The Dibranis, stateless Europeans

Leonarda, the Gypsy girl expelled from France on a school trip, was born in Italy Family “attacked by unknown individuals” in Mitrovica

Leonarda Dibrani, the 15-year-old schoolgirl whose deportation from France sparked a huge outcry, speaks to the media as her father Resat talks on his cellphone outside their temporary home in Mitrovica.
Leonarda Dibrani, the 15-year-old schoolgirl whose deportation from France sparked a huge outcry, speaks to the media as her father Resat talks on his cellphone outside their temporary home in Mitrovica. ARMEND NIMANI / AFP

The arrest of 15-year-old Gypsy schoolgirl Leonarda Dibrani in the middle of a school trip on October 9 and the immediate deportation of her and her family to Kosovo has caused enormous political uproar in Paris.

Pressured by student protests and criticism from the left of his Socialist majority, French President François Hollande on Saturday tried to calm the storm in a televised address by proposing that Dibrani — and “only her” — be allowed back to the country by presenting “an application to return and continue studying.”

But the youngster, who was born in Italy and had been attending school in France since 2009, rejected the French head of state’s offer barely before it had come out of his mouth. “I don’t want to go back to France,” Dibrani told TV station BFMTV from Mitrovica, Kosovo. “I don’t have anybody there, and I’m not the only one who has to go to school; there are also my brothers and sisters.” She addressed the French president directly to give him a lesson. “I didn’t expect that of Hollande. I think the president hasn’t looked at our report properly and hasn’t done his job well. Does he not have the heart to take in this family? Does he not have pity?”

Her father Resat Dibrani, who on Friday admitted that he had lied to the authorities by presenting “a fake marriage certificate bought in Paris for 50 euros,” pointed out that his daughter “had not been alone in France” and that “four of her five siblings had also been going to school since the age of four.”

I sold roses in Seville and handkerchiefs in Belgium, until we settled in Italy"

“If we go back, we will all go back together,” he concluded.

Dibrani senior left Kosovo 38 years ago. He is a tubby man with a wide face, a direct look and gray eyes. His wife, Djemilah, has dark skin and hair, plucked eyebrows and is dressed in black. She looks Sicilian or Andalusian.

Leonarda herself is charming, funny and has her father’s thick eyebrows. She speaks French, Italian, a bit of English, the Romany that she learnt from her parents, and a few words of Albanian and never stops smiling and having fun like any other teenager.

“I am a star,” she says, ironically, when asked about the demonstrations in her support back in France. “I only want to go back to school and see my friends, my boyfriend and my teachers.”

Everything was going fine until Silvio Berlusconi said the Gypsies had to be thrown out”

The family receives EL PAÍS in the dilapidated but decent two-story shared house given to them by the Kosovo Interior Ministry at 7.45am, when all the visiting French reporters and other relatives are still asleep. The first surprise is that they speak to each other in perfect Italian at home. The second comes upon learning that Djemilah was not born in the Balkans, but in Caltanissetta, Sicily; and the third is that they are not married — they “live together,” they say — and that they became a couple when they slept together for the first time in a Romany camp in Naples. The great irony of the story — symptomatic of the absurdities that a large part of Europe has inflicted on the Romany community over the last decades, or even centuries, as well as of the distrust many Gypsies feel towards public authorities — is that most of the members of the family who the media have spent the past week calling Kosovan were not born, nor have ever lived in Kosovo. Only one of them was.

Dibrani senior recites the full family line-up: “Daniel is 24, was born in Naples and is now in Ukraine with his wife. Erina, 22, lives in France with her husband, but was born in Fano, in Pesaro province [northern Italy], the same as María, 17; Leonarda, 15; Rocky, 12; Ronaldo, eight; Hassan, five, all in Fano. And Medina, the youngest, was born on June 10, 2012 in France.”

“I was born here, in Mitrovica, 48 years ago, and I am the only one who has documentation, a very worn out Yugoslav passport that I got 34 years ago when I went from Kosovo to Zagreb to do military service in Tito’s army,” he explains. “They told me in the Interior Ministry that in reality we don’t have the right to be Kosovans, even though it looks like they are going to fix that.”

And how come the other members of the family don’t have papers? “They were born in Italy and there if you don’t have at least an Italian father, you cannot request nationality until 18 years of age; they demand you have Italian blood,” Djemilah replies. But wasn’t she born in Caltanisetta? “Yes, but then it was the same.”

The exodus of the family began in 1986, Resat says. His father, a drunk and a womanizer, left home when he was young and he had a tough childhood. He went to live with his grandmother and was raised by friends. “When my grandmother died, I was nine and I went off with my great aunt, who sold shoes and was very rich. They lived close to Zagreb, in Sisak. It was there I met Djemilah in 1989. She was 13 years old and I didn’t like her, she was too shameless and used to sport very open necklines... Her sister was prettier, but younger and shier. When I reached the age for military service, I was an officers’ driver for a year. After finishing, I returned to Mitrovica, but as my elder brother had gone to Naples, and hadn’t seen me for 20 years, I decided to go to Italy.”

The case shows the incapacity of the EU to come to terms with the free circulation of poor people

Djemilah’s parents were Croatian Gypsies and also went to Italy to work as iron sellers in 1969. “They worked in Palermo, in Messina, in many places. I was born in Sicily because they lived there a long time. But then they headed to Naples, we came back to Croatia, we went to Spain,” she recalls.

“We were young, and we lived like nomads, without borders, for many years,” her husband continues. “Where we heard you could live peacefully, that’s where we went. I sold roses in Seville, handkerchiefs in Belgium, tobacco in Germany, until we settled in Fano. The local government helped us a lot and I was able to set up a business collecting junk and cleaning up gardens.

“Everything was going fine until Silvio Berlusconi said that all the Gypsies had to be thrown out of the country,” he remembers. That was before and after the 2008 elections. The Italian government didn’t hesitate in registering Gypsies, taking their fingerprints, tolerating motorized or incendiary attacks on their camps and deporting them en masse.

The Dibranis’ flight to France in January 2009 coincided with the climax of this offensive. “We went two days before they expelled us. The lawyer told me that they were going to send us to Croatia, so we took the van and left via San Remo towards Orléans.

In the last four years and eight months, they have asked five times for political asylum and residency permits in France — all without success.

“I swear on my dead father that we have never begged, nor sold a child, nor done anything horrible. We are normal people, religious, family focused. They once put Resat in prison in Naples by mistake, and when he came out they gave him a check and all the rest of it,” says Djemilah.

On Sunday it emerged that Leonarda, her parents and her siblings had been “attacked by unknown individuals” in Mitrovica, a police source told the AFP news agency. Djemilah was “hit and taken to hospital, while her six children suffered shock,” the source added.

The saga of this stateless family is paradigmatic: because of their optimism and their allergy to homelands and documentation — perhaps the vestige of their ancestors’ suspicion of censuses, usually the prelude to a pogrom — as well as for other customs viewed dimly by this neoliberal and bourgeois Europe.

Their story — full of travel, liberty, adventures and escapes — provokes at once envy and vertigo, and is both the incarnation and the flipside of the European dream: people who speak three or four languages and go jumping from country to country according to the way the wind blows.

But at the same time it shows the incapacity of the EU to come to terms with the free circulation of poor people, and of their lack of interest in giving basic rights and respect to this one ethnic minority, 800,000 of whom, by the way, were killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

Perhaps Leonarda’s story will help the politicians, and those citizens who blame them for the crisis that has nothing to do with them, to understand that this people became nomads out of necessity and have only stopped being so in those places that managed to change hatred for a tender hand.

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