A personal account from a man who was forced to flee his home country at 18.
I grew up in Albania in a very picturesque village. My home life was good and I was very happy. But that was before 1997, when there was political turmoil and a civil war. The police completely collapsed. People broke into the army bases and stole weapons. All the prisoners broke out of prison. There were political demonstrations, shootings and killings. Because of my family’s involvement in certain affairs, my dad decided it would be safer for me and my brother to leave Albania. Before that I’d never thought of leaving or even imagined what it would be like. I was 18 years old.
It would have been impossible for us to get visas, so we made the journey illegally. It involved all the things you’d expect: not using main roads, boats without lifejackets – things could go wrong at any moment. For example, on the boat, a gunfight almost broke out. It was really tough but we had enough will to continue, so we continued.
It wasn’t our planned destination, but after being stopped by the police in England and nearly being sent straight back to Albania, we ended up in an immigration detention centre in Oxford while our immigration case was considered.
I spent about nine months in the centre before I was released – my brother was released after three months. While I was there, I did my best to integrate. I was helped by Asylum Welcome. They provided me with the most amazing English lessons I could imagine. They also helped me with clothes, because on my travels I had lost some and had given some away.
I was homesick, not just because I missed the idea of home, but because I knew I couldn’t go back. For me, that’s when homesickness is at its most severe: when you’re a long distance from home and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I used to think about the different routines of home, the family getting together, I used to long for it. My mum was always so comforting and that comfort was no longer present. It was tough to adjust to not having the full family circle and friends around me and everything that comes with that. My energy levels dropped and my memory wasn’t as good. I had difficulty remembering people’s names, when in the past I wouldn’t have had a problem with that at all.
I found the best way of dealing with it was to socialise, to play sport or chess. I researched the religious activities that were available at the centre. I loved going to the Hindu religious celebrations and I went to the Mosque even though I was a Catholic. I went to a Protestant priest that used to come and preach. I think it drove me to find answers from within.
In the beginning, I thought my homesickness would be a temporary thing that would pass after a couple of weeks or a few months. I think that kept me going to begin with. There were certain other periods when I knew that it was going to be more permanent. I found myself calling home a lot and reading Albanian newspapers or the Albanian news online whenever I could.
My worst times have been when I’ve worried about situations with my family or friends at home. Things that, when I was there, I wouldn’t have stressed or worried about because I’d know the whole story, but being far away my imagination has made things much larger or worse than they really are.
After nine months, I was released from the centre and was allowed to stay in the UK. I’ve found more ways to cope with my homesickness. For me, gardening and nature are very strong reminders of home. We had a beautiful garden and I used to help my dad with the grape vines, fruit trees and beehives. Now I’ve settled I’ve planted all the things we used to grow at home and I have been on a beekeeping course. Whenever I have the time, I like to walk in the countryside, but it is different from in Albania, so it doesn’t feel completely the same.
I try to remain active in life. I’ve done my best with all the opportunities and chances I’ve been given, but the longing feeling never goes. I still look forward to speaking to my mum and to my family, whenever I can, and now the situation in Albania has improved, I am able to go back and visit. I’ve also been doing meditation. It’s helped me cope better and understand my own mind.
When I had been in England for around six years, I met a Spanish man who came here a long time ago. I felt as though he hadn’t really dealt with his feelings of homesickness – he didn’t fully think of here as home – and I wondered if I would be the same after that many years. Now, having children and having been married for over a decade has helped me create a home of my own here.
I now live with my family in South-west England. I move from job to job, but soon I’m going to start driving buses because I want a job that will give me lots of contact with people. Having children has made me more grounded and has given me more of a sense of belonging in England. Now I have my own family here, I’d be homesick for that if I were to go back to live in Albania. But, I have to admit, here still doesn’t feel 100 per cent like home.
Nikolin’s name has been changed.