Lidija Grebo - my home will always be former Yugoslavia
It's the beginning of a new year, and some of us have vowed to make radical changes in our lives, to make a fresh start. For many people across the world, however, starting afresh is not simply a matter of giving up smoking or looking for a new job. Each year hundreds of thousands of people are forced to leave their homes, the victims of war or natural disaster. One of them is Lidija Grebo, who arrived in Prague in 1992 after fleeing war-torn Sarajevo. She's been here ever since, and now works for a non-profit organisation called Slovo21, which helps minorities and promotes tolerance in Czech society. I asked Lidija to recall the traumatic decision to leave her country for good.
"I was living in Sarajevo. And as you know, the war broke out, and after four months, I decided to leave. Because my children left at the very beginning, and for four months I had had no information about them, they were with my parents. So I decided to leave and find them."
Perhaps you can tell me your feelings on making that journey, and indeed how you made it.
"I was alone. I was not organised in some kind of convoy, or whatever. I left one morning at six o'clock, completely alone. I came to one point outside Sarajevo and then I waited for a bus, after which I travelled for three days until I came to the village on the coast where I'm from. I had some relatives there, some cousins, so I spent seven days with them because I was so tired, so scared - I simply was in shock. After seven days, I went through all of Croatia and through Hungary and came to Belgrade, where my children were because my parents lived there at the time."
How did you end up in the Czech Republic? Was it a choice?
"No, it wasn't. For my family it was very dangerous to stay in Belgrade, because of some things unconnected to the war, or our status as refugees from Bosnia. So we had to leave. And then one excellent guy, whom I didn't know at the time, called me and offered for me to come to Prague."
Do you remember something which made a particular impression on you, your first memory of arriving in the Czech Republic?
"The first memory It was six o'clock when we arrived, after twenty hours of travelling. The guy wasn't there, so I was so scared. The first impression was the building of the main railway station. And that day, in the afternoon, we had a small walk. It was my first time in Prague. I had never been there before and I saw the Old Town Square and the Astronomical Clock and they were my first impressions of the city."
Do you think it was easier for you to come here and live here, because of the relative closeness of the Czechs and the people of former Yugoslavia? The languages and the culture are fairly similar, after all.
"Yes, but when I arrived, the only idea I had was to escape the war. So in the very beginning I didn't think about that. The Czech Republic - or at that time Czechoslovakia - was close to us, because of the language, and also because there were a lot of Czech tourists in Yugoslavia before the war. But at the very beginning I didn't even think about that. However, everything that I experienced afterwards for example I was shocked by the xenophobia. I didn't expect it because in my country we never met people like that."
So you experienced xenophobia in Czech society when you arrived?
"Well, it's hard to say because Czechs and Yugoslavs are both white. So you don't have that experience in the streets. But when you're in a shop, when you're speaking that "bad" Czech, with your strong accent, you can get the feeling that they're not so happy to have you in their country."
How long did it take you to become acclimatised to life in Czech society? How long was it before you felt really at home here?
"Oh, I am too old to be at home anywhere."
You still don't feel fully acclimatised in Prague?
"It's nothing to do with Prague - I could be in Paris, New York. I will always have the same feeling, it's a kind of nostalgia. I do want to go home. I will never feel any place in the world as my home: only the former Yugoslavia, as the whole, is my home."
But presumably you have Czech friends, and you mix freely in Czech society, and you've become absorbed into Czech society?
"I do feel integrated in some way. I work here, I have a lot of friends here, my job is very interesting so I have the opportunity to meet various people, to work with various people, and mostly they are Czech. I like living here - there's nothing wrong with Prague or the Czech Republic, but my home is somewhere else."
So "home" for you is an emotional state of mind.
"Yes, exactly that."
There seems to be a feeling across Europe now, among ordinary people and among governments, that illegal immigration must be stopped, we must crack down on asylum seekers, because our countries are not rich enough or big enough to take in so many refugees, whether they're from Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever. How do comments like that make you feel?
"I must say something which may be you know, if you've never experienced it, nobody knows what it's like to be a refugee. That feeling that you are without anything, that you are completely alone. That you are going who knows where. That you have children, and you know you have to take care of them. And you just escape not because you wanted that, but because you were forced to leave. I was forced to leave my country because I was so scared that my children could be killed, or that I could be killed. It is very difficult. On one hand I do understand the authorities, which have to do politics. But on the other hand, from that human point of view, all people must understand that refugees are very sensitive people. We have to understand their situation, and we should help them in some way. They can't go home. And 90 percent of them would prefer to be at home, not to be somewhere in Europe or wherever."