Villagers Defend Kosovar Refugee A Roma Teen's Fight to Stay in Germany

Elvis Berishaj was just 6 years old when he and his family fled Kosovo. The Roma teenager has lived in a German village ever since and is a shining example of integration. Yet once he turned 18, he faced deportation. His only chance of getting a residency permit was to go back to Kosovo.

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The dark BMW travels slowly down a narrow dirt road. At the wheel is a tall, black-haired man, who seems to be looking around for something. He points suddenly to a burned out ruin off to one side, stones jutting up from the grass like rotten teeth. "That was my school," Fadil Berishaj says.

Sitting next to him, his son Elvis, 19, says nothing.

"And there," says Fadil, pointing to a stretch of fallow land reaching as far as the woods. "That was our field, that's where I grew potatoes."

Elvis still says nothing.

His father brakes and points once more, to a meadow behind a scraggily hedge. "And that's where our house stood, do you remember? Not even one stone is left."

Elvis says nothing. He doesn't want to remember that day in 1997 when the houses burned here in Kosovo; when the Albanian nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) drove mortal fear into the hearts of Serbs, Roma and Ashkali; when thousands of people left the country; when Elvis' mother pressed her son's face against her chest, covered his ears and simply ran with him away from this place, from Istog, the town that used to be her home.

Elvis Berishaj didn't want to make this journey into the past. He was afraid, even, to come here. But this is his only chance to be allowed to live in Germany.

Approximately 12,000 Kosovar Roma are facing deportation in Germany, nearly half of them under the age of 18. The German government and the Republic of Kosovo signed an agreement this April regulating, among other things, the return of civil war refugees to the Balkan state. Amnesty International has criticized the treaty, saying that more than 90 percent of Roma in Kosovo are unemployed, that their access to education and healthcare is restricted and that most of them live in camps outside the cities.

This fate loomed for Elvis too, and he fought against it for weeks, with an entire German village at his side. Now he's come to Istog, a trip of more than 30 hours by car, to ask for a passport. Only if he can provide documents proving his identity and his Kosovar background will the German authorities grant him a residency permit. The whole procedure is all a very German, very correct.

Integration Began in the Local Gym

Elvis was six when he came to Germany, a delicate Roma boy with ears too big for his small head. Now he's an adult, a young man with short, gelled hair, who feels most comfortable in hooded sweatshirts and says he always tries to see the positive side of things.

While politicians these days are quick to appear on camera exhorting immigrants to integrate better into German society, Elvis' story tells of another reality -- the reluctance of individual officials within the government to accept those who've long since made Germany their home.

Elvis' own integration began in a gym in Dingelbe, a village near Hildesheim in the federal state of Lower Saxony. Dingelbe has 1,000 inhabitants, red brick buildings, a village pond, a mom and pop store -- and the "ghetto," as locals call the home for asylum seekers, housed in a former sugar factory. This is where Elvis, his parents and his younger siblings landed in 1998, relieved to have escaped the civil war in Kosovo. As Roma, they were always caught somewhere in the middle of the various factions. Neighbors became enemies. "They set our house on fire," says Farije, Elvis' mother, a small, plump woman with twinkling eyes and colorful skirts.

Elvis sat on a bench in the nearby gym nearly every day, watching the village children play handball. "At some point, the coach tossed me a ball," Elvis recalls. "He said they didn't have enough players and asked if I would join in."

From that moment on, Elvis was one of them. A photograph of one of TV Eiche Dingelbe's youth teams, shows him kneeling in the front row in a green jersey, already wearing the same wide grin he sports today.

Today Elvis plays for the premier league, wearing jersey number 26, and is currently his club's top scorer. He plays up near the goal, since he's short and wiry, driving his way through the opposing team's defense, creating gaps through which his teammates can aim at the goal.

"Elvis never does anything halfheartedly," says his friend Sebastian Heiler.

"You can always count on Elvis," says his coach Jirka Strube.

"Elvis is sweet and honest and just as much of a clown as I am," says his girlfriend Saskia Sommerfeld. The two have been together for a year and a half.

"We would have adopted Elvis to keep him from being deported," says Saskia's mother Rosa.

