Dejan Lovren: We need to give refugees a chance – I should know, I was one
“I was quite small. I was just three years old so my memories are mainly of playing with other kids. We would be outside picking the carrots out of the ground and things like that, the kind of stuff that was normal for children who grew up in ordinary places all over the world. But my strongest memory is very different.
"I was at home with my mother and we heard the sound of the air raid sirens. It was really scary. She took me in her arms to protect me and we went downstairs to the basement. My mum was crying and all we could do was hide. That is something I will never forget. How could I? After that we went into a small car, a Yugo, and my uncle drove us to Germany. That is how I became a refugee.”
There is no standard, uniform way that children become refugees but many who have been on that journey will recognise many of the facets of the testimony provided. A sudden loss of innocence, a life transformed without warning, feelings of helplessness and fear, a family displaced and a sudden, desperate move to another country.
Stories like this are legion but this particular one belongs to Dejan Lovren, a Premier League footballer who not only hasn't forgotten where he came from, he is only too aware of why the reasons he was forced to flee continue to be shared by countless others around the world.
Lovren was born to Croatian parents in the Bosnian city of Zenica, 70 kilometres north of Sarajevo, in July 1989. An initially typical childhood followed before war intervened, removing normality at a stroke and forcing ordinary families to make desperate decisions they would not otherwise have contemplated.
For Lovren's parents, Sasa and Silva, the pull of home remained strong but not sufficiently so that they would remain regardless of the risks. It was when he was in the basement, held in his mother's arms, that the decision to leave became inevitable. Zenica might have been home but it was under attack and a safer place to live had to be sought.
A preferred destination was soon established. Munich in Germany, the place where Lovren's maternal grandfather lived was where they would head in his uncle's reliable Yugo.
Understandably given his age when he was uprooted, the Liverpool defender remains sketchy on the details of exactly what happened and how the decision to leave was arrived at.
The emotion involved means he has been unable to add to his own basic understanding of the events that caused his family to flee but he is not in any doubt that such a drastic course of action was absolutely necessary.
“Of course I have spoken to my parents about what happened a few times because it is natural that you will want to know more but when I ask my mum she starts to cry. It isn't easy for her,” Lovren says.
“It is harder for me to understand because I was only a child but her emotions tell me everything that I need to know about how difficult this time was for her and for us as a family.
“It was a big decision for my parents to go to Germany. We went with practically nothing apart from the clothes that we were wearing. We had no bags. Nothing. My father stayed behind in Bosnia for a couple of weeks; I'm not sure exactly why but maybe he had some things to take care of before he could join us, like selling the house so at least we would have something.”
As factionalism ripped his homeland apart, Lovren and his brother Davor were coming to terms with a new life in a new country with all that that involves but whatever the difficulties they faced, they were no longer in danger.
“I was a kid so I didn't know any different,” he recalls. “I just knew that I was going to a new place where we would be safer. It was only when I was seven or eight that I started to realise what a big decision my parents had made to come to Germany.
“A lot of people stayed in Zenica at that time and I will not say that they took the wrong decision because that was their home but it meant that they were gambling with their lives and some of them lost. The brother of one of my uncles was killed in the place where we had been living the week after we left. That was the reality. It was terrible and it was happening to my family and to so many people that we knew.”
The stark reality of what was happening in the place that he had left behind was brought into sharper focus within 12 months of the Lovren family arriving in Munich.
On April 19 1993, 15 people were killed and 50 more were injured when the Zenica marketplace that they had used regularly was shelled by the Croatia Defence Council.
The thought of what could have happened had they stayed is one that continues to trouble Lovren. Escaping the conflict and all of its inherent risks had been absolutely necessary and it was vindicated by subsequent events but there is also an awareness that things could have turned out differently, terribly, terribly differently, had the family opted to stay.
“If we had stayed in Bosnia maybe my parents would not be alive today, maybe I would have been killed,” he reflects.
“Horrible things were happening at that time. I have read a lot about it and watched documentaries on YouTube so I know how bad it was. I was shocked by what people went through but it also made me understand why my parents felt that they had no choice but to leave.
"At a time like that, you are fighting for your life and you have to survive. That is what it means to be a refugee. You are not thinking of going somewhere where you will get a wonderful job and earn lots of money, you are just hoping to find somewhere where you can be safe.”
Germany offered them such a place and within weeks of arriving in Munich, Lovren had been enrolled in the neighbourhood nursery. Assimilation was fairly straightforward for a child of his age but much more testing for his parents who faced a daily challenge to settle into their new surroundings and provide for their young children.
