The refugee’s ad­ven­ture

How foot­ball saved Charl­ton’s El­iz­a­beta Ejupi

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Katie Why­att re­ports,

The foot­ball jour­ney of Charl­ton mid­fielder El­iz­a­beta Ejupi, 24, be­gins 1,626 miles from the Val­ley. To con­sult Google Maps is to meet warn­ing tri­an­gles cau­tion­ing that the route “in­cludes a car trans­porter, may cross coun­try bor­ders and your des­ti­na­tion is in a dif­fer­ent time zone”. Driv­ing takes 27 hours. A plane takes three.

Aged three, Ejupi alighted an aero­plane that had car­ried her plus her par­ents and her older brother away from Kosovo, which was on the brink of war, to Lon­don.

“There were mas­sacres, killings,” Ejupi ex­plains. “We were leav­ing to sur­vive.” Her fam­ily es­caped “be­fore it all kicked off ”, and in do­ing so spared El­iz­a­beta a child­hood of un­speak­able hor­rors.

Be­tween Fe­bru­ary 1998 and June 1999, war raged be­tween the Fed­eral Repub­lic of Yu­goslavia (com­pris­ing Ser­bia and Mon­tene­gro) and the Kosovo Lib­er­a­tion Army, which sought to sep­a­rate Kosovo and was sup­ported by Nato.

Nato’s in­ter­ven­tion was fol­lowed by the mass ex­pul­sion of Koso­var Al­ba­ni­ans. In 2001, a United Na­tion­sad­min­is­tered Supreme Court ruled that crimes against hu­man­ity and war crimes had taken place amid “a sys­tem­atic cam­paign of ter­ror, in­clud­ing mur­ders, rapes, ar­sons and se­vere mal­treat­ments”. It has since been es­ti­mated that 13,517 peo­ple were killed or went miss­ing dur­ing the con­flict, with as many as 1.45mil­lion Koso­var Al­ba­ni­ans dis­placed.

Ejupi’s mother was still study­ing at univer­sity when the fam­ily es­caped.

“They just had to drop ev­ery­thing,” Ejupi ex­plains. “My cousins and un­cles went to Ger­many. You get Koso­vans in Switzer­land, in Amer­ica – they’re ev­ery­where be­cause of that war. There was noth­ing you could [do] … it was say­ing bye to your fam­ily and leav­ing.”

She de­scribes flee­ing as “kind of a blur – if I was a bit older, I would re­mem­ber”, but blanks are prefer­able to the al­ter­na­tive. As it is, her child­hood mem­o­ries of Al­ba­nia con­sist, thank­fully, of “just play­ing – be­ing a kid, a three-year-old”.

They reached Mace­do­nia, where Nato had ar­ranged planes to trans­port refugees to Eng­land, and ar­rived in Lon­don. “We were quite a young fam­ily with kids. I think we prob­a­bly had pri­or­ity. I re­mem­ber my mum and dad say­ing that they looked down from the plane, and it was night-time. They saw this city and thought, ‘Where are we?’ They were young – 22, 23 – when this was hap­pen­ing to them. They had to get up and go with two kids be­hind them. When they got here, they started re­build­ing a life.”

What did El­iz­a­beta think? “I thought I was just go­ing on hol­i­day, that we were go­ing away for a bit,” she says. “It was an ad­ven­ture.” She soon re­alised it was not so sim­ple. “I don’t know if it’s just me vi­su­al­is­ing it now, but I do re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘When are we go­ing to go back?’ There was a mas­sive lan­guage bar­rier. I went into nurs­ery and I just couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t say any­thing.

“Even­tu­ally, we saw the news on the tele­vi­sion about the sit­u­a­tion in Kosovo. My mum used to al­ways try and get hold of her fam­ily, be­cause they were all there. I re­call her con­stantly try­ing to talk to peo­ple. That’s when I caught [on] that there could be some­thing not right. ‘This isn’t nor­mal, my mum be­ing wor­ried about every­one there.’ I kind of fig­ured it out.”

The foot­ball cage on their coun­cil es­tate pro­vided the first balm to the past. “It was eas­ier to make friends through foot­ball be­cause you don’t need to talk much,” Ejupi says. “You just kick the ball. Peo­ple like you if you’re good.”

She duly rose through Charl­ton’s Cen­tre of Ex­cel­lence, be­fore com­plet­ing a psy­chol­ogy de­gree at Not­ting­ham while rep­re­sent­ing For­est for three sea­sons, then Notts County for one, partly be­cause “my par­ents wanted me to make the most out of my life af­ter they’d had to re­build theirs”.

She spent a sea­son at As­ton Villa be­fore re­turn­ing to Charl­ton, “back home where I grew up”, this sum­mer.

Hav­ing worked her way through var­i­ous Eng­land youth set-ups be­fore drift­ing away dur­ing a hia­tus from foot­ball – “peo­ple are mak­ing a liv­ing out of it now, [but] I didn’t know what would come with it” – Al­ba­nia ap­proached her and she has rep­re­sented them since she was 18. “Foot­ball’s not some­thing that women did, so it’s catch­ing up, but there were play­ers there do­ing what play­ers are do­ing here: do­ing it out of pure love.”

Rep­re­sent­ing Al­ba­nia is “hum­bling” for Ejupi, and her fam­ily wear their past proudly and visit Kosovo ev­ery sum­mer. “There’s songs that came out af­ter the war and my dad still sings them,” she says. “I hear him singing, and it’s all about leav­ing and los­ing home. It’s some­thing that they’re go­ing to carry for the rest of their lives.

“I used to ask my cousins what hap­pened to them. They used to tell me sto­ries of how they’d be get­ting into the coun­try­side, try­ing to hide from ev­ery­thing. We’ve never just thought, that’s the past – let’s leave it.

“We’ve moved on from it, but we still know our roots, our cul­ture. We still have that in our lives.”

Home from home: El­iz­a­beta Ejupi (above) started play­ing in a foot­ball cage on her coun­cil es­tate af­ter her fam­ily fled Kosovo and is now thriv­ing at Charl­ton

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