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A Glimpse Into the Kosovo war

Imagine if your mother needed to give birth to you, but all the hospitals were saying we don’t accept your kind here. This happened to my mom. In order for her to give birth to me she had to travel 90 kilometers north to the Mitrovica city. There she knew someone who was working at the hospital and would sneak her in to give birth. Might I add that this was during a very cold November day? I was born into injustice.

My birthday was seen as a big celebration to many because I was the boy after three girls in the family. This was such as celebration that two schools stopped classes because my mom’s colleagues were so excited and decided to celebrate instead. Still to this day many people tell me about how they didn’t have classes because of my birth. Crazy right? However, underlying this celebratory occasion was a deep sense of tension that all the Kosovo Albanians were experiencing at the time due to political tensions between the Serbian Government and Kosovo Albanians.

My dad and I for my uncles wedding in Kosovo.

Living in Prishtina, capital city of Kosovo, and way too young to understand what was going on, the first thing I remember was that when I turned two, my dad had to leave us and go work in assembly labor in a factory in Turkey. The job was horrible but he left us because most Kosovo Albanians were fired from public or governmental jobs – and we needed money to survive. My mom was a teacher in a public school, and my dad was a professor in a public university – both of them fired during the same time. My mom was working without pay because she and many other teachers felt that they could not abandon Kosovo Albanian students. Again, I could sense tensions were rising as I was missing my dad. I remember I use to call my dad’s factory phone and ask “ile konuşmak Agron” – means ‘speak with Agron’ in Turkish.

As time passed, my dad decided to come back and start a business in Kosovo because he could not live far from home any longer. He, together with my uncle started an electronic business in our basement. They were fixing electronic appliances, as well as invent products that they could sell to earn a living. Two products that they sold successfully were an EKG system to measure heart activity, and a remote controlled device that will direct a home satellite. I feel that if my dad was in US, he would have been extremely wealthy. However, in Kosovo tensions were still on the rise, especially after some Kosovar Albanian’s decided that they have had enough of this Serbian government aggression and formed the Kosovo Liberation Army. This did not go smoothly and ended up in leading the Serbian government to undertake an ethnic cleansing process to get all Kosovo Albanian’s either killed or out of Kosovo.

Kosovo Albanians being forced out of their homes. (Eric Feferberg photo)

I was around 6 at the time and all of a sudden we were hosting one mother and her four daughters in our house. Our house had three floors. Top floor was where my grandparents, uncle, his wife, and three kids lived. Second floor was for our family of 6, and the bottom floor was my dad’s “laboratory” and an extra room. It didn’t make sense to me to host a family because we only had two rooms per floor. Soon, I came to realize that they had fled from the village and their father was killed by the Serbian paramilitary forces. Then a sense of concern arose in me and filled me with compassion for them because I had a quick glimpse of how it was having no dad.

Along with my house being filled with strangers, our classrooms also started growing in size because many of the people from the villages were fleeing to the city due to violence. In the news we could see many houses were burning, massacres were happening, and many more horrific things. I think that no child should ever understand the word massacre and think about it on daily basis. Many people started fleeing Kosovo and asking for refuge. By this point, my mother was preparing us with emergency situation training as well as filling our house with emergency food supplies and lot of candy. For sometime I was enjoying this food situation in our home due to this excess of candy and food.

My first grade class during 1996-1997. I’m the one next to the teacher with a tiger shirt (stylish like Madonna).

While all of this was happening a flood of international organizations came to serve, observe, and monitor the situation in Kosovo. Many people got Kosovo Albanian employees as translators, chefs, cleaners, and more jobs like this. My mom was cleaning bathrooms and cooking. My dad was a driver. And then, Recak Massacre happened. This was one of many horrific events that happened, but what was different this time was that this particular massacre occurred while these international organizations were in Kosovo. The whole world got to see what was happening! Soon after, led by United States, NATO decided that they need to stop this injustice and intervene to support Kosovo Albanian’s before it is too late. NATO gave a chance to Serbian leaders to stop the violence, but their pride got on the way. NATO bombing started March 24th, 1999.

