First Person: Vlora Çitaku’s Journey from Refugee to Ambassador

How my experience as a child refugee has affected my view of the refugee crisis today.

By Vlora Çitaku, Ambassador of Kosovo

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Amb. Vlora Çitaku of Kosovo. (Courtesy photo)

Seventeen years ago, I was a refugee. Every day still, I relive the moment when my three sisters and I were separated from our parents, when Serbian military forces came to deport us from our home as part of their ethnic cleansing campaign. I will always remember my mother hugging me and shouting, “Vlora, take care of your sisters, and never forget where you come from.”

I remember walking, empty handed, not knowing where we were going, with no address, without my family pictures, separated from everything I knew and loved. I had nothing but hope — hope that one day I would be back home.

Atrocities of this magnitude expose not only the worst, they also display the very best humanity has to offer: solidarity, compassion and caring for one another. We Kosovars are living proof that when there is solidarity among free nations of the world; life beats death and good prevails over evil.

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Vlora Çitaku, right, as a small child.

Until the day I die, I will never forget the solidarity that was extended to us when my sisters and I crossed the border into Macedonia. I was exhausted, having carried my little sister in my arms. I saw a sea of people, Albanians from Macedonia.They were waiting for us with water, food and toys. And most importantly, with open arms and open hearts. I never thought a stranger could be so warm.

There was a man there waiting to take some refugees home. He saw me and my sisters and broke into tears. He came to me and said, “My name is Mexhid. I have three children. I will not leave you in the streets. My home is yours.” Indeed, his home would become our home for the next three months. The entire village came to see us, bringing food and clothing and toys for my little sister. They were trying to make us smile. I will forever be grateful.

Three months later, following the U.S.-led air campaign, Kosovo was liberated, and we all went back home and were reunited with our families. While we Kosovars were fortunate enough to be embraced and the world reacted quickly to end the war at that time, it breaks my heart to see what is going on in the world now.

Sixty-five million people are refugees today. It’s the largest number since World War II. But we must remember they are not only numbers, they are people. It’s lives cut in half we are talking about. It’s hopes and dreams cut in half.

The world should not, must not, be indifferent. It’s terrible to see the discourse around refugees today in the world. They are being treated as political issue. As someone who was once a refugee, I want you all to know how wrong that is. The case of refugees is a humanitarian issue. They are deported or forced to leave. And trust me, no one, no one wants to leave home.

We all must have an open heart. While politicians need to work and find a lasting solution, the rest of us just need to be human. We should not let humanity die. Because if that goes away, then what have we become? What set of values do we want to leave to our children? What are we teaching them with our behavior?

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