Commentary

From refugee to soccer star

Updated: October 4, 2010, 10:28 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HAMDEN, Conn. -- Conflicts stretch over centuries and grow by generations. Resolutions remain beyond the reach of eternity. Yet, the world can change in the blink of an eye for those caught in the middle.

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Fortuna Valej As a young girl, Furtuna Valej saw Serbian tanks outside her bedroom window.

It did one afternoon in 1998 when 7-year-old Furtuna Velaj looked out the window of her family's home in Kosovo and saw the gun barrel of a Serbian tank staring back.

Velaj didn't have time to pack any reminders of home as she and her family fled that day and traveled to the United States in search of sanctuary and opportunity. The photos stayed behind, but she carried with her a passion for soccer that she discovered in open spaces that offered the opportunity to put foot to ball in the village of Gllogjan.

That link to the past presented the path to a future she hopes to help shape in her adopted country.

Sports won't cure the world's ills, nor do the games played merit the life-and-death tenor sometimes ascribed to them. Velaj knows firsthand the difference between conflict and competition. She knows that white chalk can't solve border disputes in the real world and battles don't end with the sound of a whistle and a line of handshakes after 90 minutes. Soccer is nonetheless providing a college education that her family could not otherwise afford. And when she steps off the field for the final time, be it at Quinnipiac University or at a professional level, she will leave with a college degree in political science, with which she hopes to pursue a career in international relations and conflict resolution.

"She has things in perspective that very few college athletes do that are big-time players," Quinnipiac coach Dave Clarke said. "She knows poverty. She knows genocide. She knows atrocities. She knows what it's like to have to leave home and come to a different country with nothing.

"So all of this -- playing here, going to Quinnipiac -- that's a bonus for her."

The war that forced Velaj and her family from their home began in 1998. The conflict at its root was born centuries earlier, partly for reasons all too familiar the world over.

"It's all about land," Velaj said.

Landlocked in Eastern Europe, modern Kosovo borders Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Previously an autonomous region within Serbia, which was a part of Yugoslavia during the Cold War, Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Its right to self destiny is recognized by roughly 70 nations, including the United States, Germany, United Kingdom and three of Kosovo's geographic neighbors, but not by Serbia, which still considers it an autonomous region under United Nations control since the cessation of hostilities in 1999.

The majority of Kosovo's residents are ethnic Albanian and Muslim (Velaj and her family are ethnic Albanian but were part of the Roman Catholic minority in Kosovo). During the 1990s, heightened tensions between the region's ethnic Albanian population and the Serbian government led by Slobodan Milosevic created the climate in which Velaj grew up, a climate in which she says her father, a literature professor and writer, was routinely harassed by Serbian police.

"I didn't understand the politics, but I knew there was something wrong," Velaj said of her childhood. "I'm Albanian, so you kind of know whenever you went to the city or anything, you'd just see the Serbian cops everywhere and they'd stop you. … I understood a lot because of my dad, but also from what I saw. I just saw the soldiers and they spoke a different language -- they didn't speak Albanian and I don't speak Serbian -- so you just kind of understand the situation."

War between Kosovo and Serbia broke out in earnest in 1998. That year, her parents, Mhill and Binake, made plans to get the family out of Kosovo, purchasing forged Yugoslavian papers for the equivalent of $85,000. The CIA Factbook estimates as many as 800,000 ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo during this time (Milosevic was charged with war crimes, including genocide, as a result of the conflict, but died while on trial in the Hague).

Mhill's English is unsteady, and he prefers to let Furtuna translate for him, but there's no mistaking the look in his eyes as he tries to explain the decision to leave his homeland.

"It was not easy to leave," Mhill said. "I was teacher for 19 years and seven months in high school. I came here just so my kids would not see the war."

He left first to make arrangements in the United States, but when the tanks arrived on that afternoon in Gllogjan, it sparked a hurried departure for the rest of the family.

"I was crying because my mom wasn't coming with us," Furtuna said of being bundled into a friend of the family's car that day. "I thought I would never see my mom again, so it was kind of chaotic. … We were separated for a couple of hours, but those couple of hours felt like forever, especially when you're that young."

They traveled first to Montenegro, then to Florida, by way of Spain and Cuba, and finally to New York and Stamford, Conn., where an aunt lived. Reunited with Mhill, the family shared the aunt's two-bedroom apartment with more than 20 members of the extended family. Now a manager of a restaurant, Mhill started his new life washing dishes.

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Furtuna Velaj The village of Gllogjan gave Furtuna Velaj her start in soccer.

