There’s a reason Peace Corps places volunteers with locals as much as possible, to live in the communities and in many cases, with an ethnic family. In my case, I lived with 3 separate families during my 27 months of service. I learned a lot from each family and owe much of my safety and integration to this arrangement.
I came in as a visitor and left as a daughter to the people who shared their home and culture with me.
Host Family #1, The Rexha Family
My first host father was a builder and had 5 young daughters. He worked almost every day and came home late each evening covered in dirt and sweat but still had a smile for each of his daughters including his newest American daughter.
He came to get me my first day in Kosovo with his wife and oldest daughter and take me to his home. He didn’t say much that first day as I was getting to know my 5 sisters and all the relatives. He just kept staring at me. Later that night, he took me and his 2 oldest daughters to a café and told me stories of the war and how American soldiers had come to Kosovo and saved his family. “I never thought that one day I would have an American under my roof.” He told me with tears in his eyes. “The moment you hugged my wife and daughters today was the happiest moment of my life.”
It was at that moment I realized, whatever the reasons I had come or thought I had come, to this man, I was an American whose family had saved his family, and now he was repaying the debt. Looking back, I think it was one of the most humbling moments of my life.
I stayed with the Rexha family for my first few months in Kosovo while learning the language and culture. I felt immediately like the 6th daughter. I loved each of my sisters and spent my days playing volleyball with the neighborhood kids and family cousins, having dance parties while the parents were away, exchanging new clothes and doing all of the things you expect a household of 6 daughters to do. But it was my host father who stuck out to me with his love for his daughters and inclusion of me as one of his children.
One day I was walking home with another one of the American volunteers who stood outside the front gate and talked with me for an hour before my host sister rushed out and told me my father needed to talk to me. He was extremely upset and informed me that people in the village had been talking about me and the volunteer and spreading rumors that we were “together.” As someone new to the culture, I did not understand the implications of standing in the road talking to boys and felt horrible that I had brought any type of scandal on my family. I quickly realized that in this culture, a family’s reputation is the most important value in the community and felt horrible; and as a result, he felt horrible about the situation.
He came back the next evening and proclaimed loudly that I could talk to any boys in the street that I wanted to and he did not care if all the people talked about his family. I was his daughter and he was not going to cave to any silly rumors. I felt the weight of my Albanian sisters in that moment and the power of my host father in the community.
At his declaration, he was going breaking a serious norm of his culture and risking the loss of his family’s honor so his American daughter could feel a little more American in his Albanian world.
Looking back, I would call him a feminist though he would never say this in so many words. He is a hero for women in a culture where no sons is a disgrace and can give legal grounds for divorce or an additional wife. A novelty in his village, he has 5 daughters and proudly dotes on each one of them and swears each one of them will go to school and college before they marry. He adores his wife in a culture where women can sometimes be little more than house servants. My host mother brags often that she is 1 of the 4 women in the village with a driving license. My host dad paid for her lessons and bought her a small car to use. Though some people in the community shake their heads at her freedom and whisper scandal, because she has the blessing of her husband, the rumors never become more than whispers.
During my 2 years in Kosovo, I often went back for long weekends and holidays to stay with my first host family. When my parents came to visit me for a few days, it was with this family they stayed and with this family they still communicate with and share stories to their friends back home about.
Before I left, I went to spend a few days with them to say goodbye. I hugged my littlest sister who had been in diapers when I arrived and was now on her way to school. I cried and hugged all of them goodbye but it was with my host father that I completely melted down, crying and hugging him goodbye. He had been my protector and father figure during my service. I owe him so much of my success and integration into Kosovo, for without his approval and support, I would never have been accepted in my community.