It was not long, though, before Lovren realised that aside from the close knit group of friends drawn from immigrant communities of which he soon became part, he was distinct to the host community. It was not a shattering discovery and he remained grateful for the welcome that he and his family had been afforded but it still provoked powerful feelings of difference that are typical of the refugee experience.
“When we first arrived in Munich I was not thinking that I was different,” he says.
“I was part of a group of kids who were in a similar situation to me and I didn't know anything else. There were kids from Turkey and from Bosnia like me and there were four or five kids at the kindergarten that I went to who had the same language as me. So I had no need to feel different. I belonged with those kids and I was happy.
“But what I did realise very early on was that it was much more difficult for my parents than it was for me. I would go home and my mum would be crying or she would be fighting with my dad because there was no money and no work.
"That was the way it was; we had gone somewhere new because we had to and it was not easy. I think that made me feel different as I got older. I would see German kids playing with other German kids and I knew that I wasn't like them.”
Nevertheless, Lovren continued to settle well with the three years he spent at kindergarten being followed by another four at the local school. He was becoming increasingly fluent in German and had become besotted with playing football and supported Bayern Munich, even having his photograph taken with the likes of Giovanni Elber and Mario Basler.
In order for their new life in Germany to continue, though, they needed not only to retain the goodwill of their host country, but also to stay on the right side of the bureaucratic demands that are placed on those who have sought and secured asylum. Seven years after arriving, their luck ran out as the German authorities rejected their annual visa application after it was discovered that they had the wrong paperwork.
The Croatian city of Karlovac beckoned and while the disappointment of having to leave Germany and start all over again has long since subsided, Lovren's gratitude at having been given the opportunity to go there in the first place is, if anything, stronger now than it has ever been, largely due to his growing awareness of the plight that families in similar situations to the one that drove his own from Bosnia are facing in other parts of the world.
“Even today when I watch the news I see the refugees coming from Syria and other countries and my first instinct is always that we should give them a chance,” he says.
“I know that there are concerns about terrorism and I understand that but these are families with kids, we can't just close our eyes.
“They deserve a chance like the one that me and my family were given when we left Bosnia. I will always be grateful to Germany for that. They allowed me and my family to stay there for seven years and I probably would have stayed there even longer if we'd had the right papers but we didn't so we had to return. That was also a tough time in my life. Germany was my home by then and I had to leave my home.
“But Germany gave us a safe haven, a place where we could be together as a family and I could grow up without fears about what might happen to me. The main reason we went there was because my grandfather on my mother's side was living there and that meant he had the papers. Everything went well and we had a warm welcome from him but if he had not been there I don't know where we would have ended up. My dad said to me that he would have tried to go to America or Canada, we just needed to go somewhere where we could be safe.”
Like many of his Liverpool teammates, Lovren lives in the leafy suburbs in the south of the city, a world away from the horrors that he fled as a child but he remains emotionally tied to Zenica in a way that he finds difficult to articulate given it was home for only the first three years of his life.
He returns to the place of his birth whenever the opportunity arises but while being there gives him a feeling of belonging that he feared had been lost for ever, there is also an acute awareness of how the city has been changed by war and how it is now hauntingly different to how it would have been had war not visited.
“I've gone back to the place where I am from but it is different now,” Lovren admits.
“I was there in the summer and it was great to be back. There are not many people because a lot of them went from there. Over a year there are four or five times, like Christmas and a festival that is a bit like Halloween, when people return there from America, Canada, Germany, Australia, wherever they went to and then there are 10,000 people there all of a sudden. But for most of the year there are lots of houses there but no one is living in them. My grandmother's house is still there and I still have friends there but it is very different to the place that I left as a child.”
Now 27 and successful as a professional footballer, Lovren is more comfortable discussing his childhood than he has previously been and his willingness to do so is inspired by a desire to improve understanding of the refugee experience.
He accepts, though, that neither words nor the often harrowing images that are beamed into our homes on an almost daily basis can give people the insight that he has. All that he hopes is that it allows them to comprehend a little better the reasons why families feel the need to flee war torn countries and why their desperation takes them to places they would not otherwise contemplate going to.
“It's impossible to understand unless you have been through it,” Lovren insists.
“It's different when you watch on TV. That might make you uncomfortable as a human being because you know what is happening is bad and you know that people are suffering but you don't have the feeling of it. If more people had been through something like this they would be better able to understand because the most natural thing in the world is to want to protect your family and to keep them safe from harm.
“The people that we are seeing on TV now are fighting for their lives. They are refugees. They do not want to be part of a war, the war has been caused by someone else, and all they can do is try to escape from it. You want to live, you want a normal life and you want your kids to go to school, that is why families like mine leave their home behind, that is why people become refugees.”
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