Former Kosovar refugees mark 20 years since Operation PARASOL

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Navy News / August 13, 2019

By Ryan Melanson

There was a celebratory feeling at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax on July 12, as members and friends of Nova Scotia’s Kosovar community gathered to mark 20 years since their arrival in Canada. The scene included friends laughing and catching up, energetic children running around, and culture being shared through art and live performance.

This would have all been hard to imagine when more than 5,000 refugees arrived in Canada in 1999 as part of Operation PARASOL. Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population was being violently forced from their homes during a brutal civil war, and many of those airlifted to Canada had lost everything.

“Operation PARASOL did indeed open up a parasol of hope for thousands of our people who watched their lives go up in flames. They were given a chance to start over,” said Lulzim Hiseni, Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo in Canada.

He added that the 20th anniversary gathering, organized by Pier 21 and the Kosovar Embassy in Ottawa, was intended as both a celebration of the successful lives former refugees have built in Canada, and as a thank you to the Canadian government agencies and hard-working individuals who supported the resettlement in 1999.

Along with many of the former refugee families and plenty of Canadian-born children who now call Nova Scotia home, the event was attended by a number of former public servants, medical professionals and Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) members who supported Op PARASOL.

“As a former refugee myself, I’m very touched to be here with my people and with many of the Canadians who were actually there to help when the refugees arrived,” Hiseni added.

The ambassador also used the occasion to recognize a well-known member of the Halifax Kosovar community for his promotion of Kosovar Albanian culture and traditions. Artist Zeqirja Rexhepi, who is also a member of the Canadian Forces Artist Program and recently donated an original painting to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Halifax, was presented a Certificate of Achievement from the embassy.

The violence and conflict that brought the Kosovar Albanians to Canada was a tragedy and the losses are still felt deeply by that community today, but successes and new beginnings must still be celebrated, Rexhepi said, adding that the event and venue provided a great opportunity to do just that.

“History is history, and bad things have happened. But we’re not here today to cry, we’re here to celebrate the life we’ve made for ourselves.”

Those gathered also heard from representatives of the Canadian Red Cross and government agencies who were involved in the resettlement project.

The essential contributions of the Department of National Defence and the CAF was highlighted by others, including Ron Heisler, who worked as the Nova Scotia and P.E.I. operations director for Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 1999. His team led the project along with DND, and he noted that without the use of CAF airplanes, the support of CAF members on the ground, and the ability to take over accommodations in Greenwood, N.S., Halifax and Gagetown, N.B., the operation would have been unrealistic.

“We had so many phenomenal people on the project who all truly wanted to be there helping, and that made a huge difference,” Heisler said.

He recalled fond memories, including the team of young Dalhousie University medical graduates who pitched in to help assess the newcomers, as well as the first birth and first wedding among the refugees. Tougher moments included the overwhelming feeling when the first planes touched down, as well as the emotional goodbyes when some refugees decided to return to Kosovo months later.

“They’re a beautiful group of people and we wish they could have all stayed here in Nova Scotia with us,” Heisler said.

The 20th anniversary gathering followed a special visit to CFB Halifax in late 2017 by Kosovo President Hashim Thaci, where he was joined by the Rexhepi family and other former refugees to thank the CAF and DND for their role in Op PARASOL.