LOVREN: MY LIFE AS A REFUGEE
Dejan Lovren runs his palm down his face, the realities of that harrowing time still so real, still so raw.
The pain never dissipates and the memories of being rendered a refugee through the Bosnian War resurfaces when he watches countless others, in similarly unthinkable situations, sacrificing everything for the smallest shot at survival.
“When I see what’s happening today, I just remember my thing, my family, and how people don’t want you in their country,” the Liverpool defender reveals in an LFCTV documentary, which tells his powerful, poignant story of having to flee Kraljeva Sutjeska as a three-year-old, with his Croatian parents Sasa and Silva, to escape the first genocide in Europe since World War II.
It is an account that needs to be heard, needs to be digested and needs to jolt and jar at a time when walls are being built instead of arms opened to millions of ordinary, innocent people that have been caught up in unspeakable hell.
“I understand people want to protect themselves, but also [these] people don’t have homes,” Lovren says of the women, men and children that have been displaced from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and so many other countries of conflict.
“It’s not their fault; they’re fighting for their lives just to save their kids. They want to go away and have a secure place for their kids and their futures. I went through all this and I know what some families are going through.
“Give them a chance, give them a chance. You can see who the good people are and who are not.”
'Lovren: My Life as a Refugee' - Coming February 8— Liverpool FC (@LFC) February 6, 2017
Warning: this clip contains news footage from the Bosnian War, which may be distressing. pic.twitter.com/ewp37XvPSX
Lovren and his family were incredibly fortunate to find safety in Germany, joining his maternal grandfather in Munich.
“I would say we had luck - me and my family - we had luck,” he details.
“We had our grandad, who was working before in Germany, and because of that he had the papers to say, ‘yeah, come to us’. If not, I don’t know what we could’ve done. Maybe I could see my parents and me under the ground. I don’t know what could’ve happened.
“On one side we are happy, because I heard so many stories. I had one of my best friends in my high school - his dad was a soldier - and I remember he was crying every day. And I was thinking, ‘why?’ And he said, ‘my dad died’. So, you know, it could’ve been my dad…
“I had the luck with Germany. If they hadn’t allowed us to come in I don’t know where we would’ve gone or where we could go. I never ask about that. My mum said: ‘Germany is our second home’ and it’s true. Germany gave us their open hands. I don’t know which [other] country could do that at that time to welcome refugees from Bosnia.”
Lovren and his parents left everything behind - their business, their friends, their everyday life - taking with them only a bag of clothes as they fled Zenica in his uncle’s small Yugo.
“I wish I could explain everything what happened,” he says. “You hear so many stories, but nobody knows the real truth. It just happened. It just changed everything through the night – war between everyone, between three different cultures [Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats].
“I just remember when the sirens went on. I was so scared because I was thinking ‘bombs’ or that something will happen now.
“I remember my mum took me and we went to the basement, I don’t know how long we’d been sitting there, I think it was until the sirens went off. Afterwards, I remember mum, my uncle, my uncle’s wife, we took the car and then we were driving to Germany.
“They left everything – the house, they left it. The little shop with the food they had, they left it. They took one bag and ‘let’s go to Germany’.”
A young Lovren settled quickly into his new surroundings among kids from the same background, who spoke the same language at his kindergarten, but his parents struggled to adapt to an alien way of life while having to seek out employment.
For three years they stayed in a small wooden house that was full of love, but also full of people with 11 squeezed in. Though they had escaped the continuous violence that claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, they never blocked out the terror that tore their country apart.
“My mum said that every night, around 10pm, they switched on the radio and everyone listened to the news and what had happened in Bosnia because at that time we didn’t have television in this house. It was quite intensive, it was always like, ‘in which town are they in now?’ and ‘where were they going?’ The main question was, ‘when will the war stop?’
“I think Zenica was more attacked because it was a bigger city, rather than smaller villages. But it was in these small villages where the most horrific things happened - people being brutally killed.
“My uncle’s brother was killed in front of other people with a knife. I never talk about it with my uncle, because it’s quite a tough thing to talk about, but he lost his brother, one of my family members. Difficult…”
Around the age of five or six, Lovren found his ultimate comfort: football. He quickly developed an affinity for Bayern Munich and would be drafted into a local team that his dad coached.
“I went to the training ground when I was six or seven years old,” he recalls. “I took some pictures with the superstars at that time – Bixente Lizarazu and Lothar Matthaus.
“It was my hometown, my hometown… Because of that I loved Germany – Munich was a proper city, every third man was Croatian, a lot of Croatians are still living there today.”
Aged 10, his family were given a two-month notice period to leave the country due to incorrect paperwork, and once again, it meant leaving everything behind and starting from nothing.
Football was the player’s solace when they settled in the Croatian city of Karlovac; he was mocked at school for the German slants in his accent, but was respected on the pitch.
And with his mum and dad struggling to pay the bills - they once sold his ice skates for £40 just to stay afloat until the next pay cheque arrived - Lovren decided it was time to ensure a better life for all of them. He bravely went to Dinamo Zagreb on his own at 14, intent on making a career out of football.
Despite now being a world away from having to do without necessities like electricity, he still tries to ensure his children are always appreciative of what they have. “I hope for the next generation that it’ll be much easier, for my daughter and my son, maybe they’ll forget it and move on,” Lovren explains.
“I don’t know if they’ll ever understand my life or my situation, what I’ve been through, because they live in totally different worlds.
“If my little girl wants a toy or something, sometimes I say, ‘I don’t have the money’. It’s quite difficult to understand why I’m saying that, but she needs to understand that nothing comes easy. I’m working hard for her so she needs to understand you don’t need 20 toys, sometimes you need just one or two and you’re still happy - it’s about other things…
“I couldn’t imagine today to run away with my kids, and to really be scared for your life; it’s about your life, it’s not about a job or something like that.”
Unfortunately this is still a life for millions of refugees, whom Lovren can relate to, who are too often viewed as a burden, a risk, a parasite - rather than one of you or I. He hopes his personal account helps spread more understanding around the experiences of refugees; he wishes them the opportunity of peace and prosperity.
“It’s quite a sensitive thing to talk about, so people still avoid talking about that – it’s sad. Mum said to me ‘don’t tell them,’ and I said, ‘I will tell them’.”
Thank you for doing so, Dejan.