To Europe by Marriage Certificate
by Jeton Musliu, Pristina, Kosovo
December 30, 2010
The advantages outweigh the taboos: For their dream of a German passport, many Kosovo Albanians are divorcing their wives — if only temporarily — to marry a foreigner.
For the fourth time, the Robert Bosch Foundation this year has invited young journalists from the Balkans to enter a reporting-and-research competition (“Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence”). The Süddeutsche Newspaper is the media partner for the competition,which is also being carried by the Austrian ERSTE Foundation. sueddeutsche.de is publishing the three winning texts.
Before going to sleep, Valbona (35) from Peja in the west of Kosovo looks at her marriage photo, taken 13 years ago. She sees her smiling husband next to her.
Today there remains only the memory of that moment. Two years ago, her husband married a German woman. Valbona, mother of their four children ages four to twelve, not only knew of this intention, she approved it.
You see, in the eyes of her family and the people of her immediate surroundings, Valbona is not really divorced. Many Kosovo Albanians divorce their first wives, in a mutual agreement, and go to Western Europe to find a new partner who will make it possible for him to get a residence permit.
They leave their children behind in Kosovo, so they can pretend to be single and get married quickly. As soon as they have a permanent permit to stay in Germany or some other EU country, they divorce their second wife, return to the first one and bring the whole family into the West.
Germany is a favorite goal for Kosovars seeking foreign women and ultimately an EU pass, since there is already a large population their with Albanian roots.
The women who marry these Kosovo Albanians believe they have found the ideal, attentive husband. Often, however, as soon as they have a permanent residence permit after five years of marriage to a German citizen, they demand a divorce.
Valbona is confident that her husband will do the same: leave his new wife after three more years and come back to Kosovo to take her and the children to a new life in the rich West.
“The divorce was difficult, but it was easier, since we both know what our goal is,” said Valbona, who — in her husband’s absence — has moved into a house next to his brother.
Vacation with the old family
Without the German wife knowing about it, Valbona has already spent a summer vacation with her ex-husband in Kosovo. Benefits outweigh taboos.
Previously, Albanian families simply did not accept divorce. But since the Kosovo Albanians discovered how useful it is to marry a foreign woman, the taboo is forgotten.
Every Monday, Valbona’s ex-husband sends money for the four children. This means a lot in a land as poor as Kosovo, where 40% of the population is unemployed and the average monthly wage is only about 200 euros.
According to information from the National Bsnk of Kosovo, every year, Kosovars who have emigrated to West Europe send €530 home. These mailings amount to 13% of the country’s GNP. Sokol Havolli, a leading bank official, indicates that 30% of Kosovar households receive money from relatives working outside the country.
Against the background of such economic need, many people try desperately to achieve the right to live and work in West Europe.
But it is difficult to to get an entry visa to the EU. Unlike its neighnot countries in the Balkans, Kosovo does not have travel privileges inside the EU Schengen area. An easing of the visa regime is not in the immediate future.
More and More Divorces
It is almost impossible for Kosovars to attain German citizenship unless they are born there or come there as a small child.
However, adult Kosovars, like other non-EU citizens, can apply for a residence permit, when they have lived legally more than 5 years in the country. Normally, the basis for this is a higher education or marriage to a citizen.
Rising divorce rate
According to official sources, there were 127 divorces in 2007 in the Kosovar capital city, Pristina, population ca. 600,000. The number is low by West European standards. For Kosovars, it is high. As recently as 2003, there were 36 divorces.
The number of marriages to foreign citizens, mostly West Europeans, has risen in tandem with the rising number of divorces. In 2009 in Pristina, 98 marriages of this kind between Kosovar men and Western women were recorded officially.
Shefget Bugaj, a city official, claims to know instances of Kosovars marrying their first wife again after divorcing the foreign partner.
He admits the possibilities of authorities examining the motives for a marriage are limited. If Kosovar men want to marry their first wives again, the couple can just say that they have reconciled.
But Bugaj emphasizes that questions are asked, if the motives for the marriage of a Kosovar to a foreign woman seem dubious. He recalls that an especially suspicious case concerned a native man who married a foreign woman who was 15 years older.
But Bugal explains that they could find no good grounds to deny the marriage. “We spoke with them and came to the conclusion that it was not a fictional marriage,” he says.
Lonesome Western women
A Kosovo Albanian who aspired to a residence permit in Germany targeted Sonja, a German woman from Stuttgartt. Thirteen years ago the now thirty-year-old woman married the Albanian who came from the area of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo. Out of work and somewhat lonesome at the time, Sonja was flattered when spoken to in a Stuttgart café by a good-looking, black-haired man, a few years older than she.
She had no inkling that this alleged single man had actually married at age 18 in Kosovo and been divorced before he came to Stuttgart. She was also not aware that he was on the hunt for a German wife for reasons that had little to do with love. The knot was soon tied, and Sonja began eagerly learning Albanian and lead the modest life of a Kosovar housewife. For example, she did not leave home to meet friends for coffee anymore. Looking back, she says: “I became more Albanian than any Albanian wife.”