This was the peak of the tension. The Serbian government and paramilitary forces were full of panic and fear. This led to many more massacres but ultimately they unleashed their plan of ethnic cleansing all throughout Kosovo. Within days, at daytime I remember looking outside of my windows and seeing thousands of people in lines leaving their homes. At night, there was bombing sirens, no electricity, and NATO bombing! We were all excited to see the bombing, and sometimes we could feel the vibrations too. When they target the Serbian communication building in Prishtina, we were all watching as the airplane unloaded tomahawks and brought the building to ashes within minutes.

NATO bombing in Kosovo

During the daytime, more and more people kept being forced out of their homes. I was asking my parents what was going on and they were saying that people were going on vacation. That was exciting to me! I was thinking we can go to a pool in Bulgaria and somehow I managed to convince my older cousin that we are going on vacation as well. We were running up and down our home celebrating in ecstasy. Then, we ran into our grandfather and we shared our excitement with him. He grabbed us by our t-shirts and shouted “We are not going on vacation! We might die trying to leave this country! We would be lucky to end up in Albania or Macedonia!”. And just like that, our fantasy was squashed and our worry began. Many years later I understood the fact that my grandfather has been a political prisoner for sometime from the same Serbian regime and all this craziness that was happening lead him to over-panic.

My grandfather Sedat Dida, my grandmother Nadire Dida, and my older cousin Ben Dida. This photo was obviously shot 8 years later but these are the characters. My grandparents have passed away but they will be always remembered.

While many people were being forced out of their homes and these long lines of people were formed on the street, my cousin and I were playing soccer in our front yard. While we were playing, we heard couple cars and trucks suddenly stop in front of our home. Swiftly, we saw soldiers with masks running towards our house. We both fled inside our homes completely terrified. Running inside and closing the door proved unsuccessful because this solider with a black mask was right behind me. He came in the house yelling and was slowly approaching me. Looking at his eyes through the mask I got to witness pure evil while many other soldiers started entering the house. I got to witness how this person was so proud, yet hateful and full of anger. I was extremely scared and I was by myself until my superhero mom came down and started yelling at the soldiers and ordered them to back down. All this was happening, while my dad and my uncle ran outside to talk to the soldiers and ensure that they do not harm us. Fortunately, one of these masked soldiers was my dad’s student, and he told my dad:

“Look professor, you have the options to leave or to get killed. You have to get out of here, don’t wait. It is not safe anymore for you and your family. There are trains leaving and you should take them. You have 5 minutes to decide.”

Serbian paramilitary in Kosovo.

Of course we left! Then I realized the genius of how my mother had everything prepared for us and the emergency procedures were in place. While our emergency packing was done ahead of time, we were ready to leave within 2 minutes. However, my grandfather and grandmother were worried that they will slow us down in the case we needed to take a long walk in the woods. They did not want to jeopardize our safety and decided to stay home. It was extremely sad to say goodbye to them, and by this point we were all convinced that they will be killed.

Broken and walking towards the train station, my family decided to sneakily take a detour and go to my aunts house. We went there to spend the night and reassess the situation. There were plus 50 people sleeping in her small house. That night felt so restless but yet I had this sense of adrenaline and hope rushing through me. Next morning, we woke up at 4:00 am and made our way towards the train station. We were the only ones there. The train came at 5:00 am and we were feeling grateful that we will have the train for ourselves. It was my first time on a train! However, the train was not leaving and we did not know when and where it will be going. A flood of people starting coming in the train station while we were all watching them through the windows. Families carrying their members who could not walk in wheelbarrows and trying to make a place for them on the train. The train was packed to a point that people were sitting on top of each other on the seats to a point that it became hard to breathe.

Photo at the Prishtina Train Station during the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians.

“Choo-Choo” we all heard the whistle signalizing that the train was on the way and whoever is not inside will have to wait another day. A rush of panic, sadness, and deep grief overcame all those in the train. We were waving goodbye and wishing best wishes to those who did not make it inside the train. My younger sister had her violin with her, and we found a special place under the seats to protect it. The train was leaving and after 10 minutes of commute it stopped in an area outside of Prishtina. Outside of the train were a group of Serbian paramilitary soldiers with long beards deciding our destiny. We all recognized these soldiers as part of a military group called “chetniks”. They had long beards and they were known for brutality, slaughter, and rape. I remember hearing my father saying “they need to send us to Albania or Macedonia. Let’s pray they do not send us in Serbia.”. After 3-4 hours of waiting for them to make this decision we luckily ended up being sent on-route to Macedonia. “Choo-Choo” we are on our way again.

