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The Girl Without A Country: Leonarda's Story

After being arrested by French police during a school field trip, then deported with her family to Kosovo, 15-year-old Leonarda has become a symbol of Roma everywhere.

Leonarda Dibrani, "lawyer" of the Roma
Leonarda Dibrani, "lawyer" of the Roma
Alain Salles and Soren Seelow

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA — Three rusty children’s bicycles lean against the wall of the reception center for asylum seekers in Levier, in eastern France. In this peaceful village just a few kilometers from Switzerland that is surrounded by fir tree hills, inhabitants travel back-and-forth across the border every day.

On the second floor of this building, stores are closed. In the apartment, the refrigerator door is open, and an accordion lies unfolded on the floor, next to a headless doll. The Dibrani family is gone from this home, forced to fly to Kosovo.

Kosovska Mitrovica is another border town. This city, located in northern Kosovo, is split in half. This side is the Albanian zone. The Serbian area starts on the other side of the bridge, where the parties close to Belgrade control everything. The Roma Dibrani family that was recently deported from Levier to Kosovo is also cut in half: between Kosovo, which is unknown to the children, and France, where they are unwanted.

The father, the mother and the seven brothers and sisters live in a small house let by the Mitrovica city council, near the town center. “It’s easy to find, there’s lots of journalists,” Maria, the elder sister, had warned over the phone. Local cameramen are settled outside the entrance. In the garden, a recently cut pile of wood suggests the cold season is around the corner. On the second floor, journalists are pouring into the room where the Dibrani family is waiting for questions.

Leonarda, the 15-year-old whose arrest by French police during a school field trip earlier this month put a face on the hidden drama of the Roma, is busy answering questions, one after another. Her father, Resat Dibrani, is rummaging through his judicial and administrative documents. He shows his birth certificate, which he just obtained from the Mitrovica city council. He was born in 1967, son of Ibrahim and Meduze, both from this town. He is the family’s only real Kosovan.

A mixed history

This seemingly simple story actually hides a very real administrative imbroglio. Unlike what Resat Dibrani said and what the French documents say, the mother, Gemilja, is not Kosovan. She claims she was born in 1973 in Italy, near Rome. Her father came from a Roma community in southern Kosovo. They claim that all but one of their children were also born in Italy — including Leonarda. Only their 18-month-old daughter was born in France, they say. Kosovan Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi has asked the Italian authorities for their birth certificates.

Resat Dibrani admits that he lied when he arrived in France in 2009, after having spent several years in Italy, where he was jobless. “France accepted lots of Bosnians and Romanians, so I thought we’d have better chances of getting papers if we said we all came from Kosovo. I know several people who did the same thing,” he explains.

He adds that he “bought a fake marriage contract for 50 euros in Paris.” That revelation has disappointed the family’s French friends. “I find it unacceptable that they could lie to me like that,” says Gérard Guignot, who helped them in the process. Then he calms a bit, saying, “They were trying to protect themselves.”

“This grey area, it’s part of their story,” explains Claire Langanné, Leonarda and Maria’s French teacher. “There are always lies. It’s their way of defending themselves.” Their lawyer, Brigitte Bertin, characterizes their story as appallingly common. “It’s just everyday life for lots of Romas who leave a country for another, hoping for a better life. False declarations of identity are not rare,” she says.

The fake marriage certificate and the alleged Kosovan identity did not move the French administration and judges. The asylum application was weak. A non-translated letter, typed texts without any signature, and a curious certificate signed by “the President of the Kosovska Mitrovica Romas” proved woefully insufficient in the end. Their asylum requests were denied, and the first letter notifying the family of their Obligation to Leave French Territory was sent in April 2011.

Dashed hopes

When he heard about the French government’s 2012 Valls Memorandum, which allows migrants who have been in France for five years to stay, Resat thought he had finally found a lifeline. “I told the children to hold on some more,” he says. The family would have been in France for five years this January. But during an administrative interview with his wife Gemilja in March, “It was found that she had absolutely no knowledge in the French language.” The administration therefore concluded: “She does not show any effort to become integrated in the French society.” So the request was denied.

