FØR JEG KJENTE DEG (BEFORE I KNEW YOU)
It is 1993, a young pregnant woman took her three children, aged two, four and six, on a three day-long bus ride across Eastern Europe. The “trip” was not voluntarily. In her country, Kosovo, tension between ethnic Serbians and Kosovar Albanians was rising in the wake of the Balkan war and many Kosovo-Albanian families were fleeing the country in fear of persecution.
The woman was a trained nurse and had also studied Albanian language and literature. When she got married, she moved from her hometown Mitrovica to the small village of Busi, where her husband was from. She taught Albanian language, history and literature at the village's only secondary school. Kosovar-Albanians who in any form promoted Albanian culture risked being jailed, harassed and threatened by the Serbian police. The last thing she saw before she left the village in the wake of the war, was her students, on their way to school. She never got to say goodbye.
The family first sought refuge in Germany and although the mother managed to build a somewhat stable life there, the pieces she tried to put in place for herself and her children, were swiftly shaken up four years later. In 1997, the German government proclaimed that it was safe for Kosovar Albanians to return home, but reports from family members that had stayed behind, were painting a different picture. Again the family had to pack all their belongings and flee, this time seeking refuge in the Netherlands. They first came to a small transit center, housing hundreds of refugees, with only one single shower and bathroom for the entire group. During the day the refugees wandered around a hall that had rows of chairs fixed to the floor, like on an airport. At night two large rooms filled with bunkbeds would open, one for the men and one for women and children. Breakfast, lunch and dinner consisted of slices of bread with butter and cheese, and sometimes an apple. After a year of being moved from one refugee camp to another, the family was yet again rejected and threatened with deportation back to Kosovo. The rug was again pulled from underneath their feet and all hope for a safe life began to fade. But giving up wasn’t an option. The next destination was Norway, another unknown country, new language and even more refugee camps.
In 2001, after eight years of struggle, the family was finally granted residency and eventually citizenship in Norway. Not because their home in Kosovo had been burned down and the family members that had stayed behind had been driven out of their homes. Not because they had been on the run for eight years and needed help. But because the mother was a trained nurse and there was a shortage of nurses and nursing assistants in the country that year.
This mother, is my mother. I was four when we fled Kosovo and 13 when we were granted Norwegian citizenship. "Before I knew you" is a photographic documentary, which attempts to document the life that my mother sacrificed, in an attempt to find protection and peace. But most of all it is a gift to my mother, because she is deserving of someone to care about her life and her journey and because I know of no other person who has endured this much hardship, and still manages to find joy and fulfilment in life.