by Amila Golic:
The police started from the top floor of the building. They went from apartment to apartment, pounded on doors, rushed in, rounded up the inhabitants, and lined them up down the stairs. Outside, people filed slowly towards the train station, their heads bowed in fear.
“That’s when I officially became a refugee,” said Garentina Kraja with a painful smile.
Sitting in a local New Haven coffee shop nine years later, wearing a navy sweater emblazoned with an extravagant cursive “Yale” across the front, Garentina, or “Tina,” as her friends call her, seems like the typical college student. Excited about her sophomore year, she is spending the semester fulfilling her distributional requirements and taking the political science seminars that interest her the most.
But this former war refugee is clearly not an average Yalie.
Kraja grew up in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital, at the height of the clashes between the province’s ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the conflict, she began reporting for an underground youth magazine at age 16, forgoing further formal education. “I wanted to know what was happening. I refused not to know, and I refused not to report what I saw,” she explained.
When Kraja’s family fled to Albania, she stayed behind and continued her reporting, much to the dismay of her nervous parents. She soon earned a full-time job at Koha Ditore, Kosovo’s first independent newspaper, where she got her big break reporting on a previously unknown Albanian armed-resistance organization. But life in Kosovo was not without its challenges. In 1999, Serbian forces attacked her newspaper’s office, killing a guard and sending the publisher into hiding. A few weeks later, the police raided Kraja’s apartment complex and evicted her and her neighbors. She kept reporting for Koha Ditore.
As the conflict moved further into the international spotlight, Kraja’s writing began to impress editors from around the world. In 2001, she received a job offer from the Associated Press, which she eagerly accepted. Suddenly, Kraja—without formal journalistic training or a college degree—was writing articles for an international audience.
But how did an accomplished journalist become a Yale undergrad?
In 2005, Kraja discovered that she had been nominated for Yale University’s highly competitive World Fellows Program. Participants—mid-career professionals from around the world—receive leadership training from Yale faculty, while the university community benefits from their contribution to international awareness on campus.
Intrigued by this opportunity to broaden her understanding of the world, Kraja decided to apply for a position the following year. “I thought I could use the time [at Yale] to get context. Coming here was the perfect way for me to gather myself, to recompose myself, to think about what had happened and give myself some time to think,” she said.
During her semester in New Haven as a 2006 World Fellow, Kraja attended the program’s exclusive seminars and lectures and, just as excitedly, audited four courses in Yale College. “This was a dream for me, it was a world away. I wanted to sit in these classes and absorb everything,” Kraja said.
It was not a one-way exchange. Through presentations to the other World Fellows and lectures for the wider university community, Kraja provided unparalleled insight into everything that had transpired in her home country.
As the year drew to a close, Kraja decided to continue her education at Yale, this time applying as an undergraduate in the class of 2011. She laughed as she recalled her excitement when, that May, a dancing bulldog on the Yale admissions website announced that she had been accepted.
Though Yale was once “a world away” for her, Kraja has become an integral part of the university. Her work at Yale is informed by real-world experiences that few other students bring to campus. Between lectures, she thinks of her country’s future: “The challenge is how to build a country you’re proud of—this is what Kosovars like me are grappling with. How do you create an ordinary society?”
The World Fellows program gave Kraja the opportunity to engage with leaders from around the world, and she continues the dialogue on campus today—albeit with younger colleagues. While Yale has given Kraja a chance to “get context,” she inspires the rest of the Yale community to take a step back as well, looking beyond the ivory tower of academia to remember the realities behind the reading for a political science seminar.
Amila Golic is a junior English major in Pierson College and a managing editor for the Globalist.