Lancaster refugee tells of terrifying escape from Albania with her children in tow
Yllka Sinani Thompson fled civil war in her home country of Albania 22 years ago and subsequently built a new life in Lancaster.
Here is Yllka’s story told in her own words...
We are often challenged by the news on the television about the tragedies of inadequate boats overloaded with man, women and children trying to cross the English Channel or lifeless people found in the back of a lorry.
Some people express sympathy when affected by the images of a father carrying his dead child in his arms and some speak with contempt and judgment without knowing the real reason why these people have taken this dangerous journey.
What made these people leave everything they had built their whole life around, their own home, family and friends?
Did the traffickers tell them the real truth about the treacherous journey and the potential risks or did they try to deceive them?
Deception can so easily be achieved in such desperate situations.
People who want to save their children’s lives are prepared to do anything in order to escape the horrendous life they are living.
Would you have done the same to save your children’s lives?
Well, 22 years ago I took the same journey, not knowing that I was going to end up in the back of one of these lorries because of the lies and deception of others wanting to take advantages of my desperate situation.
It was some time in October. That morning before we left I looked around the house that I designed myself and built from the ground.
The garden was full of greenery, full of fruits and flowers that surrounded the house like a beautiful scarf.
I was just in my 30s and despite ups and downs we had managed to achieve almost everything we had planned.
We had two beautiful children, our house had been built to our taste and we owned a successful business, (coaches doing the journey from the capital city Tirana to the border of Greece, Kakavi).
Until one day we unexpectedly had to leave everything and go.
Mixed emotions played in my mind as I was sad to leave, but then happy to go. I went into the garden.
The scent of lemons hanging in the branches and golden orange trees which were overflowing with young fruits filled the air.
I picked one lemon and took in its beautiful fresh scent knowing that I might not smell that again for quite some time.
On the veranda my children were hugging their dogs, Lassie and Gina, their faces filled with sadness.
Lassie was my son’s hero and best friend; he was his buddy. They had that special bond together. Just seeing their faces made everything seem so real.
That morning we said our goodbyes and as we drove away, I couldn’t help but look back at my house.
I stared from the car window until the amber light spilling on the veranda faded away, and the tip of the grey roof disappeared completely.
I felt the anxiety of the unknown future as we left our home.
Dawn sat on the horizon, and as the sun rose slowly lit up the city, shining on the abandoned shops and ruined buildings.
The country I loved had perished. The busy, bustling city of Tirana had ceased to exist, turning into a ghost town.
The more we moved away the more I felt a deep emptiness; pain and sadness inside me grew.
I could feel my smile fading away like the life I was leaving behind.
I wanted to shout out so this knot of fear and uncertainty could escape from my body.
Was this craziness? Was I really leaving my country, my family and friends, my house, or was it just a test of my ability?
“Wake up woman”, the voice resounded in my head. This was not a holiday trip somewhere on the beautiful coast, leaving home for one or two weeks and coming back to normality.
This was an uncertain journey on the way to the unknown destiny that was going to affect our whole lives.
Not sure how, where and when... not sure about the path we were taking, how long it was going to take, what was going to happen and when it was going to end.
It was like taking a random chance in the middle of a rough sea not knowing which way the waves would drag us, somehow hoping that we wouldn’t end up as lifeless bodies drifting onto the seashore.
I quickly gathered myself together remembering the real reason I was on this journey, my children’s lives.
Even though Communism had perished in Albania years ago, the history of war and bloodshed, family blood feuds, crimes and insecurities of life in the country would repeat itself.
The civil war broke down. The blood of the people smeared the pavements, the song turned to wailing and the loss to anger.
There was even an order to bomb the civilians by air or throw gas at them at some cities in the south but the pilots did not obey the order.
Instead they escaped and flew to the military airport in Italy where they testified the truth.
We took our first flights from Tirana to Malpensa airport Italy, then changed to Dusseldorf airport Germany. And as we were picked up by car to drive us through to England we were left in the middle of the forest somewhere in Belgium.
We tried to make a space to sit down somewhere in the middle of the dark forest, haunted by the cold winter’s air whispering like witches’ voices between the ancient trees and in the distance owls hooting.
We shuffled helplessly between the brittle fir trees and sat on the damp leaves, terrified, in silence.
