by Melissa L. Michaels, Managing Editor
It was the second day of first grade, and Flamur Vehapi couldn’t wait to start school. He ran up to the line of first-graders, who talked and laughed while waiting for the teachers to come greet them.
Suddenly, the doors flew open. Flamur glanced anxiously at his friends.
“You all go home. This school is not for you!” a group of soldiers marched toward them, shouting in Serbian. “You Albanians, you do not deserve education.”
Held back at gunpoint, 500 Albanian students watched as their 30 Serbian classmates entered the school.
It was September 1992 in the small village of Suhodol, Kosovo—in Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslavia.
One of the teachers rushed out of the building. He interpreted the soldiers’ Serbian for the children. Crying, he attempted to explain why they had to leave that day. “Please leave the school,” he pleaded. “We will inform you later if there is something we can do.”
The children were silent and confused. They began to scatter. Flamur’s brother, Lumjan, was also a student there, and the two of them started walking home together.
Once home, Flamur and Lumjan rushed to their parents’ arms, sobbing. “Why us?” they asked their mother, Mahmudije. “Why not the Serbs?”
Under the Serbian Milošević, the Albanians had already lost the freedom to speak their language without fear of harassment, despite 90 percent of the Kosovo population being Albanian.
Flamur refused to let Milošević take away his education, too. “I never gave up,” Flamur recalled, years later. “I always wanted to go to school.”
For eight years, Flamur continued his schooling in secret. He and other students met in small groups, their parents and fellow Albanians providing the education denied them by their government.
Flamur was fifteen when war broke out in Kosovo. Serbian soldiers entered his home. “We’re going to come back and take everything left in the village,” the soldiers yelled before marching off with his family’s belongings.
There were twenty families living in thirty homes throughout Suhadoll, about 200 people total.
The soldiers warned the villagers not to try and leave, not to take the freeway. Flamur’s father decided, “Let’s leave this place, because we’re going to die if we stay.”
The Vehapis jumped into their car. The neighbors warned, “Don’t do it! They’re going to shoot you all!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Flamur’s father replied, “They’re going to do that, anyway.”
Flamur sat in the back seat with Lumjan and their sister, Vlora. His father drove straight toward the town. Approaching the checkpoint, they saw a Serbian soldier raise his machine gun. He aimed at the car.
Another soldier was standing beside him. He squinted to get a better look. “Skender!” the second soldier called his father’s name. Hearing the note of recognition, the first soldier lowered his gun and walked away.
“Skender!” the soldier called out again, but his father kept driving.
Passing through the checkpoint, Flamur sensed he had just escaped death. That’s when he realized he needed to write everything down.
So he did. He wrote about returning to his village later, everything in flames. He drew pictures of his house burning down. These were later published in Albanian.
Already fluent in five languages, Flamur began to study English. He was determined to come to America for a higher education.
Twice, Flamur failed the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) required to obtain his visa. He continued to hone his English. Finally, Flamur passed the TOEFL, arriving in Oregon in 2005.
Starting at Rogue Community College, Flamur later transferred to Southern Oregon University, where he is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He hopes to use the counseling skills he is learning to help the people of Kosova, which announced its declaration of independence on February 17, 2008. Flamur wants to teach his community the value of ethnic diversity as Albanians and Serbs work toward healing and reconciliation.
Last December, Flamur published a second book, this time in English. During a reading from The Alchemy of Mind, Flamur told his audience, “My past inspired me to write poetry. I just want to share the message of peace that I bring and inspiration to the community.”
Flamur’s journey is not over yet. While he receives an international student scholarship, it is not sufficient to cover expenses. To make up the difference, he works at SOU’s Hannon Library and continues to seek alternative sources of financial aid.
Whatever obstacles remain on the path toward obtaining a PhD in psychology, Flamur will never cease pursuing the education Milošević tried to deny him twenty years ago.
“Dreams can come true,” Flamur told the audience at his reading. A cliché in another’s mouth, these words take on a profound depth coming from Flamur, a living testament to the message of peace and inspiration he is already bringing to every individual who hears his story.
Melissa L. Michaels is director of communications at SOU and managing editor of the Southern Oregonian.
Photography by SOU alumnus Rory N. Finney.
Illustrations by Flamur Vehapi (originally appeared in his book of poetry and drawings entitled Sfidat Jetike). Flamur is preparing to graduate from SOU this spring.Email This Post