When Zeqirja “Zaqa” Rexhepi was forced to flee his home in Kosovo in 1999, he wasn’t sure where the war would take him. The now 60-year-old did know two things were certain, though: he’d never stop making art and he’d never forget what’s most important in life.
The Albanian Canadian artist and former textile designer lived in a crowded refugee camp in Macedonia along with five of his children, his parents and other relatives. He slept outside without a sleeping bag, in the rain, amongst 25,000 other refugees. It helped give him perspective.
“Sometimes you have money, house, everything and you want more,” he tells Yahoo Canada News. “When it comes to peace, you need absolutely nothing. Only freedom and bread and water.”
Since two of his children were sick as a result of the poor living conditions, NATO forces urged him and his family out of the camp as soon as they could. There were several options, but Rexhepi was set on Canada, which accepted 5,000 Kosovars under UNHCR’s emergency humanitarian evacuation program.
“Because I’m an artist, I knew about culture and art and I knew about every place in the world,” he says. “I knew exactly about Canada and I said, ‘I’m going to go there, it’s a democracy.’”
His family was brought to Halifax, where they lived on the CFB Greenwood military base. Since it wasn’t meant to house refugees, it took in special cases, as Rexhepi’s children were ill, though they were soon moved to CFB Windsor Park.
Two days after landing in their new country, he decided to create some art on the concrete with his children outside. Despite being scared of the military personnel in uniforms, the kids we soon wowed by the friendliness of the soldiers.
The family adapted quickly, with the children enrolling in a local school. Rexhepi found work as a fiddle player with a local theatre company, despite not knowing much English. Luckily he and the company’s director managed to communicate in German. Things only got easier from there, with lots of creative work opportunity coming to Rexhepi, including set design.
These days, he is busy with shows and private commissions for his artwork, which are mostly large-scale oil or acrylic-based paintings. Many of his children are in university and he is grandfather to 13 grandchildren.
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