May 31, 2023

Class of 2023: Returning home can be the biggest challenge an asylum-seeker faces

Social Work PhD grad Kaltrina Kusari hopes her award-winning research will make a difference in the Balkans and beyond
Kaltrina Kusari
Kaltrina Kusari

When people make the heart-wrenching decision to flee their home and seek asylum due to war or poverty, it’s usually the last resort. Backed against a wall by forces beyond their control, they attempt to find a new home in a country with better opportunities for work and education, a better life with a sense of safety and security for themselves and their families. But what happens to them if the application for asylum is denied?

It’s assumed they just return home where they can resume their lives in an environment they know, but Kaltrina Kusari, who is graduating with her PhD in social work at UCalgary during spring convocation, has discovered there is a significant gap in this area of research. Her master’s in social work focused on return migration, and her just-completed PhD builds on that work by specifically focusing on women migrants who return to their home countries.

Originally from Kosova, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

Mass exodus became a research topic

“I was doing my master’s in 2014-15 and we had a mass exodus of Kosovars, over 100,000 Kosovars left Kosova and were seeking asylum in European Union countries, so in a way the topic chose me,” says Kusari. “Whatever we were studying in social work, I kept applying to what was going on in Kosova because Kosova is a small country, there are only 1.8 million people there, so to have over 100,000 people leave within three months, that’s a significant portion of the population.”

Kosova is the Albanian pronunciation for the country more commonly referred to as Kosovo in the West. Kusari, an Albanian by heritage, makes a point of using this pronunciation for the country formerly part of Yugoslavia in the Balkans before the War of Independence and ethnic conflict in 1999.

Kusari left Kosova in 2005 at age 14 to take a scholarship offered to students from post-war countries at a high school in Arizona. After high school, she earned an undergraduate degree at Quest University in Squamish, B.C., before moving to the Faculty of Social Work at UCalgary for her graduate degrees.

The mass exodus Kusari began researching was driven by devastating poverty in a country with an unemployment rate that hit 40 per cent at the time. There were numerous factors that led to this, according to Kusari, including the imposition of neoliberal measures by the European Union. Yet, the EU was not prepared for the influx of asylum-seekers, having assumed that the economy in Kosova was in better shape that it was.

“When that mass exodus happened in Kosova, it was 15 years after the 1999 war. Kosova was deemed a safe country by the EU and because of that, 96 per cent of those who applied for asylum were rejected.”

Kusari continues, “What I found when I was consulting literature on what happens after return, there really wasn’t much because the UNHCR mandate for refugees ends when someone gets a negative response to their asylum application. So, then they fall off and we don’t know enough as to what happens next.”

Findings challenge widely held beliefs

Kusari found that the commonly held belief that asylum-seekers who repatriated to their home countries would be OK because they were going home, just wasn’t true in many cases. Asylum-seekers who leave their country are usually fleeing out of desperation and spend whatever they have left to get out, often through expensive and illegal means involving human traffickers.

So when they returned home they were actually in a worse situation than when they left, with few resources and little support. This is especially the case for women returnees, who in addition to the difficulties of return also have to navigate patriarchal practices which shape the opportunities they have access to.

In Kosova, there wasn’t even a Department of Social Work until 2012. So, when the vast majority of the more than 100,000 Kosovar migrants started returning, it sent shock waves not only through the country but also in the EU. Says Kusari:

“The UNHCR has adopted repatriation as a sustainable solution to avoid displacement, based on the idea that people are going back to their home countries and so the return process is thought of as natural and problem free. But what my research, and that of others, is saying is that doesn’t stand.” 

“Participants in my study highlighted that returning home often comes with so many challenges, especially when returning home is not the choice that asylum-seekers are making, when they are forced or deported.”

Kusari’s work on migration has earned several prestigious awards, mostly notably, she’s a Killam Pre-Doctoral Laureate (2020-2022). She won the $30,000 one-year Dean’s Doctoral Recruitment award in 2018, along with a $20,000, four-year SSHRC Doctoral scholarship, also in 2018.

Back in Kosova, making a difference

Kusari has returned to Kosova and is working with social workers and service providers on training to better prepare them to work with the population of returning migrants. She noted it doesn’t happen all at once. Kusari is aware of cases of asylum-seekers who left during the 1999 war who have only been repatriated recently and who struggle because they haven’t lived there 15 or more years, have kids who’ve never been there and don’t speak the language, which presents unique challenges.

She is very thankful for the input of the return migrant women who participated in her research and showed tremendous courage in sharing their stories and offering insight into the complexity of return.

Helping to develop curriculum for a course on migration

Kusari is also working with a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Prishtina, the largest university in Kosova, to incorporate her findings into the curriculum for a course being developed on migration.

And she’s also determined to maintain her ties to Canada. Kusari has been contracted by the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies to provide training on case management with asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants, for service providers all across Alberta. And she’s continuing as a sessional instructor at UCalgary.

“I really feel I have two homes now and can embrace my hybrid identity as both an Albanian from Kosova and a Canadian. The support I received at the University of Calgary was amazing and I’ve made some of my best friends there.”

“I never thought of myself as a researcher before coming to the University of Calgary. It was my master’s supervisor, Christine Walsh, who really helped me become the researcher that I am today. She made me see research as something that is not scary. My PhD supervisor, Yahya El-Lahib, enhanced my theoretical understanding of migration issues and helped me create a unique framework through which to study migration in Kosova. Because of their support and encouragement, now I really love research.

“It’s amazing because my idea when I was 14 was to go and experience something different for high school and then return but I was accepted to a Canadian university and now here I am finishing my third degree.”

Join our celebration as another class of enterprising University of Calgary students marks the milestone of graduation and begins making a difference in society, in fields such as health care, engineering, business and the arts. Spring Graduation and Convocation takes place May 29 to June 2, 2023. Learn more 

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

A note for soon-to-be UCalgary alumni: As you prepare to transition from student life, we encourage you to check out our Life Kit for Recent Grads — custom-built to inform you about the programs, benefits and services available to you as a member of the UCalgary alumni community.

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