Fourteen years ago, a 17-year-old left a war-torn Kosovo with his parents and six siblings, finding refuge in a Macedonian camp with 7,000 others. Three years after that, he would find refuge in the United States, specifically in Nicholasville and eventually at East Jessamine High School. Two months ago, he made his country of refuge his home when he was naturalized as an American citizen.
Vesel Alija, now 31, has worked as a custodian at East High for more than two years. He fled Kosovo with his family in 1999, when the southeastern-European nation was in turmoil from violent conflict between Serbians and Albanians. Alija, whose first language is Albanian, is still improving his English skills each year. He recalled witnessing violent deaths during the war.
“I saw a lot of things,” he said. “I saw people die. I saw women, kids — I saw special kids, too.”
After fleeing to Macedonia, Alija lived in a tent with his parents, his three brothers and his three sisters for about three years. It was at that camp that he met his future wife, then-15-year-old Zejnpe, whom he would marry five years later at the Jessamine County courthouse.
The aid of the United States stood out in Alija’s mind as he recalled his time at the camp, which included harsh, icy winters. Fifty-foot American trucks brought in food, clothes, water — “everything,” Alija said.
Eight years after coming to the United States with his family and settling in Nicholasville, Alija began working at East Jessamine High School in 2010. It was at that school that he found coworkers who became a community of friends supporting him in his quest for citizenship.
Alija began studying for the naturalization civics test in the first few months of 2012, often gaining the help of fellow custodians during breaks at night. He said the whole crew of Greg Reliford, Mitch Kemnitz, Tonya Wade, Chuck Nelton, Craig Wilson and the late Scott Bailey was helpful as he studied the history of the United States and prepared for the test, which he passed.
“If you’re lucky, you pass; if you’re not lucky, you drop down,” Alija said. “I guess I’m lucky; I passed the first time.”
Head custodian Gerald Cobb started working at the school just a month before Alija began and also became a crucial support as the Kosovo native worked toward citizenship — so much so that Alija asked Cobb to accompany him to the naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse in London, Ky., on Sept. 28.
“He asked me to go with him; his comfort level is a little higher if he’s got some support,” Cobb said. “But I also had some personal, selfish interest in that I had not observed or witnessed anything like that — I was keenly interested in it that way, as well.”
Alija and his wife have three children. The oldest, 8-year-old Sadija, is a second-grader at Rosenwald-Dunbar Elementary School. Their eldest son, Jetmir, is 5; their youngest, daughter Medina, is 2.
Alija said his entire family shared in the joy when he returned to Nicholasville as a United States citizen in September and that he has found a home in Jessamine County and at East Jessamine High School.
“I’m happy I’m here,” he said.