The mother speaks Italian and Serbian, but her French is very poor. The father reads it and speaks it, although sometimes several languages seem to compete for his voice. He is also fluent in Italian, Serbian and Albanian. But the children speak French.

Resat Dibrani was detained by the police in August in Mulhouse, a city close to the German border. He was placed in a detention center because, according to the authorities, he presented a flight risk. The questioning was quite brutal, apparently. He says the police insulted him as his hands were bound with a rope. On the removal order that he shows us, it describes him as Serbian. On Oct. 8, he had no other choice than to take a plane to Pristina, Kosovo.

The next morning, the police arrived at the family’s house at 6:30 a.m. The children were awakened, and had only a little time to gather a few clothes, toys and game consoles before leaving for the Saint-Exupéry airport in Lyon. Leonarda was not home that morning because she had spent the night at a classmate’s to be sure to arrive at 7 a.m. outside her school in Pontarlier, where a bus would be waiting to take the children to Sochaux as part of a field trip.

On their way to Sochaux, her phone rang. She got up, went up to her teacher at the front of the bus and handed over her phone. “It’s my mother.” But at the other end of the line, in fact, was a border police officer. The teacher was told that Leonarda’s trip would end here. She would be sent to a country where she has never set foot.

A new, but not better, life

One week later, the teenager was thinking about her friends, who told her that the field trip — visiting Peugeot factories — was sad without her. “And I had studied well to prepare for this visit,” she says angrily. She talks about the long road to the airport, where she joined her family for this forced first flight. No one in the family had ever flown before. They met up with their father when they arrived in Pristina.

Bajram Rexhepi, the Kosova Interior Minister, took charge of them and found them a comfortable apartment, big enough to welcome the large family. The furniture is basic but the covers on the numerous sofas — which are also used as beds — and the carpets everywhere keep in the heat. There is a lit fire in the large stove in the middle of the main room.

At the center of all the media attention is, of course, Leonarda. The teenager who used to write poems, likes interviews and is clearly comfortable being in the spotlight. Her boyfriend has sent her texts because he saw her on TV. She laughs, saying she has “become a star.”

What is less amusing is addressing accusations about her father, who it seems may have hit her, her mother and her sister. “When I was told about that, I threw my phone on the floor,” she sighs. But in fact, the girls and their mother did file such a complaint, and then withdrew it.

Leonarda had declared that she had been physically ill-treated twice. Now, the teenager avoids the question. As for the father, he attempts an explanation: “I slapped my wife because she tried to speak for me. I’m the head of the family,” he says. But he swears he has never hit his children. He barely admits there were tensions between him and his daughters, which were rapidly appeased.

Today, everyone sticks with this man, who has had several jobs, from waiter to marketplace seller to bus driver between Croatia and Italy. In this country that is not theirs and where the children do not speak the language, there are other priorities. Leonarda finds it difficult to see how she will go to school in Kosovo.

In France, her French teacher Claire Langanné is disheartened. “Leonarda and Maria will lose everything that we built together during four years. When they arrived, their writing was very poor. We could tell they had never been to school. I’ve known lots of Roma children. I can assure you the attachment that these two have developed with the school and the teaching staff is very uncommon. School has become part of their universe,” she says.

It is one of the paradoxes of this case. Leonarda apparently felt integrated in the very country that rejected her and now fears not being able to find her place in this country that is not hers. French President Francois Hollande has, since her deportation, intervened and said that she could return to France to continue her studies, but without the rest of her family.

“I wanted to come to Kosovo after we got our documents to see my grandmother’s grave that my father often told me about,” she explains. They have not yet gone. “With my father, we went to see her old house, not far from here. He was in tears. The house is completely destroyed.”

Today, she fears seeing her dreams of a bright future disappearing. She has, however, displayed a skill for public speaking and a strong media presence that prove she is well-suited for the job she has dreamed about since age five: being a lawyer. One might say that's she already become a new European public advocate of the Roma people.

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