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Finnish novelist Pajtim Statovci on his experience as a refugee

Into the wild: Finnish woodland left its mark on Pajtim Statovci

MY family fled Kosovo and moved to Finland in 1992 when I was two years old. As refugees, we were placed in a remote asylum centre that was located in a small town of around 2,000 people, about 100km from the capital Helsinki.

I don’t have any memories of life before Kosovo and very few of our first years in Finland. I remember only details here and there. But I do remember that I was plagued by a certain feeling: the disappointment my parents felt radiated from them.

They had left a fairly decent life behind and a moment later they were in the middle of nowhere, among people they couldn’t understand, in a foreign country that was supposed to be everything but what it was.

I remember how a worker shouted to my mother when she was eating that in Finland people don’t eat with their hands, and I remember how bothered my mother was by that.

I remember how another worker said to my father that his kids were beasts that should be chained, and how angry my father was after that.

I remember how scary the forest that surrounded the asylum centre was because my two older brothers convinced me that forests in Finland are endless, that they go on for ever, that there are places people haven’t ever visited.

Because I was such a sensitive child I imagined the forest being full of scary beasts, dragons and ghosts. I remember being afraid of spending time outside because of that.

After a while they gave us a two-bedroom apartment relatively close to the asylum centre. It was near a cemetery and, again, my brothers would scare the life out of me, saying that some of the people buried in the cemetery were not really dead.

My parents would stay up late watching television: news from Kosovo where the situation was worsening, where Albanians were being oppressed by the Serbian government. They were hoping they’d see someone they knew.

Right outside our front door there was a forest with a steep hill where blueberries grew. My brothers and sister would go pick and eat them and then come back to show me their violet hands. I remember wanting to join them so badly and then crying because I was too afraid to.

One afternoon I finally did it, with my mother, who convinced me that forests are not scary but peaceful places. Together we picked a small bucket of blueberries. I squeezed some in my palms so that they would turn violet and then showed them to my brothers and sister, triumphant.

Writing Crossing, a book about fabricated stories and misperceptions, taught me that it really doesn’t matter what I remember from my childhood because my memories are not mine. They’re recreations, something I tell myself happened. Much like fiction.

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci is out now, published by Pushkin Press