as the Balkan War, began in 1998 and was between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which controlled Kosovo prior to the war, and a rebel group called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). The KLA began by attacking Kosovo police stations and Yugoslav authorities out of frustration of their control. Violence broke out on both sides, and the war rapidly escalated. Over 13,000 people were killed or went missing during the war but thankfully Daniela, a pseudonym as she requested to remain anonymous, and her children made it out of Kosovo alive. They sought refuge, along with thousands of others from Kosovo, in Albania. Daniela, was a medical student when the war officially broke out. They closed her medical school and she had to complete her training in private clinics. Lectures were given in professor’s homes and student’s had to go home before a certain time, otherwise they would be in the streets at night and face the devastating possibility of being arrested or shot. Daniela had come close to death multiple times, but one particular memory stands out in her mind. She had just tucked her boys into bed and decided to sit down on the living room couch and watch television. As she was half asleep browsing through channels, a bullet came crashing through her window. She didn’t know what to do or where to go and was terrified for not only her life, but the lives of her children.
Moments like these were not uncommon in Kosovo during the war. In the 1999 New York Times article “Abroad at Home; The Question of Evil,” the journalist Anthony Lewis explains the unfortunately often tragedies of the war. Lewis explains, “families were burned alive in their homes, and children were killed in front of their mothers.” This war was brutal and involved daily acts of injustice and immorality by Serbs. He even states that “One policeman threw a grenade into a basement where 30 people were waiting, killing among others a six-month-old child.” These atrocious conditions were clearly no place to raise a family. So when Daniela witnessed a bullet come crashing through the window of her home, and her children’s home, she knew she had to flee the country immediately.
Daniela, her family, and about forty other people clandestinely boarded a truck in the middle of the night and tried to escape the country.
After a couple of hours of driving, the truck was pulled over by members of the KLA. These members pulled many people off of the bus, including Daniela, and asked them why they were not staying to defend their country. They threatened Daniela, shamed her for fleeing, and took her and many others far away from the bus into some kind of holding cell. Screaming and begging to be reunited with her children, Daniela was merely dismissed. It was not until she thought to tell them that she planned to stay with a certain well-known doctor, who most everyone in Kosovo admired, that the guards brought her back to her children on the bus. Daniela had vaguely remembered her father mentioning the name of this doctor, as he was her father’s mentee years ago. But Daniela did not know him personally, and certainly had no intention of staying with him. However, for some reason, his name kept coming to her mind as she was being questioned. Only two or three people, out of the nearly twenty people pulled off of the truck, were brought back. That doctor indirectly saved Daniela’s life.
After many days of fear and despair, Daniela eventually made it out of Kosovo into Albania with her family. She flew to America and settled in New York with a refugee Visa. A family member agreed to sponsor Daniela and her boys, so it was with this family member in Staten Island that they first resided. The neighborhood was very nice, and since her and her family were refugees the government provided them with aid. The government paid for her flight, her housing (until they got established), and helped Daniela and other refugees find employment. She describes this help as “truly a blessing.” She also lived in a wonderful, supporting community. During Christmas time, the neighbors came around and brought gifts for her children. The neighborhood church would also bring them toys and food. Overall, everybody was extremely friendly and happy to have Daniela and her family in the neighborhood.
Daniela had been to America before, however during her first few weeks she noticed many differences between life in America and life in Kosovo. The one shocking difference between the United States and Kosovo was the amount of diversity; she had only ever been around other caucasian Albanians, so the diversity of America was new. The other obvious difference was the safe and calm streets of New York, as compared to the violent and dangerous streets of Kosovo. Daniela describes her first impression of New York as “simply amazing.” From the buildings to the trains, everything was both frightening and exciting. She felt like she was “on top of the world” when she walked down the streets of Manhattan. Upon first sight, Manhattan was amazing to Daniela, but it never truly felt the same as Kosovo did prior to the war. However, with time her perception has changed, and today she feels as if New York City is truly her home.
Before being able to call New York her home, Daniela faced many challenges in the city. These challenges included not only the stress of learning to fluently speak and understand english for herself, but the time and effort required to teach it to her two sons. Daniela describes this as an “enormous challenge,” as her sons were often very confused by the new language and new country; “they had no idea what was going on,” she explains. Her other biggest challenge was finding a job: she needed to support her family but had little success finding employment. Back home, she had completed medical school, but her degree was not worth the same in America as it was in Kosovo. She needed to complete her residency, and had to manage not only applying to institutions at which she could do so, but also finding a job to support her children. Eventually, after months of tiresome applications, she was accepted to a New York Institution and was able to complete her residency. There were many other tiring aspects of Daniela’s first years in America, her least favorite being the days when she had to check in at government offices. Every sixth months Daniela had to renew her identification card and everytime she would have to bring her two young boys. They would wait for hours on end, often the entire day, to check in with New York State. She explains that “the workers were not so nice and it usually took all day long.” These days were Daniela’s least favorite of the year, as her children were often screaming and crying, desperate to get out as soon as possible. Although Daniela experienced these hardships, she was overall thankful to be safe in America.
To evade the stress of adjusting to a new life, Daniela’s escapes were often to Central Park or the American Museum of Natural History, where she would take her family on the weekends. These were her favorite places to have fun with her family, relax, and enjoy her surroundings. She would kick a soccer ball around with her boys or enjoy the dinosaur exhibit at the museum. These places served as distractions from the hardships of everyday life.
Eventually, Daniela completed her residency, put her boys through school, and acclimated herself to life in New York. New York was her opportunity to provide a better life for her family and to grow her career: she succeeded at both of those goals. Her advice to a new immigrant would be to stick to your goal and work hard. She says, “you do have to be very very strong because you can be defeated by New York.” But New York is one of the greatest capital cities of the world and if you are determined to succeed, you will do so.
Today, Daniela is a doctor of internal medicine at White Plains Hospital. Daniela is not only a hardworking, determined, and caring physician, but mother. This month, her youngest son is graduating from college, and her oldest is currently pursuing a career in film production. Daniela’s New York is a beautiful place that she plans to live and enjoy the rest of her life. It is home.
Analysis by an AFP reporter in Pristina. “Kosovan Death Toll Is Its Argument for Independence.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 Nov. 2009, www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatnews/6692257/Kosovan-death-toll-is-its-argument-for-independence.html.
Lewis, Anthony. “Abroad at Home; The Question Of Evil.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 June 1999, www.nytimes.com/1999/06/22/opinion/abroad-at-home-the-question-of-evil.html.