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20 years later: Canada’s response to the Kosovar refugee crisis

By Arta Rexhepi
"Destroyed Violin II" by Zeqirja Rexhepi
"Destroyed Violin II" by Zeqirja Rexhepi

In the spring of 1999, Canada sponsored 5,000 Kosovar refugees as part of an international emergency evacuation organized by the United Nations for hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled or were forced into neighbouring countries like Albania and Macedonia from war in Kosovo, one of several conflicts that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
ElbonitaRefugees airlifted to Canada were sheltered at military bases in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario. The Canadian Red Cross, in partnership with Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canadian Forces, provided aid such as clothing, hygiene products and other essential items.
Eight-year-old Elbonita Kozhani was among refugees evacuated to an airbase in Greenwood, Nova Scotia.
“I don't remember all the details but what I do remember is walking out of the plane to a huge row of people awaiting us with small Canadian flags and yellow teddy bears. I had a difficult time grasping how people could be so kind, even though they didn’t know us,” recalled Kozhani.
Elbonita Kozhani​

Refugees were matched with sponsorship groups to guide them in integrating in Canada, though all were given the option of returning to Kosovo within two years. About one-third eventually did go back but the majority relocated across Canada and were eventually joined by some 2,000 relatives as part of a government-approved family reunification project.
Kozhani and her family settled in Nova Scotia. She now strives to give back to others and devotes time to new refugees.
“Who better to relate to than someone who’s walked in those shoes before?”

Nicole Wood and her dog MunchieAmong nearly 1,000 Red Cross volunteers who assisted the refugees in three provinces was Nicole Wood of Windsor, Nova Scotia, who saw it as an opportunity to repay the kind welcome she received from an Albanian family while backpacking in Europe the year before.  In fact, she quit her job to volunteer full-time with the Red Cross in Halifax.
“They took us under their wing and shared what food they had. We cried our eyes out saying goodbye,” Wood recalled of her European experience.  And as for volunteering to help those evacuated to Canada, “I would do it again in an instant. [This event] sent my life on a trajectory of incredible adventures all over the world.”
The Canadian Red Cross relies on volunteers from all walks of life who bring different skills and experience to humanitarian responses here in Canada and around the world. For information on how to become a Red Cross volunteer click here to learn more
Arta Rexhepi

Nicole Wood in Kosovo
with her adopted dog Munchie

Guest author Arta Rexhepi, of Halifax, arrived in Nova Scotia 20 years ago when her family was among 5,000 Kosovar refugees seeking safety in Canada. Her father, renowned artist Zeqirja Rexhepi, co-hosts an art exhibit with the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax on July 12 to commemorate the anniversary.
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