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Europe

Western immigrants feel 'welcome' in Balkans

Every year, thousands of Balkan natives move west to build a life in wealthy EU states. But how do the Westerners fare who decide to go east? DW talked to three western Europeans who feel right at home in the Balkans.

When talking about his experience as a foreigner in Kosovo, Dutch-born Stefan Van Dijk often uses words like "hospitality," "friendliness" and "respect."

The 32-year-old business consultant moved to the small Balkan state with his wife in 2012. His family "always felt very welcome" when meeting the locals, Stefan told DW.

"Especially when you have small kids, they will hug them and kiss them, even if they are strangers." he said. "In our former house, we used to live next to a big supermarket. Almost every time I went there with my baby son, he came back with lipstick on his cheeks."

Stefan owns a company that helps foreign businesses in Kosovo, an ex-Serbian province which is mostly populated by ethnic Albanians. He also manages information portals about the country in several foreign languages.

When it comes to learning Albanian, however, he is still not quite happy with the progress he has made.

"Personally, I hate learning Albanian, but it makes your life a bit easier here," he said, complaining of complex grammar and spelling rules. Still, he can now talk to the locals pretty easily as long as "they are clear and not too quick."

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He told DW that he had "never ever felt even a little bit unsafe" in Kosovo, and that he has no plans of moving back home anytime soon.

"We came with our own long-term plans and dreams," he says about the decision to emigrate to the Balkans with his wife. "We have always said: As long as we enjoy it here, and we think that we can add something to the society, we stay. After 4 or 5 years of living here, there is no reason for us to leave."

Locals ready to help

Unlike Stefan, who made his plans to settle in Kosovo several years ago, many Westerners go there for a limited time to support various development and aid projects in the impoverished country. One of them is the 27-year-old German Maike Dafeld, who works as a project manager for an NGO in Pristina. She has spent the last three years living in Kosovo.

Maike's experience with the locals was also overwhelmingly positive, although not all of it was smooth sailing. The biggest cultural challenge was the lack of gender equality, she says.

"In daily life, there is a lot of sexual harassment on the street, especially for someone who looks definitely non-Albanian. I'm confronted with the stereotype that women from abroad are easy to get," she told DW.

However, she also claims that she feels very welcome in Kosovo and that people close to her try to make her feel safe, no matter what happens.

"People are very warm and supportive; I found friends who helped me when I didn't know something or took me to places when I needed help," Maike said. "When someone broke into my flat, I called a friend at 4 am and she translated for me at the police station, no questions asked."

Copy-paste from the West

When moving to a foreign country, migrants always carry the burden of stereotypes associated with their culture. Fortunately, stereotypes associated with present-day Germans are very positive in many Balkan countries.

"I feel very welcome and actually quite embarrassed when I go back to Germany and see how the Kosovars are treated there; it's very different," says Maike, who is originally from the town of Erkrath near Düsseldorf.

Kosovo, as a young and underdeveloped country, relies heavily on foreign expertise and aid. When it comes to Western migrants changing their host society, Maike believes that some of her fellow expats have a bit of a "neocolonialist" perspective. Also, some locals try to do a "copy-paste" of Western solutions for problems in the other country, she says.

"But some things, some Kosovar elements, they get a bit lost," she told DW.

Although Maike needs to leave Kosovo later this year for professional reasons, she told DW she would "definitely be up for" coming back if there is a chance.

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Crude or friendly?

Some EU nationals might have an easier time integrating in the Balkans than others, says 38-year-old social media specialist  Giuseppe Di Benedetto, an Italian living in Bulgaria.

Giuseppe says he found parallels between the Balkans and the south of Italy, where he comes from. In both places, people can be "too direct, even crude and rough, but warm and friendly if you find the right key." he told DW. "I guess that for people from the north of Europe, the effort to accept this difference can be harder."

Like Stefan and Maike in Pristina, Giuseppe also made an effort to learn the basics of the Bulgarian language and to gain access to the host culture.

"I think that most of the time, when you are the foreigner, your attitude is more important than the locals' attitude," he says. "You have to keep being positive and open-minded, trying to recognize the good people and to avoid the bad ones."

"I am very happy here," he says, when asked if he had plans to settle in Bulgaria. "Sofia is a dynamic city, growing and changing a lot and quickly," as well as a "nice place where good things happen every day."

"I guess this answer sounds like a 'yes.'"

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