As we are approaching the boarder the train stops and everyone is ordered to get out. We were not in Macedonia, we were not in Kosovo, but we were in-between boarder area in the middle of these two countries. As soon as we get out we realize we get to overwhelmed by the large amounts of people already there. In our eyes it looked like a million, but later on we learned that there were around 70,000 people there. My parents were terrified and they brought us in a huddle and told us “No more playing, no more messing around. We have no shelter, we have very little food, and we have to conserve our energies.”. I was upset, a little scared, but also worried because there were a lot of people in a state of panic.

Kosovo Refugee settlement in Bllaca, an area between the boarder of Kosovo and Macedonia.

My parents were wrong. There was food and shelter at the boarder – and this was all thanks to some amazing volunteers coming from Macedonia, Albania, and from all over the world. I remember seeing some volunteers from Macedonia with a truck full of food were passing the boarder while the boarder police was hitting them with bats. I wish I had an iPhone to record the incredible courage and braveness of those volunteers in that moment. Volunteers were amazing! They were handing out food, started building shelters, handing out blankets, and distributing water like true angels. While I was standing in the crowd waiting to get food, one volunteer noticed me and gave me a piece of bread and chicken spread and told me I hope that is enough for you big guy. I will never forget how the eyes of that volunteer were shinning and vibrating with this pure loving reflection and compassion.

The sun was starting to set and the temperature was predicted to be way below freezing at midnight. Many parents who had young kids were concerned that they might not make it. My mom, the entrepreneur she is, found a way to get me (the youngest in the family) to cross to Macedonia. My aunt’s husband worked for RedCross and he had this badge that he was thinking of using to pass the boarder with (claiming he was an international volunteer). My mom tells me “listen to your aunt and don’t worry about us.”. I just remember running through a very muddy path with my aunt and her husband to cross the boarder. While we were running I fell down and got covered completely with mud. I started to cry and felt like giving up – but my aunt’s husband yelled at me and pulled my hand so I can start running with him. We passed the boarder!

Covered in mud I was shocked by this whole experience. Some volunteers brought me some clothes and even though they were girl’s clothes I very much welcomed to remove the muddy ones. I held tight to my jacket because that was were my mom stitched some gold coins along with a list of contact information of family friends in any of our neighboring countries. This was part of her emergency plan for all of us. We arrived in the city of Kumanova where we got hosted by this family. They were extremely nice to us and allows us to stay in their house as much as we needed. I remember when it was time to go to bed, I looked outside of the window and there was this massive pouring rain. I missed my family and felt cold in my heart.

From the left, my sister Jeta Dida Bujari, my dad Agron Dida, my little sister Drita Dida, me nephew Zjarr Bujari and I, mama Kimete Dida, and my middle sister Bardha Dida Rogova. Photo taken in 2014.

Couple of days passed and we didn’t hear anything from my family. By this time I started playing soccer with the kids of the neighborhood. Then all of the sudden my aunt tells me that my family crossed the boarder and they are in town of Gostivar. I gave my aunt the number of the person who was our contact in Macedonia, and she called him asking if he could drive me from Kumanova to Gostivar. He came to pick me up, bought me so many food items on the way. And finally, I was reunited with my family at another incredible host family from Macedonia. Very happy to see everyone, but my dad was missing. He and his brother (my uncle) decided to stay behind and volunteer at the camp to set up shelters for those who couldn’t. Our host family, Selimi family, was extremely kind and they treated us the same as they would treat their own family. We started school in Gostivar (the school was extremely welcoming as well)! The schools name was Goce Delcev and people were incredible. Couple of weeks later we heard that our grandparents were alive, we got to talk to them on the phone and I remember asking them “How are my toys?”! We heard rumors that my dad is still at the camp volunteering.

One day while I was playing soccer with my friends all of a sudden everyone is telling my cousin and I to go home. We wanted to play but they kept insisting with a big smile. While going back home, we see some very muddy boots outside the house. We recognized that our fathers are back!!! We sprinted inside the house and gave our fathers the biggest hugs imaginable (while everyone else was crying tears of joy). The father of the house family, Xhemil Selimi was a true hero. This guy was not just hosting us, but he and others worked to ensure that the refugees that are inside Macedonia are not forced out of Macedonia. They way they did this was buy laying down on the street so the cars with refugees could not drive past them. Heroes, i tell you!

