Hopes and Memories
Edited by Miriam Zeghlache
The Hope of a Child, after the End of History
‘’Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History’’ is a memoir by author and professor Lea Ypi. The book tells the story of her growing up in Albania before the fall of communism and the beginning of the transition period to capitalism. She reflects on the life she experienced during the two different political systems and points out the contradictions in both. Although she paints an accurate and so, inevitably, sad picture of the flaws in each system, her book is ultimately full of hope for the future and stresses the importance of every individual’s freedom of agency, of choosing to do what is right.
One of the values that characterize my parents and, I believe, every other migrant and refugee in the world, is the hope we have that one day, we all will be able to make a better life for ourselves and our families, when we decide to leave our countries. Throughout my life, I internalized my parent’s hope but at the same time, experiencing discrimination while growing up, I became terrified of the world that I was living in and I started to become apathetic and cynical.
The hope that my parents had was based on the illusion that capitalist countries could offer everyone a better place to live, if one worked hard enough. My family has never abandoned this ideal to this day; they look back at their lives in Albania with a mix of nostalgia and contempt. The only person who I remember describing as having had positive experiences during that time is my mother. She told me about how she would have basketball classes or ‘valle’ or theater every afternoon after class, how she was able to travel around the country to participate in festivals and competitions; freedoms I never had.
When I thought about what my limits to freedom had been growing up as a ‘third- culture’ kid in different countries of the EU, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, two things came to mind: my nationality and my economic status. I am now 25 years old, I still have Albanian nationality and I still live in the EU as a second- category citizen. I can only work 16 hours a week and I need to have a work permit to do so, which I am not able to ask for myself, as it is my employers that need to do so and pay for it. If I fail to make enough progress in University, my residence right could be revoked, and I cannot ask for financial aid from the government. Now that I am almost done with my studies, I started applying for entry-level jobs in Brussels where most of my fellow students also go to work. I even got accepted to a position, but as it turns out, they were not allowed to hire me with the type of contract they offered. I do have a right to stay and find a job after graduation, but only one that fulfills certain conditions, such as a salary threshold. Most graduate students start working for internships or traineeships that never meet those requirements. This is an example of how migrants, even the more privileged ones like me, are oppressed and denied opportunities that they deserve and have worked very hard for.
‘A society that claims to enable people to realize their potential but fails to change the structures that prevent everyone from flourishing is also oppressive’ (p. 954)
I believe that my people’s collective memory and the beliefs of hope that they formed after the ‘end of history’ in my country should shift. We have now been living in the West for about 30 years. Some have found their way, but many have suffered and continue to suffer. I think we can conclude that we were never meant to be treated as equals, and the great hope that we had for the west was mostly an illusion.
“Perhaps freedom of movement had never really mattered. It was easy to defend it when someone else was doing the dirty work of imprisonment.” (p. 587)
Hope under socialism was based on the premise that everyone was working together for a just society, whereas hope under capitalism comes from the premise that any individual can achieve success in their lives. While we have seen and understood the flaws of a dictatorial communist system, the illusion that everyone under capitalism can thrive is still very alive in Western society. The fact that this system keeps on running based on the exploitation and oppression of the most vulnerable in society, should be accepted as a fact.
Lea dedicated the book to her grandmother ‘Nini’ who told her what it means to have hope (p. 120):
“Hope is something you have to fight for. But there comes a point when it turns into illusion; it’s very dangerous. It all comes down to how one interprets the facts.”
“Success was always due to the right people making the right choices, fighting for hope when it seemed justified, and interpreting the facts in such a way as to distinguish hope from illusion.”
“In the end, my grandmother said, we are always in charge of our fate. “Biography” was crucial to knowing the limits of your world, but once you knew those limits, you were free to choose and you became responsible for your decisions. There would be gains and there would be losses. You had to avoid being flattered by victories and learn how to accept defeat. Like the moves in chess my mother used to describe, the game was yours to play if you mastered the rules.”
I understood Lea’s grandmother’s words on hope to be very pragmatic. She says that knowing one’s ‘biography’ or in my case, my nationality and economic status, are crucial to understanding the limits of the world that we live in, but that based on this, we are free to make our own choices and we are responsible for our own decisions. My interpretation of her words is that individual agency matters, even in the face of systematic oppression. Compared to Lea’s life under Communism, her obstacle to true freedom was her ‘biography’ (her family’s background). In my case, my nationality is a threat to the state, the terms are different and so are the values behind them, but the dynamic remains the same.
Last summer, I participated in a project whose goal was to bring diaspora youth closer to their roots. I had a short conversation with a guy who was also on the trip, that stayed with me. He was studying law and wanted to one day work for the prosecutor’s office in Albania. He asked me if I would ever come back to live in Albania, to better my country. His question touched me because I am not used to people genuinely asking such important questions so casually. Nowadays, people are mostly cynical when they talk to immigrants, they usually encourage us in what they perceive to be an opportunistic endeavor. I took a moment to answer him: I replied that in fact, that had been something I had occasionally talked about with my mother and my family and that we even went back for three years when I was in middle school. I then turned the question on him and asked if he would leave if he found the opportunity. He said yes.
Growing up in Europe, I have also made it my home. To me, moving back to Albania means building everything up again and I don’t see my life continuing there at any time in the near future. However, that is nonetheless the place I came from, where I formed my first memories and learned my first language, even though I forgot it and had to relearn it at some point.
What I take away from all these experiences is that political borders are barriers to progress and prosperity among different societies and cultures. My mum always told me she didn’t want to leave Albania, she felt like she had to. My new hope would be that of abolishing these borders and bringing people together. People should have the opportunity to move and explore beyond their country’s borders freely. ‘Opportunities’ shouldn’t be forced by political failures, and the price to pay shouldn’t be a broken country.
Lea wrote her book to “explain, to reconcile and to continue the struggle”, and I am very grateful to her for having done so, for her story inspired me and reminded me that hope is indispensable. Her book gave me something that I had never experienced before, a connection to my and my family’s past, a common future goal, and the reassurance that it is okay to have these ideals and be vocal about them.
Ypi, L. (2022). Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History . Penguin UK.