As soon as Kosovo declared its independence in 2008, the newly formed government signed an agreement with educational institutions based in Greece and started providing scholarships for young Kosovars to study in the neighboring country. Today, there are dozens of young Kosovars studying in Greece, the majority of which are in Thessaloniki, due to its geographic proximity to Kosovo. The distance between Thessaloniki and Prishtina is 330km approximately, meaning a 4-hour drive by car, or a 5-hour journey by coach via Skopje. Despite the short distance between Kosovo and Greece, the bilateral relations of the two countries are minimal. In the mind of many Greeks’, Kosovo is a ‘mysterious’ or even dangerous place, associated with the war in ex-Yugoslavia.
“When I said that I got a scholarship to study in Greece, my grandfather told me: ‘They don’t like us over there, Greeks are like Serbians. Greece is our enemy’.It is usually the elderly in a community who speak against Greeks. I said: ‘I don’t think about Greece, all I think about is the College’. When I came to Thessaloniki, however, it was a different story. Everyone was helpful. I felt at home.”Naim, 25, graduated two years ago from a college based in Greece.
”I don’t want to be associated anymore with sad things. When people ask me where I am from, I reply that I am from Kosovo and I continue by saying: I come from the youngest country in Europe!”Ardian, 22-year old student in Thessaloniki
That is the answer I got from a Kosovar Albanian student, when, for the purposes of my research I asked him how he introduces himself to Greeks. The word ‘anymore’ stabbed me like a knife in my heart; decisive and angry, it felt to me like this ‘anymore’ contained years of suppressed emotions. ‘I don’t want to be associated anymore with the trauma of war’, he said. For the young generation of Kosovars, the Yugoslav tragedy was a reality, which they experienced in the cruelest way; years later, this narrative keeps following them as like a shadow, even when they are traveling away from their homeland.
“Greeks know nothing about Kosovo. And when they know something, then this is negative. They associate Kosovo either with war or with crime. I guess this is the information they get from the media.“Arta, 19-year old self-defined Bosniak student of rural background
Negative stereotypes between Greeks and Kosovars are two-way. On the one hand, Greeks identify Kosovo – and the Western Balkans in general – with instability, poverty, criminality and corruption; on the other hand, Kosovars also reserve skepticism towards Greeks, whom they regard as nationalists and detached from the Balkan reality. These are opinions shared by both Kosovar and Greek students which were interviewed in the context of the research. But what about Kosovar alumni?
The Kosovar Alumni
The research findings show that Kosovar alumni from higher educational institutions in Greece are currently holding key positions in Kosovar society and, more specifically, in the sectors of politics, education and banking. Some have also started their own business either in Kosovo or abroad. At this point, it should be emphasized that Kosovar students in Greece constitute a special category.
First of all, they cannot be labeled as ‘migrants’ in the conventional sense; Kosovars’ migration to Greece has a transitory character. Unlike migrants who enter Greece in quest of employment as unskilled working force with an average or low educational profile, Kosovar students are usually well-educated, with a strong command of English and more foreign languages. Sometimes they come from affluent and socially elite Kosovar families who have the economic capacity to send their children to study abroad. Some of them even left jobs at home, in order to gain what they hope will be a better education.
For those who are on a quest towards more promising professional or academic opportunities, Greece might just serve as a transitory country on the way to Europe or America; a country which according to the interviewees’ words, teaches them skills such as ‘tolerance’ and ‘respect to difference’, values that are indispensable to the citizens of a young state that aspires to become part of the European family by entering the EU and other international organizations.
On the other hand, the Greeks’ contact with the young people of Kosovo is an awakening. The unknown Balkans, which have diachronically been treated by Greece as “the poor relative”, are a historical and cultural treasure and a real-life lesson for the young generation of Greeks. As we speak, history is being made in the Western Balkans.
Encounters break Stereotypes
Visiting each other’s setting and having a personal experience of the other culture is the only way for Greeks and Kosovars to understand each other and change existing stereotypes. Evidence shows that Kosovar students transfer a positive image of our country back to their homeland, restoring many of the misconceptions prevailing in various Balkan areas around Greece and the Greeks. On the other hand, Greece should invest more consciously and systematically in its dynamic perspective as a center of education, research and innovation in Southeastern Europe; this way, it could consolidate its position in the wider region and contribute pragmatically to the European effort to promote stability and reconciliation in the Western Balkans.
I would like to express my gratitude to my supervisor, Stephanie Schwandner-Sievers, for her valuable guidance, continuous encouragement and commitment throughout my research.
[This article is based on research conducted between 2018-2019 in the framework of the program “Building Knowledge About Kosovo”, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society. The findings will be published soon. This article was originally published in Greek for the Huffington Post Greece (22 March 2019).