Soon after my dad came back he found a job at UNCHR as a program coordinator based in Skopje. Forever in-debt, we left our host family and moved to Skopje. I was very upset for this move but my sister convinced me by telling me that there is a McDonalds in Skopje and they have Happy Meals! Now I won’t even step into a McDonalds, but back then I only saw the Ronald McDonald clown on TV making kids happy, and boy I needed some happiness.

We moved to Skopje in a smelly small apartment on the 5th floor. I felt very lonely in Skopje and I didn’t really enjoy my school. However, while in Skopje, we applied to immigrate to U.S. and we got accepted. We bought tickets and we were all ready to go. However, last minute parents decided that we need to go back to Kosovo and help rebuild things. We came back to Kosovo, got united with our grandparents and I got united with my toys.

The stories continue as we came back to a war torn country – but that it a story for another time. Thanks for sticking around <3

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Who am I?

First and formost, my name is Mentor. Yes, you heard that right, my name is like that, it is not my title. From time to time I do have a tendency to play the role of a mentor, which makes everything so confusing. I was born after three sisters and raised together with them in a tiny house in Prishtina, capital city of Kosovo, and there is a whole interesting story about that. But to cut it short, I was born into injustice, was violently kicked out of my house with my family by Serbian paramilitary force – which forced us to live in a refugee camp for sometime (will describe this story in another post). Fast forward, the war ended, Kosovo become an independed contry in 2008 and right after that I came to US as a high school exchange student in Apple Valley, California. If you do not know where Apple Valley is, I do not blame you! It is in between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, aka middle of nowhere dessert with no real apples, just tumbleweeds and freaking goat-heads. Lived there for 3 years, made some incredible friendships and discoveries about life and its situations. I was pursuing a associates degree in math and physics from Victorville Community college, and really fell in love with physics – and then i got to quantum physics and cosmology and my life morphed into one that questions not only what are stars and atoms made out of, but also who the heck is asking the question!? 

My dad was an electrical engineer and I was following his footsteps – as a lot of people tend to do. Nothing wrong with that, right? Wrong (at least for my case)! I had this moment that changed everything mid-way through my junior year electrical engineering program at Arizona State University (yes, i got out of the California desert to go to Arizona desert – story of my life). Witnessed, that some of my professors though brilliant, they were involved in the designing of the atomic bombs. I thought, how can a person who has so much intelligence use that intelligence for destruction? Then I realized that in school we do not learn to use our intelligence for advancing humanity as whole, we just absorb tons of information, repeat and memoize instructions, and do last minute work. That moment I realized that this got to change! Schools should be places where students are going to educate their minds, but also cultivate loving kindness and compassion in their hearts.

With this in mind, I wanted to start a university in Kosovo that educates the minds and the hearts of students. I envision it to be a “Factory for Changemakers”. With this bold and crazy idea, I went to the dean of students, Dr. Aaron Krasnow. He was that person who gave me permission by telling me that “you can do it, but you just got to start small and build your way there.”. I thought to myself, “Holy moly, the dean of Arizona State University told me that I can one day build a university that educates all the students to be Changemakers!”. Then, i also go to see the movie The Secret and my ego boosted 100% and i started believing in the power of my thoughts to create and manifest. Nothing could get in my way!!

Got to chat with President Clinton on how we could create a world where all the students are learning to be Changemakers. He loved the idea and told me to keep going!

From that moment, I went ahead and got to start 5 student organizations at ASU, got to co-found two non-profit organizations, launched a movement at Arizona State University, and got to be a student senator representing students. All this while getting recognized with many awards and a student leader while I was finishing my engineering degree (mostly for my parents and for me to have a piece of paper). I told myself, I’m going to get a masters degree in entrepreneurship! Nothing could get in my way!!

The summer after I finished my undergraduate (2014) degree was a tough one. While I was enjoyed the summer working with my friend Nathan to start a business in Kosovo, and enjoying life to the maximum! After a night in Prizren that was full of dance, singing, and drinking, my cousins woke me up looking like something has gone terrible wrong. I looked at my phone, i have a million missed calls. Then I realized that something has really gone wrong. My cousin who was looking extremely concerned woke me up and told me that I have to go back to my home. I asked him why, and he told me “your sister, Drita, is in the hospital.”. In that moment, I knew that she had passed away. We went back to Prishtina, were I got to face my family. I will never forget their devastated and broken spirits. Extremely heart broken, I told myself and the family that we have to accept this and not resist it. Nothing can be done about it anymore, but to learn lessons from her life. Remember when i said that nothing could get in my way? I was wrong!

