Taking refuge on the court
If home is where the heart is, then Montreat College senior Anyla Kryeziu must have a big heart. The 5-foot-11 outside hitter for the Cavaliers is definitely at home on the volleyball court, where on Sept. 12 she picked up her 1,000th career kill against Bryan College.
She’s also quite at home in Charlotte, where she attended Hopewell High School and played outside hitter for the Titans volleyball team her senior year.
Then there's Kosovo, or as she calls it in her native tongue, "Kosova."
Kryeziu, who goes by "AK" (because it's "easier to say and sounds more intimidating," she said) on the volleyball court was born in Kosovo's capital city, Prishtina, in 1996 when racial tensions between Serbians and Albanians in Eastern Europe were high. Three years later her ethnically Albanian family came to the U.S. for the first time.
"We were kicked out of our home," said Kryeziu, whose home country was mired in an armed conflict from February 1998 to June 1999. The family's house in Kosovo was burned down. "It was really bad," she said.
Kryeziu, her parents and two siblings were among the more than one million Albanians from Kosovo, which borders Albania's northeast corner, displaced by the war.
"My dad has a first cousin who lives in Charlotte," she said. "We came to them, and they kind of helped us get on our feet."
However, her parents' love for their home country brought Kryeziu and her family back to Kosovo just two years later.
"But the situation still wasn't OK," she said. "We weren't a country yet, so you can imagine the politics and the economy and the government and what things were like at the time."
So they returned to Charlotte. When Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, 111 United Nations states recognized its legitimacy, including the countries immediately surrounding it, except for Serbia. Once again the Kryezius returned their home country, where Anyla and her sister Era were introduced to the sport of volleyball at the age of 12.
"We started to realize we were talented," she said. "By the time I was 14, I was playing against women who were like 26 years old."
Anyla and her sister, who is 13 months older, were supported by both parents in their volleyball careers, which took them from city to city through Kosovo and surrounding countries. They played for their home city of Prishtina in the Superleague of Kosovo.
"In 2012 I tried out for (Kosovo's) junior national team," she said. "We traveled to Hungary and we played everyone. Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Serbia, Russia, everyone was there. It was a great experience."
Even though Anyla, as a child, had visions of playing volleyball professionally in Europe, she returned to the U.S. with her family. This time they were coming back to Charlotte not as refugees but because of an opportunity for Anyla and Era.
Anyla submitted highlights of her play to Montreat College. Head coach Kristy Kamer, now in her sixth year with the Cavaliers, was impressed.
"We were looking for strong hitters at the time, which everyone looks for," Kamer said. "It was easy to see (Anyla) had a lot of talent."
Her sister was attending St. Andrews University, playing volleyball for one of Montreat College's conference rivals. Anyla made an immediate impact for Montreat. The addition of the powerful outside hitter is helping the Cavaliers compete for the top of the Appalachian Athletic Conference, the coach and team believe. And, Anyla has established herself as one of the team's leaders, according to her coach.
"She has a huge heart," Kamer said of Anyla. "You can tell she really loves the game, and she cares a lot about others."
The Cavaliers opened the season 4-0 in the Appalachian Athletic Conference before dropping their first conference match to Bluefield College on Sept. 19.
Kamer described her player's 1,000th career kill as a "huge accomplishment."
"When you start your college career, one of your goals is to get as many kills as you can," Kamer said. "AK's only the second player to record 1,000 kills since I've been here."
The milestone is another significant career accomplishment for Anyla, who returned to Kosovo this past summer for the first time since 2012 to once again represent her native country as it attempts to qualify for the 2018 FIVB Volleyball World Championships.
"It's hard to explain how I felt," she said of going back home five years later. "It's a moment that you can't really put into words. It still feels like a dream."
Anyla's parents were proud to see her representing the young country on the international stage. "My dad is my biggest critic and also my biggest fan," she said. "He was a big reason why I wanted to go play for Kosova."
She was nearly overcome with emotion as she stood for the young nation's anthem before her first game.
"I just started crying," she said. "It was so emotional, and it felt so surreal. It felt like it wasn't me experiencing that, but someone else who I was watching."
After three weeks of volleyball, Anyla remained in Kosovo through the summer, catching up with old friends and family members she hadn't seen since she was teenager. She marveled at the changes that had taken place in her native land.
"It was beautiful," she said. "It's not really modern like other places because they're still rebuilding from the war."
She visited the Newborn Monument, unveiled in 2008 in her home city to herald the country's independence from Serbia.
"That was so cool since we're still a newborn state," she said.
Anyla returned to the U.S. in time to begin her senior year at Montreat, another place she loves that feels like home. She has no way of knowing what would've happened had her family remained in Kosovo. But she appreciates that she never had to find out.
"I'm very thankful, and now that I'm older I really appreciate it," she said of the sacrifices her parents have made for her and her siblings. "It always used to make me so sad when we would move because I would be leaving friends and people I care about."
But Anyla points out that all of those moves put her in the best position to pursue a career in the sport she loves.
"If we hadn't moved back to Kosovo the second time I may have never started playing volleyball," she said. "My life has been like a big puzzle, but all of the pieces have fit together so well."