This April, Elvis started training as a nurse. It's hard work for low pay, work many Germans are no longer willing to do -- one of the jobs, in an aging society, for which the country's labor market will eventually have to open its borders. Elvis sees it as a profession with good prospects. Besides, he says, he wanted to do something that involves social engagement.

He has always blocked out the fact that his life in Germany is only temporary. His parents, now divorced and both remarried to Germans, obtained their residency permits long ago, but their children together are only permitted to stay until they reach the age of majority.

'Like Falling from an Immense Height'

Elvis was the first one affected. Following his 18th birthday, he received two letters. The first informed that he had to provide proof of his efforts to integrate into German society. At the time, Elvis was doing a voluntary gap year at the Hildesheim Dialysis Center. He brought his school report cards to the Ausländerbehörde (Foreigners Registration Office). He had finished basic secondary education with a grade of 2.7 (approximately equivalent to a B) and was his class' representative several times.

"I told all that to the official," he says. "And that I coach the younger kids in my club. But he wasn't interested in me at all, he just copied my report cards and said he'd be in touch."

Then the official sent Elvis a second letter, dated Jan. 20, 2010. It read, "You are subject to an enforceable order to leave the country and do not have the right to residence in the Federal Republic of Germany. For these reasons I have registered you for repatriation to Kosovo. As per section 60a, paragraph 5 of the Residence Act, I hereby advise you to expect deportation in the foreseeable future."

Elvis picks at one of the handball calluses on his finger. "It felt like falling from an immense height," he says. "I never doubted that I was German. I mean -- I live like a German, I feel like one, I think like one. I'm only a foreigner on paper."

People in Dingelbe felt the same way. One Sunday this spring, after church, a group gathered at the village community center. They were Elvis' friends, neighbors, others from the handball club and his former teachers -- even two members of the state parliament. "That Sunday was the most amazing thing I've ever experienced," Elvis says. He sat at a table in the middle of it all, his girlfriend Saskia holding his hand.

'We're Fighting for Elvis'

The villagers quickly divided up tasks among themselves. Proceeds from the sale of beer at the Easter bonfire and from a benefit handball game against a second division team would go to pay for a lawyer for Elvis. Before the game, his teammates stood in silence, holding a banner that read, "In danger of deportation -- We're fighting for Elvis."

The grandmother of one of his handball friends promised to go door to door with a petition stating, "We oppose the deportation of Elvis Berishaj." In the space of three days, she gathered around 600 signatures.

Elvis' former school principal sent a statement to the Foreigners Registration Office: "From his first day, Elvis, who couldn't speak any German, stood out through his ambition and his strong desire to be accepted and respected in the class as quickly as possible. He worked hard at everything and always integrated himself admirably. In my opinion, there is nothing to justify expulsion."

A plant nursery owner and a pharmacist both offered Elvis a job.

Not long after, Elvis was a discussion topic at Lower Saxony's state parliament. Interior Minister Uwe Schünemann of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) praised the young Kosovar as a "model of integration." A few weeks later, the state's commission for hardship cases -- the body that rules on such immigration matters -- officially and unanimously overruled Elvis' deportation. He was allowed to stay.

With one condition: He must obtain a passport from his country of origin. German law decrees that issuance of a residency permit -- a white label stamped with an official seal -- requires the existence of a passport. The Kosovar embassy in Berlin won't be able to issue passports for another two years. A trip to Kosovo is the only remaining option.

The Foreigners Registration Office in Hildesheim issue substitute German identity cards for Elvis, his sister Elvira, 15, and his brother Edison, 13, specifically for the trip. Their parents want to apply for passports for the two younger siblings as well, while in Istog. "So they don't have to go through the same bullshit I did," Elvis says.

Together, the family crosses the border into Austria, they travel through Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro, then finally they reach Kosovo -- laying eyes again on the country where they easily could have died. They see toothless women driving cows and goats through the dusty streets and men hauling peppers in plastic bags. Mountains of garbage fill the space between buildings and cars on the streets have no license plates. "What is going on here?" Elvis asks.

He's not wearing his usual hooded jacket, but instead a pair of gray trousers and a black jacket. He wants to make a good impression.