Rest in Peace, Drita Dida – My lovely sister that will always have a special place in my heart. She was an person full of energy, who was an artist at heart, and giving person throughout.

This event lead to a series of chain events that were devastating to me that got me into an extreme depression and anxiety, disease, and ultimately a lot of a suffering. The school decided not to fund my masters program because funding got cut, my residency in US was being put into question, I had no job lined up, filled with student loans, and I was not being able to keep up running all the initiatives together with getting a masters degree that was suppose to be two years but I had to compact into one year so I can afford it (basically, taking two semester of classes in one semester). I barely finished my thesis in time – and at the same time I got chosen to speak at the graduation ceremony at ASU – what an honor. However, I found that outside success does not matter more than inner wellbeing. I did give the speech, but inside I was suffering from anxiety and disease.

Being the convocation student speaker and receiving the outstanding graduate student at Arizona State University was a true honor.

All of my efforts at ASU had gotten me some recognition from the community and through that I got recommended for a job, that I thought was my dream job. The job was at Ashoka, the organization that pioneered the field of social entrepreneurship. After 8 months of interviews, they offered me a job – yeah it was intense! I moved to Washington D.C., and ready to start my first job. The people were nice, and the team was extremely unstructured. I loved working there, but I had still didn’t overcome my disease and anxiety. I was struggling with my stomach pain, to a point that i got to get hospitalized while giving a speech in New York city event. After another 8 months (magic torture number) of going through doctors and tests to figure out what is wrong with me, they ended up diagnosing me with gastritis, acid reflux, irritable bowl syndrome, and my favorite appendixes. None of them were right, i was still struggling and the medicine was not helping.

While I was going through this turmoil, the only thing that was calming my mind down was YouTube videos of this Indian mystic named Sadhguru. He was not telling me to let go, or stop your mind, or any of that none sense. He kept blaming me for causing this to myself. I was realized that I was powerless against these thoughts and he was pointing that out. Until, one night he came into my dream and inserted a chewing gum into my mouth with force!? I woke up feeling struck but also needed to go to the bathroom. The next couple of days, I wake up and grab my phone to turn off the alarm. As soon as I click “Snooze” on my alarm, I received an email saying “Special Invitation for Inner Engineering with Sadhguru”. I felt like either this is a freaking strange confidence, or this is some divine intervention. The only way to find out was to go and witness what this Inner Engineering is all about. Let’s go to Atlanta to meet Sadhguru!

Went to Atlanta! Booked premium seats in a hall that had more than 1000 participants! Had an open but sceptic mind. I sat down, and they started playing this video of Sadhguru – I was thinking what a cool guy. Then, it was all quiet, and he enters the hall. As soon as he entered, I started feeling this intense energy in my spine and forehead. He goes on stage and starts chanting, and by this moment I’m completely in awe of what was happening to me. I’ve read a lot about how people were describing meeting enlightened masters, but nothing really got me ready for that experience. He initiated all of us into a meditation called “Shambhavi Mahamudra“, which is a 21 minute daily kriya practice. They told us to do this practice twice a day for 40 days, and then they said you will see the difference and will do it at least once a day.

This meditation turned out to be one of the biggest boosts in my life, because not only helped me with my stomach issues, but it also gave me so much energy, focus, and inspiration to be the best possible version of my self so I can best serve others. I am committed for my live to be an expression of love, compassion, and joy in action to benefit all life on earth. I still am committed to ensure that wellbeing and changemaking are prioritized in society (education, corporations, NGO, Government,etc).

Now i’m in Washington D.C., still working for Ashoka in our mission to advance an “Everyone a Changemaker” world. In Kosovo, am involved with many project but my priority is with Sustainability Leadership Kosovo – check out our work and let’s partner up. Speaking of partners, I’ve got a partner, Ali Fraenkel, who is a huge inspiration to me and to all around her. She also happen to work at Ashoka and has an ever loving heart for humanity and all its creation.

There she is!! <3

Thanks for reading my story. More details will be uploaded either through blogs or videos. Stay tuned! Would love to build relationships with new people – so please do not hesitate to reach out. 

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