I felt my children wrapped around me, scared and vulnerable.
It was 3.30 am when the trafficker finally returned.
“He told us to follow him and we arrived back at the roadside, where, through the dim moonlight, we saw a large lorry on the opposite side of the road.
Quietly, we walked over to the shutters at the back of the lorry that was already partly open.
“Quick, climb in one by one”, he whispered while he was waving his hand for us to get in, ‘“and be careful not to make any noise”.
“You first, with little kids,” he said, pointing at me. I hesitated, looking at him shocked and murmured angrily, “Are you kidding me? Really? In the back of the lorry? I don’t think so. If the agreement was for me and my children to jump in the back of the lorry, I would never have set off on this journey. That’s why we chose the expensive option. We were promised! Where are our other passports?”
“Shhhhhhh”he whispered through gritted teeth tapping his finger against his lips.
He leaned close to me and through the dim lights from the lorry, I could see his cold dull eyes in his stern looking face and felt his stale breath on my face.
“Listen lady, mademoiselle,” he said sarcastically, “There are no other passports, I wouldn’t ask you to jump in the back of the lorry otherwise. I don’t have time for this right now, I don’t care, and I don’t give a damn even if you do not want to jump inside the lorry. This is the best option you get right now. You have less than a minute to get inside before the lorry driver wakes up.”
The decision had been made for us and our fate was in someone else’s hands. Feeling powerless to do anything, there was no turning back now.
I was in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles away from home with my children, so right there at that moment I had no other choice but to jump inside the lorry. I had to do something that I never thought I would do, something that I had seen in the movies and thought that it would never happen to me.
There was no mercy crossing that channel in October that year.
What if something dire happened? Nobody knew that inside that lorry were seven humans who might need to be rescued – not even the lorry driver.
At that instance the only option was the power of hope.
We survived, but how many lives haven’t? They’re just human like us. They set off for one reason or another just like us.
The only difference, we were just lucky. And for the one who did survive, as it‘s not hard enough to start a new life from zero they had to cope with racism and discrimination.
Why do these people have to be treated differently than others? What’s happened to equal opportunity?
These unfortunate people had to leave their own country. I hope the life that lies ahead of them is much better than the one they left behind.
It’s not the wish of anyone to become a refugee. It’s not a dream of anyone to leave their homes unless the bullets whistle over their homes and threaten their children’s lives.
No one wants to leave their home unless the heart of innocent children trembles from the sound of the tanks crossing the streets like almighty giants.
It is not a dream of any parent to put their children’s life in danger by crawling into the back of a lorry or climbing into a small boat to cross the Channel, unless that’s the last hope of survival.
Put yourself in their place. They have lost everything that they worked hard to build in their life.
How would you feel if you went through all the trauma that they experienced and then have to deal with rejection and a lack of identity from the society that they hoped would love and respect them?
They have suffered enough. They don’t need our pity.
They need a place of love and security with some respect and dignity.
We often go back to my country, Albania, where unbelievable changes have taken place over the years.
The old, damaged roads and the half burnt down houses have been replaced with new ones. It is a new way of life now.
It is safe and people
are walking around with no fear.
My country has been reborn and transformed again into the beautiful place I once knew and the beautiful coast is full of tourists who come to explore all over the world.
I hope that, one day these people are able to go back in their country, just like me today, without the feeling of fear and are able to live their lives peacefully.
Yllka is currently working on a book telling her story of being a refugee.
Yllka describes her book ‘Unbroken Soul: The Story of a Mountain Girl’ as a powerful autobiography/ memoir.
Yllka Thompson said: “It is an intensely inspiring true story that follows the life of an Albanian young woman, of a survivor and perseverance in spite of the danger and obstacles from early childhood through the many stages of her life.
“It describes the compelling story of the journey from the trapped life of communism to a new life of freedom.
“It is an account of an unbearable life of abuse, desperation and sacrifice which is overcome to build a new life in a new country.
“Each chapter is filled with extraordinary real-life stories describing how adversities can be overcome.
“Happiness and joy are interspersed with sadness and deep despair, from start to finish, as the planned stages in my life unravel before my eyes, only to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes of her dearly held dreams.
“I want my story to be told as a story of hope and endurance.”
*Unbroken Soul: The Story of a Mountain Girl will be published soon.