In 1999 Bedrije Rexhepi left war-torn Kosovo, with her husband and six children aged 8 to 18, to come to Canada for just a few months. She’s still here, operating a hair salon and doting over her grandchildren.
A brutal civil war pushed them from their homes to a refugee camp in Macedonia and then to Nova Scotia. “I felt so sad leaving my home, but on the other side I saw people with welcoming arms. It made me feel good.” Bedrije was impressed by the number of people involved in working with the Kosovo refugees — from government to the Red Cross to ISANS. “You have to have a good heart to do that kind of job.” The family lived for six weeks at the Windsor Park military base, 10 people to a room. They then settled in Clayton Park and eventually Dartmouth.
Learning to communicate was challenging. “I would have no clue what people were talking about. The rules, culture, everything was different.” But a private sponsor group of local citizens assisted Bedrije and her family. “They took turns coming to help us learn English. We started to do potlucks. I didn’t know what that was! They were a beautiful group; they would make us laugh and tell us stories.”
As well as studying English, she took business courses at ISANS. Her first job was “just a job” at Burger King. Soon First Choice Haircutters offered her a position. She had impressed management with her skills, mastered as a hairdresser in Kosovo. After just one year she took a bold step and established her own business — Hair by Bea, a small salon on Windsor Street. She has many regulars, steady clients who walk in off the street hoping she has time for them. Working independently has suited Bedrije. “When you have kids it’s easier; my kids are my priority.” Her husband, a set designer who has painted beautiful murals admired throughout the city, has also done well here.
Bedrije and her family have returned to Kosovo a few times as their home has been renovated after being damaged during the war. “That’s the place the children were born and raised and they have friends. We can’t erase that.” The first days in Canada were difficult for them. Bedrije recalls being called to school as her youngest was having trouble. “I told her I believed in her and that she was a strong girl and would have to work hard.” This confidence and determination built a foundation of success in all the children. She is now an actress in Toronto while the oldest is an architect. In between there is a graphic designer, a lab technician, a music producer and a journalism student. “They work hard to achieve what they want to do,” says a proud Bedrije. Five are married and there are 13 grandchildren.
“It’s been good so far; we’re making a living, putting food on the table and educating our kids. My life has been good.”