For her part, as the family enjoys reminding her at every opportunity, Furtuna's initial reaction was to complain about having to sleep on the floor. After all, as she pointed out as perhaps only a child her age could, how could this place be so much better if she had her own bed back home in Kosovo?

She still had soccer, another part of everyday life in Kosovo. While not a sport played by girls in great numbers at the time in her old home, particularly against boys, she was the tomboy daughter of a liberal father and a mother who loved exhausted children coming home to sleep. Living in a rural village where people drew their water from a well, there were more limited leisure options than for Americans.

"We would just play soccer all the time for fun," Furtuna said. "As a kid, there's nothing else to do there. It's the countryside. You play with cows, play soccer, you go out and run. Really, what do you do in the countryside?"

That didn't change a great deal in Stamford, even if the cows were harder to come by in the urban commuter community not far from New York. She, her siblings and cousins would play pick-up soccer outside the apartment building where they lived and eventually found their way into local youth leagues, with no small measure of success (her older sister Linda plays soccer at the University of Bridgeport and younger sister Alona will likely follow them into the college soccer ranks).

Furtuna ranked among the top 15 players in the nation in points (goals and assists) in each of her first two college seasons at Quinnipiac and scored five goals in her first seven games this season. A forward with good speed and average size, she has a knack for playing bigger on the field than her frame would suggest. Her best assets are those that come from a lifetime devotion to the sport. Her touch on the ball, control, power on shots and instincts are those of someone born with talent who spent most of her youth playing the game and watching her beloved AC Milan.

"Sometimes I think I'm too passionate about soccer. I love soccer, watch soccer every day," Furtuna said. "For me, soccer is kind of a way to get away from everything. It's always been fun. It's never been like a job. It's not stressful.

"But at the same time, I always knew that our circumstance -- my parents don't have money, so I always knew that for me to get an education, it was through soccer."

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quinnipiacbobcats.comFurtuna Valej has become one of the most prolific scorers in the country.

There was never doubt in her mind as to what she would do with that education.

She remembers watching CNN as United Nations trucks, following an aerial bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, moved into Kosovo, and remembers the sight of residents holding up two fingers in the universal gesture for peace. She attended meetings and rallies with her father in support of independence for Kosovo and found herself drawn more to news reports of other ethnic and religious conflicts across the globe than the typical teenage television fare. After last soccer season, she participated in a two-week seminar in Washington D.C. to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, playing the role of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in mock peace negotiations.

"Kosovo was simple compared to that conflict," Furtuna said. "There's a lot of politics going on. Everybody has their own goals, ambitions and special interests. It was just really interesting to learn about it and kind of see how the whole peace process worked."

Her demeanor is not the fiery absolutism familiar to campus activism. That's not to say she's Henry Kissinger with a ponytail. She is perfectly capable of sounding like a 20-year-old college kid. Her soft-spoken reserve gives way to conspiratorial gossipy giddiness when dishing about the glamour of the Saudi Embassy or the mundane drabness of the State Department. But there is a quiet seriousness and a lack of naive romanticism when she talks about wanting to work for an non-governmental organization (NGO) or pursue journalism relating to international conflicts. Perhaps, it's just a sense that she's seen too much to think she can save the world.

Furtuna and her family were granted refugee status after getting to the United States, but she is not yet a citizen. Nonetheless, at a recent game between Quinnipiac and Central Connecticut, with Ireland, England, Australia and Sweden all represented during player introductions, it was notable that Furtuna was introduced as hailing from Stamford. She returned to Gllogjan last summer for the first time. She noticed Serbian tanks were replaced by Belgian peacekeepers, paved roads and even the Internet making inroads. But Stamford is home.

She said she wouldn't be opposed to representing Kosovo in international competition were it to gain recognition from the world and European soccer governing bodies, FIFA or UEFA respectively, but it's not her first choice.

"If the U.S. doesn't call me first," she said with a smile. "My dream is always to play for the U.S., ever since I was a little kid. I love this country. I love the ideas it was created on."

Her coach, a native of Ireland, believes one of the reasons he was fortunate enough to land a talent like Furtuna at Quinnipiac, a program on the rise but one well outside the sport's power conferences, is because the recruiting conversations they had were as much about international politics as soccer, and as much about AC Milan as Quinnipiac, when talk did turn to the pitch.

"She doesn't talk about [her past], and it's not really the emphasis of her as a player," Clarke said. "But I like it because it teaches the kids that there's a bigger world out there than Quinnipiac and Hamden, Conn. And these types of things get forgotten. We're lucky to have her, but there's a reason why she's in America. That reason is bigger than anything in soccer."

The world can change around you in the blink of an eye. For Furtuna, soccer is a reminder that perhaps she can change it.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.