She comes from a large family of ethnic Albanians, to whom “so much has happened”, she says, “in my grandparents’ lives, and my parents’ lives… When you try to come to it and grasp everything there, it’s a lot.” She does her best to boil down their complicated story.
Her mother, Anesa, was born to a Kosovan father and a Bosnian mother. In the 90s, war came first to Bosnia, where Anesa’s mother lived, and then to Kosovo, where by now Anesa was living with her fiance, Dukagjin Lipa. Dukagjin was the son of a well-known historian, Seit Lipa, who at that time was the head of the Kosovo Institute of History. When conflict began to brew in Kosovo, Seit’s career abruptly ended. As Lipa tells it: “Once the Serbians came in, they wanted a lot of the historians to rewrite the history of Kosovo. To change it – that Kosovo was always part of Serbia and never part of Yugoslavia. And my grandfather was one of those people who wouldn’t, so he lost his job, because he didn’t want to write a history that he didn’t believe to be true.”
In 1992, Dukagjin and Anesa sought refuge in London, while their parents stayed behind in Kosovo and Bosnia. Seit Lipa died in 1999, the year that the Kosovo war ended. “He had a heart attack. And because the borders were closed, my father couldn’t go back to see him.”
Lipa was born in north-west London in 1995. “I’ve seen my parents work every day of my life,” she says. In Kosovo her father was training to be a dentist, her mother to be a lawyer. Sudden flight to London threw all this over, and for a long time Lipa’s parents worked as waiters in cafes and bars. In the evenings, her father took business courses. Her mother retrained in travel and tourism. “While I was going to school they were going to school.”
We talk about that amazing name – her grandmother’s suggestion, she says, as dua is the Albanian word for love. “Now I’m proud of it. Now I am. But when I was growing up all I wanted was to be called Hannah, Sarah, Ella… anything normal. Because with Dua you had to explain: I’m from Kosovo.” And this in turn made a lot of people adopt a particular expression – intrigued, sad. It was well-meant sympathy, but brutal war isn’t the first thing any kid wants other people to think about when they’re saying hello.
Flight and sanctuary form the backbone of her family story, and I ask Lipa what she has made of recent political flailings – specifically President Trump’s crowing about his border wall, and before that the extremist Brexiters with their scare-stories about refugees. Lipa says that coming from a background such as hers, “you understand something on a personal level. That no refugee leaves their country without having to.” As for Brexit itself, “I see how important it is for Kosovo, for Kosovans, to be a part of the EU, what it means for them to be a part of something like that. So it’s heartbreaking.” On Trump she takes the long view – very much the historian’s granddaughter. “Later down the line I think we’ll be able to see very clearly, when we put someone like Trump in power, what went wrong. And the hope is we’ll learn from it.”