Refugee from Pristina, Kosovo, living in London for 20 years
I was an activist, I was very active with the young people's movement, joining all the protests, organising people, encouraging them to go out in the streets and protest against school closure and everything that was happening in Kosovo. I actually lost a few friends during these protests. I was arrested several times. They kept arresting me and made me sit in this cold room and kept asking questions for hours, it was very scary.
The war in Bosnia changed everything for me. I think between 1991 and 1996-7 almost one million people left Kosovo. I took a flight from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, to London. I remember my father having to pay money to somebody to issue a passport for me. There were a few of us, three young woman in the same position. When we landed we were asked, 'What do you want here? Why are you here?'. I said that I wanted to learn English, because that was the truth, so they gave me a student visa.
Deep inside I felt guilt for being so far away. It hurt so much not to be there. When you're away, you see things happening, you experience it emotionally and it can be very very hard, you're still going through the nightmares, not sleeping at night when you've been crying yourself to sleep because you've been worried about your family and friends. You don't know what's happening back home. There was no phone line, nothing. We didn't know where our parents where and we hadn't seen them for such a long time.
I couldn't even tell my parents that I had applied for asylum because I grew up in a country where you have everything, you don't apply for asylum. It's people from other continents that come to us and apply for asylum. I grew up in a communist country and the embassy followed people. They know that if you had applied for asylum you were against the state. You could never go back to it again. So I went to the Home Office in Croydon. I remember giving up my Yugoslavian passport and then I cried afterwards because that's when I realised what I had done, that I had no other choices. I was a kid, I wanted to go home to my mum and dad. I didn't say goodbye to anyone because everything was decided so fast, I just didn't have time.
The fear of deportation was enormous. Initially, we got four years leave to remain, then there was an amnesty in 1998. I knew that, if you're not a British citizen, you're not entitled to university. You can take some training courses up to a certain level, but you can't go to university unless you pay international fees and it was an enormous amount of money. So I continued to work until almost 10 years later. I went to university when I got my British citizenship in 2001.
I always shared my refugee story because I wanted people to know that you can't stereotype refugees. We're different, we're people, we're humans and being a refugee shouldn't label you. I was born and grew up in a normal family, in a normal country, we had great life, lovely holidays and, as a child, I only saw refugees on the news. And then suddenly everything changed in my own country but I didn't think of myself as a refugee, because I couldn't until much later, until the day when I officially had my passport taken and a Home Office piece of paper was handed to me. That's when I saw my name and something that mentioned the UN Convention for Refugees and I thought 'God, I am a refugee'. And I cried because I felt very sad for me. And for everybody else that came from my country.We have all done well. I have friends that have achieved great success stories, doing highly paid jobs. It's about following up on a refugee story to check where these people are. We don't have magic wands, we can't change our life in a couple of years. It takes some time. Most people do settle well, and they follow their dreams and they achieve and then they feed these dreams into their children, who are more likely to achieve even more, because they're second generation. It's a determination to succeed and be accepted. You know what that feels like? To be part of a population and you don't have that refugee hat on. It's a relief.