Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part profile on Poema Kazazi, a Louisa-Muscatine High School foreign exchange student and a member of the school’s bowling team.
MUSCATINE, Iowa — Casualties of war don’t always wear a uniform.
Sometimes they wear the school colors.
And sometimes they become prisoners of war — but not in a prison camp. They’re forced to wage a private battle against an enemy they can’t even see, but one that imprisons their mind inside the memories of a war they didn’t even sign up to fight in.
It’s these young veterans that Poema Kazazi wants to help.
Poema is a Louisa-Muscatine High School foreign exchange student from the European country of Kosovo who grew up trying to stay clear of the war that surrounded her.
Today, she’s an inquisitive, energetic student who soaks up knowledge like a sponge and who has a mission of her own in mind.
She wants to help others.
Thinking back to her days in the war-torn nation, the L-M High School senior doesn’t remember much, but she knows there are people who do.
“I was 4 years old, so I can’t really remember a lot about it, but there were some people who had to look for psychological help,” Kazazi said.
“This is why I want to be psychologist. I want to get Ph.D. in psychology. I want to help people.”
With each question, Poema inches a step closer toward her dream; a dream of returning home to help young people who have been forced to live a life that most people couldn’t dream of — unless it was in a nightmare.
She was only 4 when her family was displaced by a war that enveloped the Balkan region of Europe, including her hometown of Gjakove.
Having seen how devastating war can be firsthand, particularly to young people, Poema is well on her way to earning her doctorate in psychology and eventually returning home where she can help young people deal with the trauma of war.
Poema and her family spent time in Albania, Italy and eventually Belgium before returning to Gjakove a couple years later.
Abandoning their home to escape the impending war was a difficult decision for Poema’s parents. But with two young children to care for and faced with a life-or-death decision, Poema’s family made a daring escape into nearby Albania.
Poema said her parents’ choice was a difficult one: “Stay at our house and wait for it to get burned or walk past the border into Albania,” Kazazi said. “We decided to walk through the mountains for 30 hours without eating or drinking and we finally made it to Albania.”
Danger was a constant companion on their journey, including encounters with Serbian troops who were trying to maintain control of a region that, at the time, was a part of Serbia.
Poema and her brother, like most children their age at the time, were usually a boisterous pair. But there was no room for the antics of children during the family’s quest for freedom.
“All the time we were going (to Albania), my mother was telling my brother and I ‘Don’t talk, don’t talk,’” Poema recalled. “Once we were past the border, once we saw the big sign that said ‘Albania’, my mom began yelling, ‘Scream! Scream as loud you can! Now, you’re free.”
But freedom was bittersweet.
Two weeks after her family fled, their home, which she was born in, was burned by Serbian troops.
“My mom was crying when we left our house because she knew what was going to happen,”Poema said.
Eventually, after spending time in Albania, Italy and later Belgium, the family returned to Kosovo, where her parents soon found jobs and began rebuilding the home life they were forced to leave behind. Her father, Diamant, got a job as a civil engineer, while her mother, Lindita, became an economist at a bank.
As she grew up in Kosovo, Poema discovered a love of music through the Shropshire Music Foundation, an international program that helps child soldiers and refugees recover from their trauma through music education.
Poema discovered more than just music. She also found the strength to heal from the wounds of war and ignite within her a zest for learning
She eventually learned how to play the piano, harmonica, kazoo and ukulele and channeled her love of music into a passion to help others.
“Music has helped me a lot, seeing kids smiling and doing all of the games,” Poema said. “When I first came there five years ago, they were sad and they wouldn’t talk as much. After learning music with them, teaching them music, they understood how it helped them.
“Making music with other kids with the Shropshire Music Foundation has helped me a lot,” Poema said. “Going through that has made me very strong.”
And, she said, “It has shown me how important education is.”
Tomorrow: Learn how Poema made the journey to the Pearl City from Kosovo, and how this one-time refugee is adapting to life — and learning — in Iowa while developing an appetite for American sports.