Istog's local government is housed in a pink two-story building with barred windows. The Kosovar flag -- the shape of the country in yellow against a blue background, with six white stars floating above it -- waves above the front entrance. Kosovo has been independent from Serbia for just two and a half years. Seventy-one of the 192 United Nations members have recognized its independence, Germany among them.

Elvis and his family enter the ground floor of the building shortly after 9 a.m. An anti-corruption plaque hangs on the wall next to a non-smoking sign. Nearly everyone in the waiting room is smoking. Many of them are men with coarse faces, who carelessly grind out their cigarette butts on the terrazzo floor. Elvis raises his eyebrows in silence.

The door to room number 29 reads "Ofiqaria, Registry Office." After an hour, a heavily made-up woman calls Elvis' parents in, while the three siblings wait in the hall. "We wouldn't understand anything anyway," Elvis says. "We speak German at home." He begins to pace.

After another hour, Elvis' mother emerges. "The hospital where you were born burned down in the war," she says. "But they found your names in a file. First they'll issue your birth certificates, and with them we can get certificates of citizenship. We apply for the passports using those papers."

Elvis beams. So does his father, who rarely displays emotion.

But there's another problem: Elvis' parents. Fadil and Farije Berishaj both hold Serbian passports. When they first obtained their documents years ago, Kosovo was still a province of Serbia -- and the officials are unwilling to process the applications for Elvis and his siblings without the parents' Kosovar passports. "Which means that we first need to apply for Kosovar passports for ourselves," Fadil explains.

Elvis smacks the wall of a building with his hand, then settles himself on a wall under a tree with his legs drawn up. In Germany too, he always seeks out shade, wanting to keep his skin from growing any darker.

No Time to Think about Documents

In a rare moment alone, Elvis' mother talks about the war for the first time, about the shots, the vibrating windows, the people on fire. Her head bowed, she says, "We packed just one bag, took the children and ran." There was no time to think about official documents.

Farije only went to school for two years; she can barely read and write. She sees a future for her children in Germany. She attends all the parent-teacher conferences and development meetings, teachers say. "When the letter came, saying Elvis had to leave, I thought I'd kill all of us," she says.

A tractor comes around the corner pulling a trailer, a tired-looking Roma family sitting on it. "They're really the bottom of the pile here, aren't they?" Elvis asks his mother. Farije nods.

Many Roma sided with the Serbs during the war and Kosovar Albanians still view them with hatred today. They narrow their eyes when they see Elvis and his family on the street.

Once Elvis' parents have collected their documents, they have to go to the Republic of Kosovo's Ministry for Internal Affairs. A gray-haired man sits there, among hundreds of file folders, wearing a light-colored parka zipped all the way up. He silently sizes Elvis up with cool eyes. The radio is playing Balkan pop music.

The official licks his right index finger and leafs through the documents as if in slow motion. Once again, a government figure who doesn't know Elvis at all will be making decisions about his future.

Elvis sits in his chair, rubbing his palms against his thighs. His face glistens and he whispers something, very quietly, that sounds like, "Please say yes."

Finally, the man speaks.

"He wants to know if you speak Albanian," Elvis' father translates.

"Just German," Elvis says. "And English."

The official shakes his head dismissively. Grudgingly, he points to a white bed sheet on the wall with measurements drawn in blue marker and indicates that Elvis should stand with his back against the sheet. The man notes his height, 1.69 meters (5 feet 6 1/2 inches), then says in broken German, "Biometric photo." Elvis has to sit in front of the camera. The man adjusts Elvis' chin roughly, then the flash goes off. Elvis also has to be fingerprinted before he signs the form.

"Pasaporta do të jetë gati në shtatë ditë," the man says in Albanian.

Elvis looks questioningly at his father.

"The passport will be ready in seven days," Fadil translates.

When Elvis returns to Germany on a Saturday in October, he's carrying his first ever passport -- and the certainty that he'll be allowed to stay this time.

Back in Dingelbe, residents have raked their fallen leaves into small piles. Wind turbines turn in the distance and the farm stands are selling pumpkins. In the former sugar factory at the edge of the village, where the Berishaj family lives, the rain has gotten in again and all the beds and mattresses are wet.

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