Blend’s journey from Kosovo to Carson Valley
Sometimes, the random face of war bears a resemblance to a 17-year-old boy who one day leaves his family in war-torn Kosovo and suddenly finds himself a high school student in Southern California.
For Blend Bardhi, the California sunshine, pizza and American music can’t erase the worry he carries for his parents and two sisters who live in Gjakov, a town in Kosovo hit hard by the war between Serbians and Albanians and a target of NATO bombing.
“It was difficult,” he said. “The hardest part is that I am away from my family. But I know I am going back this summer.”
Blend, who is ethnic Albanian, spent Christmas with Carson Valley residents Don and Marti Denham, whom he met while they were in Kosovo as missionaries and relief workers.
Today, he will be back in Southern California, attending the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena, one more link in a chain of events that began earlier this year when the Denhams showed up in Gjakov in September to begin relief work.
“The war had just ended and there was no school. Marti was walking down the street in Gjakov and I was walking down the street and we met,” Blend said. “I said, ‘Are you from America?’ She said, ‘Yes, I am from Nevada.'”
Blend, whose school had been closed because of the bombing, asked her for a job. She told him to come back, and the next day he encountered her again.
Blend is a little reticent to say what it was exactly that identified the Denhams as Americans even before they spoke.
“It was your shoes,” he finally confessed with a smile.
n Chance meeting. The Denhams hired Blend as an interpreter because of his fluency in English. He also speaks Serbian and Albanian. That chance meeting indirectly led to the teen-ager’s opportunity to attend high school in the United States.
One of the relief workers working with the Denhams belonged to a Rotary club in San Marino, Calif., whose members included the headmaster of a private high school.
The next thing Blend knew, he was being interviewed for a scholarship to the school. Because he had a passport as well as good grades, Blend was on his way to America.
Everywhere he goes, he reads foreigners’ accounts about what is going on at home. He picked up the Los Angeles Times recently to read a front page story about Kosovo, profiling a woman who lives on the same street as his family.
Blend’s father is a textile engineer and his mother teaches high school chemistry. His 21-year-old sister is a college student and a 12-year-old sister attends elementary school. But life in the Bardhi household has changed over the past few years since the Serbians increased their attacks on the town and the NATO force responded with three months of intense bombing. The Bardhis tried to flee to Albania, but were turned back at the border.
Blend’s account of what happened to his family and friends is relayed in a quiet monotone. His home was spared damage while neighbors lost everything. Day-to-day survival during the worst of the bombing depended on the ability to secure basic necessities.
In addition, the population of Gjakov nearly doubled to 120,000 because of refugees fleeing bombing in nearby villages.
“During the bombing, it was dangerous to go out. Every day, the women would stand in line for food,” he said.
“Three times the Serbians came to our house and told us we had to leave. We tried to go to Albania and soldiers turned us back when we got to the border,” he said.
He said the ethnic Albanians were treated better by regular Serbian soldiers than members of the para-military or the Serbian police.
“We just took the most elementary things, like clothes and some food. We hid our valuables in the ground. We rode on a tractor to get out of the country. Three times, we were turned back. Luckily, I didn’t lose my passport, for some of the others, the soldiers robbed their IDs.”
Blend’s desire to tell the truth about Kosovo prompted him to consider journalism for a career. But first, he has high school to finish. He’s in the junior class taking three units of English as a second language, world culture, current events, journalism and physical education.
“The system here is very easy. You take a test and if you do well, you take another test. At home, the teacher would call your name. You stand up and talk about the lessons,” he said.
Blend will return to Gjakov for the summer and come back to California for the next school year. He’s already planning to take college entrance exams with the hope of attending an American university.
“I want to return home an educated man,” he said.
Blend said he is grateful that the NATO bombing temporarily stopped the war. In retaliation, he said, Serbian soldiers burned down the historic section of his town in retaliation.
n Treasure lost. “NATO forces were bombing night and day for 24 hours. It was very loud, depending on where the target was. We would just go underground in a bunker. Sometimes, it was very, very close. But we were glad when we woke up the next day,” he said. “Even though the old town was burning, that didn’t change my mind. It was our treasure, but we can rebuild with the help of the United States and the Europeans.”
Communication with relatives is difficult, Blend said. Mail and telephone service outside the country are practically nonexistent.
He did talk to his parents by telephone for about five minutes shortly after Christmas.
“They told me not to worry about them, that they are OK,” he said.
“They are very proud of me,” he said. “They are happy that I could come to America. This is a dream come true for me because the standard here is that you are educated and work hard, you can get ahead. You don’t have the problems we have in Kosovo.”