Surprisingly, Sonja’s husband did not demand a divorce after five years — apparently because they now had a small son, whose fate complicated the situation. Sonja’s husband wanted to secure sole custody of his son before leaving her. Sonja agreed to leave custody of their son — eight years-old at the time — to her ex-husband. He quickly married his first wife again and is now living outside Stuttgart with her and Sonja’s son.
Sonja does not know the whole story of her marriage, but several Kosovar Albanians living in the area know very well of the secret circumstances of Sonja’s ex-husband. She only knows that her ex-husband married “an Albanian woman with no papers.” She still believes she married for love, and does not understand what went wrong.
Many Kosovo-Albanians defend the actions of men who go abroad looking for a second wife in order to improve their prospects. Vladrin Hoxha, an unemployed 23 year-old from Pristina says he would do the same, if he could.
Raising Respectability Through Marriage
“I would tell my family that I would divorce my foreign wife as soon as I had my EU documents I would get a divorce and marry a Kosovar girl.,” he says with conviction. Several years ago, couples could usually only divorce on grounds of infertility, says Hamdi Veliu (71) from Polac, a village situated in the middle of Kosovo.
“If a woman could not have children, she had two possibilities: divorce or stay,” he explains. “If she decided to stay, she had to accept that her husband needed a second wife.” Velieu says he knows of cases where Kosovar women are living somewhere in Germany while their husbands are living in another place and still with their German second wives. “Such conditions have nothing to do with our tradition,” he says sadly,
According to Veliu, the possession of the oh-so-important EU residence permits confers enormous prestige on men in modern Kosovo. With these papers, a man in his forties could acquire a local girl, even if she is twenty years his junior. Such men often use the services of a marriage broker or local matchmaker to find a young bride.
Smaji Shatraj (60), from the village of Llausha in the center of Kosovo, has pursued this activity often in the course of the years. “Now that most girls want to live abroad, it has become much simpler to make arrangements,” if the man has EU documents, he says.
In earlier times, he adds, couples were chosen who were about the same age and seemed suited to one another. Today, the most important criterion is whether the prospective husband has the right documents. He sighs,”They push tradition aside for personal interests.”
In fact, mixed marriages — especially marriages intended to improve the social and economic prospects of the men — are nothing new among the Kosovars. Previously, these marriages were customarily concluded inside the old Yugslavian nation. Kosovar men normally married Serbian women, since this ethnic group was regarded as the most powerful of those groups in the Yugoslavia of that time.
The European Dream
“In the former Yugoslavia, a person could gain respectability through marriage,” says Anton Berishaj, professor of sociology at the University of Pristina. An important distinction between these marriages and those with Germans, is that the men had no motivation to divorce their wives after a certain period of time. They stayed together and often moved to the Yugoslav capitol, Belgrade.
Some, for instance the Selimis, still live there together. But while an Albanian-Serbian marriage brought social advantages in the 1960s and 1970s, today — after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the declaration of Kosovo’s independence and the deteriorating Albanian-Serbian relationships — this is not at all the case. “Today, these couples live with a stigma,” says Professor Nada Raduski of the Demographic Research Center in Belgrade.
Sociology professor, Anton Berishaj is sharply critical of Kosovar men who marry foreigners to get a permanent right of residence in the West: “A double marriage in which one of the partners does not know all the circumstances and the family acts as if nothing will happen, is neither human nor moral nor correct.” Leading representatives of all the faiths in Kosovo likewise vehemently condemn this trend. Most Kosovo-Albanians are Muslim, but there is also a small Catholic minority. The clergy of both religions regard marriage as sacred. “Marriage is permanent and not temporally limited; it is forever,” declares Bedri Syla, an imam from Skenderaj in the center of Kosovo. The imam regards so-called “divorces” whose overriding purpose is getting documents as mockery and sacrilege.
“These are games on which families and morals founder,” he says and quotes verses from the Koran. Such deeds cannot be justified in Islam, he adds, no matter the potential advantages. Don Shan Zefi, a Catholic priest in Pristina, says the same: “Marriages like this are impermissible from the moral, psychological and legal standpoint.”
“The sacrifice is worth it”
Forty year-old Agron, however, thinks it pays to make exceptions to morals and tradition, in order to live the European dream. The gravestone carver now lives with his first wife in a village about 30 kilometers from Stuttgart, after completing a long and arduous divorce from his second, German wife, in order to re-marry his Kosovar first wife.
Agron tries to forget the fact that he had to leave his first wife and their children behind in Kosovo during the five years in which he was married to a German woman. “The sacrifice was worth it, so long as you don’t forget your wife and children in Kosovo,” Agron claims. “For me to living here is like in paradise.” he adds and means the small German village that is now his home,
To achieve a similar “paradise.” Valbona and her four children must wait at least three more years. In her happy anticipation of a new life elsewhere.she is not concerned with the nationality of the foreign woman her husband is married to, just so she gets into the West. “I just don’t care,” she says. “The catastrophic economic conditions drove us to it.”