Credit: Fadil Berisha
This story originally appeared on New Canaan & Darien Moms.
Meet the inspiring Yllka Gashi, a mom and actress getting rave reviews for her lead role in HIVE. The film, which received the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, is a true story about a single mother in post-war Kosovo struggling to raise two children after her husband goes missing in action. Yllka’s performance is riveting, as she perseveres in a patriarchal society that disproves of her becoming an independent woman who gets a driver’s license and starts her own business. Yllka spoke to us about HIVE, her own experience in Kosovo, and the path that brought her to the United States, and eventually to Darien, CT.
How many kids do you have and what are their ages?
I have a daughter, Nina. She is 8 years old.
What brought you to Darien and how long have you lived in town?
My husband Albian first came to the States from Kosovo as an exchange student in 1996, graduated high school here and then studied graphic design. A year after the war ended in Kosovo, he came back to visit his family, but guess what: he met me and stayed longer than planned! When we became parents in 2012, he was restless about moving back to the US, if for nothing else, the sake of giving our daughter a better education.
We moved to the US in 2015 and lived in downtown Stamford for a year. Leaving behind our family and friends, our beautiful home, careers and everything we built, and starting a new life from scratch on a different continent was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I’m saying “I” and not “we,” because even though we made the decision together, I think it was easier for my husband to kind of blend in, get a job and continue to thrive in his profession (he is an Art Director). He was educated here and understood the culture way better than I did. I, on the other hand, went from being super career driven in Kosovo to suddenly becoming a stay-at-home mom with a toddler and no support system. It was pretty tough in the beginning. But at the same time the desire to give Nina the opportunity of a better education made every sacrifice worth it. When it was time for our daughter to start school, some friends suggested we try the Darien Public Schools, which are among the best in the country. It was an obvious choice, and this year marks our fifth year of living in Darien.
I love Darien! It’s a beautiful, quiet town with an amazing community. When we first moved here, I missed the chaos of cities. Darien seemed too quiet, too clean, too good. Only after I went to visit back home and returned to Darien, I became fully aware of what a privilege it is to live here.
Tell us about growing up in Kosovo and your roles as UNICEF Ambassador and with Save the Children.
Like all Kosovo Albanians of my generation, growing up there wasn’t easy. Ever since I can remember, the political situation was tense, and the conflict worsened each day. During the ‘90 Albanian children were expelled from school and had to go to improvised home schools. Our parents lost their jobs unless they accepted Milosevic’s oppressive regime that destroyed Yugoslavia and turned neighboring countries against each other. There were riots, tear gas attacks, beatings, unjust imprisonment of innocent Albanians, killings, rape, massacres, ethnic cleansing… Truly terrible things that no kid—or person for that matter—should ever witness. Hundreds of thousands of us were forced to leave our homes, to flee the country and become refugees and asylum seekers all over the world.
After the war ended in June 1999 and we were under international protection as a country, a new chapter began. But this phase wasn’t very pleasant or easy either. While we were trying to heal collectively from the consequences of war, we had to deal with a ruined country with no infrastructure, no economy, no health or education system… There were long hours without power and water.
I feel very lucky and blessed that I was raised in a big family with two amazing parents and four loving siblings (three older sisters and a younger brother). The love and affection that we share for one another is what kept us strong and motivated during the most challenging times. In the post-war years, I studied acting at the University of Prishtina (Faculty of Dramatic Arts) and built a solid career, which began with being cast as Zana on the first post-war Albanian TV show, Familja Moderne-Modern Family and numerous other stage and screen productions. I was honored to be contacted by UNICEF-Kosovo in 2006 to serve as a local Goodwill Ambassador and help raise awareness about violence in schools. A few years later, Save the Children in Kosovo asked me to be their Artist Ambassador for their campaign about inclusive education for children with special needs. Both of these organizations have my utmost respect for the work they do around the world for children, refugees and those in need. I’m very proud I was part of that service in my native Kosovo.
As an actress, your performance in the film HIVE is bringing many accolades. What was it like making your American debut at Sundance and what should people know about this important film?
Sundance Film Festival has so much merit for discovering many amazing artists around the world, and we were absolutely thrilled to have our film selected in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Not in our wildest dreams did we dare to imagine it would break a record and make history by winning three major awards in that category. Somehow, I still can’t process we got that lucky. We are forever grateful for the opportunity that Sundance gave us most of all.
Hive was a labor of love and dedication. It took almost 10 years to get from being just an idea to debuting at Sundance and everybody involved put their whole hearts into it. The film is based on the true story of Fahrije Hoti, a widow from Krusha e Madhe, a small village in Kosovo that faced one of the most horrible massacres during the war. Fahrije has been through so many obstacles and challenges and overcame them all with stoic determination. Her husband is still among the missing people from the war, and she has had to deal not only with that, but also poverty, raising two kids as a single mother, taking care of her wheelchair-bound father-in-law and living in a patriarchal society that judged her when she started working and becoming independent. Now 22 years later, Fahrije is a well-established businesswoman in Kosovo.
How did you become involved with HIVE and where can people watch it?
In 2011, I was working on a TV series with the writer/director of Hive, Blerta Basholli, and she shared her idea of writing a film script about Fahrije Hoti and the widows of Krusha. Blerta even says that she wrote the script imagining me as Fahrije. A lot happened between 2011 to 2019 when we shot the movie, including me becoming a mother and immigrating to US, but it was my destiny to portray this amazing, quiet but powerful character. The film is still seeking distribution and hopefully will travel to other film festivals in Europe and around the world. I will let you know when it is available for wider audiences.
Has your daughter seen it? What sort of lessons do you want her to learn from HIVE?
Yes, Nina watched the movie after my husband and I first saw it. It was amazing to see her reactions and emotions while watching the story unfold. At one very emotional point in the film, Nina teared up and asked me, “Are you okay mommy? Are you hurt?” Her empathy melted my heart. I think she understood the message of the film because afterwards she told me, “Wow. That wasn’t easy but it was so amazing that you made it and didn’t give up.” That’s exactly what I think people take away from Hive—the resiliency of a strong-willed woman who doesn’t give up even under enormous pressure and difficult circumstances. Instead, she thrives and motivates her community to join her in trying to build a better life for themselves and their children.
You were part of the Albanian series “Modern Family” before you moved to the United States. What is your ideal project for an American audience?
I love being on set. I deeply enjoy building and portraying strong and powerful female characters. I also love theatre and stage, so it is a bit hard to separate the two. Until recently, I wasn’t able to pursue my dreams that much and build a career in US. You know… being a mom, a supportive wife and a recent immigrant … it takes time to adjust and make contacts with people in the industry. However, I auditioned, got cast and was lucky to be part of the amazing rotating cast in the off-Broadway hit show, Women on Fire-Stories from the Frontlines, written and directed by Chris Henry of Royal Family Productions in New York City. I was part of the show from 2018 until February 2020 right before the pandemic hit and changed everything. Now, after the Sundance success of Hive, I’m so motivated and ready to work. I’m making new contacts and hopefully a good agency will sign me. We’ll go from there to whatever new adventure awaits.
Favorite book, TV show, movie, band…
Favorite book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
TV show: The Office
Movie: The Lion King (1994)
Band: Not a band exactly, but Dua Lipa, she is brilliant!
Best advice you’ve ever received from a Mom?
Don’t forget to give yourself the credit you deserve for all the hard work you do.
Any words to live by?
To God we belong and to God we return!