In much of America, Syrian refugees are seen as threats, not victims. In February, the House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), said that accepting Syrians would create a “federally funded jihadi pipeline” to the United States. In June, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) called a hearing on the issue, arguing that terrorist groups might use refugee programs “to carry out attacks in Europe and America.” Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina has agreed, warning that we have to be “very careful about who we let enter this country.”
These arguments fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be a refugee. Abandoning your home during wartime is not a choice or a political opportunity. It’s a survival instinct, a frantic attempt to protect yourself and your children from violence, starvation or death.
This is a reality I know only too well. Sixteen years ago, I was forced to flee Kosovo after the Serbian military burned my house to the ground. That experience taught me just how desperate life can be for a refugee and how important it is to treat asylum seekers with kindness and grace.
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The war in Kosovo began in the spring of 1998, but sporadic fighting between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian military started much earlier. In 1990, Serbia stripped Kosovo Albanians of their political rights and occupied their institutions. In response, the KLA attacked Serbian-run police stations and army bases; eventually they seized control of entire towns.
The Serbians retaliated with a full-scale assault on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. Over a couple of months, they forced some 850,000 to flee the country; thousands more were displaced internally. Endless lines of refugees poured over the borders into neighboring Albania and Macedonia. It was one of the largest refugee crises in Europe since World War II.
At the time, I was 22, living in a small Albanian town just southwest of Kosovo’s capital. Though my family and I worried that we’d be targeted by the Serbs, we stayed. We hoped the war would end before it reached us. And besides, we had nowhere else to go.
We wished in vain. One afternoon in early April, I heard gunshots outside my parents’ house. I dashed through the door to find a dozen uniformed, masked men clutching Kalashnikovs. Grenades and knives were strapped to their hips. They summoned me over and marched me, guns to my back, toward the town square. As my friends and neighbors looked on, the soldiers began pummeling my body with the butt ends of their rifles. One pressed the barrel of his gun against my chest.
I prepared to die. But a commotion in the crowd distracted the soldier before he pulled the trigger. He turned away, and in the chaos that ensued, I sneaked behind a brick wall. Eventually, I was found by some neighbors, who carried me to my family.
We loaded ourselves into a trailer with about 25 other people and started out of town with just the clothes on our backs. We had no choice: By late afternoon, hundreds of Serbian soldiers had infiltrated our town of 1,000. They lit homes on fire and shoved people into trucks at gunpoint. Their message to us was clear: Leave.
Over the next 10 hours, our caravan of cars and trucks wove its way through a landscape of torched towns and villages. Serbian paramilitaries set up checkpoints along the road, robbing people of cash, jewelry and whatever other possessions they deemed worthy of pillage. They assaulted drivers, throwing rocks and shooting at them. Once, I watched soldiers drag a screaming woman out of her car. I don’t know what became of her.
When we reached the checkpoint just before the Albanian border, a large group of Serbian paramilitaries was waiting for us. Though it was pitch black, we listened as they approached each vehicle and ordered riders to give up their ID cards, passports, birth certificates — everything that gave us a legal claim to Kosovo.
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In Albania, we were welcomed into a 1,400-person refugee camp run by Caritas Spain. For 10 weeks, we slept in overcrowded tents, ate canned food and sweated through scorching temperatures. I became an insomniac and spent hours wandering alone at night through an alien landscape of endless canvas cones. I heard people sobbing in the dark.
Though we were finally out of danger, I felt depressed, heartbroken, hopeless. Without the constant distraction of war, I could obsess over the violence I’d faced, the traumas I’d endured. They haunted me. And I struggled to imagine what tomorrow could possibly hold. As a refugee, I had nothing. Where would I be resettled? What would I do? How would I make a living? My future was entirely in somebody else’s hands. That uncertainty only fueled my despair.
But there were also moments of grace. One day, I took my little cousin to the makeshift hospital inside the camp. Spain’s prime minister, José María Aznar, was visiting. We shook hands, and I expressed my gratitude to him. With moist eyes, he looked up at my bruised face and then embraced me and my cousin. That day, I learned that refugees need more than food, safety and shelter. They need people who will listen to the stories of loss, people who can offer not only kindness but also empathy and understanding.
In July 1999, my family and I returned to Kosovo. I worked for the United Nations for a few years, then moved to the United States on a student visa. I stayed to finish college, earn two graduate degrees and start a family.
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The Syrian conflict is much larger and more complex than the crisis in Kosovo. An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since 2011, when the war began. Of the 4 million refugees registered with the United Nations, 1.6 million are children under the age of 11; 708,000 are 4 years old or younger.
We had other advantages, too. The Kosovars were welcomed to Albania — thousands of families offered to host refugees in their homes. We shared a language and a culture. The Syrians, on the other hand, face angry officials, threats of arrest and a rash of hostility from border countries.
Still, as I watch news reports chronicling asylum seekers’ desperate boat trips to Europe, I’m struck not by our differences but by our similarities. I hear men and women speak of the amorphous trauma of leaving home behind. I see children, smiling and playful despite the chaos of war. And I catch glimmers of hope amid the despair.
The loss of a home is a near-impossible burden. Europeans and Americans must do everything they can to make the Syrian refugees feel safe and welcome.