In the early 1990s, after a 47 year isolationist dictatorial regime, Albania was starting to open up. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the USSR had disintegrated, and Romania’s dictator had been promptly executed. All signs pointed to the end of communism. This was the first time that we as a people were allowed to immigrate in almost half a century. And the general mentality in Albania was “Anywhere but here!” In fact, in 1990 when Europe saw that our borders could no longer hold us in, and that we were dying for a breath of air, they opened their doors to us. Embassies from major western European countries like Germany, France, and Italy set up shop and were filled to the brim with people desperate to immigrate. These people had nothing to lose. They tended to be a bit younger in age and perhaps a bit adventurous too. They stood in line, and camped outside from morning till night for days on end, hoping for the embassy doors to open. They did open and everyone was labelled a refugee and got instant political asylum.
At the same time, there were heart wrenching scenes of large cargo ships being stormed by thousands of people who climbed aboard via ropes! These ships were for the daring and desperate. They sailed to the nearby Italian coast; this journey took place a few times until the final one sunk under suspicious circumstances. The most accessible destination was Greece; it was reachable by foot over mountain and field, or by vehicle. Being the most developed nation in the Balkans, and part of the European Union, it was the default destination for countless Albanian refugees, mainly from the south. It is fair to say there was an exodus of Albanian immigrants in the early 1990’s; something that was bound to happen after a nation was forced into isolation, and thus into poverty, for over 45 years.
America was the ultimate dream for us Albanians. There a culture reigned where America was and is beloved. I don’t know when the love of America began; perhaps it began at the very beginning when America defeated Great Britain to become civilization’s final frontier in 1776. Although, historically, I don’t know when the first Albanians started immigrating to America, by 1900, the largest community was in Boston numbering at about 50,000. Other large cities such as New York and Chicago may have had similar sized communities at the time. Then in 1944, our communist government put a stop to all emigration, particularly to America. We were now allied with Russia, and later with China. These Eastern powers became our mentors, and we were made to believe America was our enemy.
Albania has always looked up to America, and with good reason. It can be argued America is Albania’s greatest ally. In 1920, America came to our aid at the end of the first world war. At this time, our Slavic neighbors, and Greece wanted to use the chaotic opportunity to partition Albania altogether and take it for themselves. Their armies invaded the country and and our very existence was threatened. Although, other major European powers like Italy, Austria, and France were actors in the decision as to Albania’s fate, it would be America under the leadership of President Wilson that supported and conclusively reaffirmed our independence. This made our countries allies. In 1999, it would be with the aid and protection of America that Kosovo’s Albanians would survive the Serbian campaign of genocide. In 2008, our alliance was renewed yet again when Kosovo declared independence, with support and recognition from America.
On top that, like it does to much of the world, to us as people, America gave us hope; in the early 1990s Albania was a small eastern nation with a troubled recent past, and bleak immediate future. By contrast, here was America, a big western nation, powerful, with a storied past and a promising future. We were all dying to come here! It was a dream so big that we dare not dream it. America in our eyes was larger than life. Certainly, part of this impression had to do with the fact that no one had ever come to America and lived to tell about it. America was the dream of the unknown. Although, our dictator had tried to brainwash us that America was an evil imperialist who had intentions of invading Albania for decades on end, and he even forced us to build thousands of unsightly “defensive bunkers,” which littered neighborhoods and the countryside alike, by the fall of his regime we were free to think for ourselves.
Our natural inclination was to look up to America. Not Russia, not China; as the communist regime had bade us do all those decades, but America, the forward thinking western super power. We all dreamt of coming to America. Of all possible destinations, America the best; a nation built by immigrants for immigrants. In my family, in the early 1990’s, my dad really wanted out of Albania. But God knows my family was not “the cargo ship” type. Dad was a musicologist. He didn’t have that sort of daring in him. Dad thought of all possible destinations particularly the ones where he had contacts, through work. In Europe, this included Romania, England and Austria. But none of them came to pass.
Like other western embassies, the American embassy also opened in Albania at this time. There were rumors they were even offering Fulbright Grants to those few who dared apply; this was the type of daring appropriate for dad. He was an academic. However, earning a Fulbright was impossible at first. There were none! However, dad got a chance to meet the person in charge of the Fulbright Program in Albania, a man called John. Dad gave him a copy of his book; this gesture, and the fact he even had written a book, I believe impressed John. John was a kind man, but he could not help dad; there simply were no grants left, for any one. It was a game of numbers; too many applicants, too few grants. The small budget was already spent. Yet, as fate goes, after months and months pass, John calls dad with great news. A few Fulbright Grants had come in from America and he told dad to apply. He applied, and the rest is history. In the meanwhile, dad invited John over to our apartment for dinner; it was a celebration. We never heard from John again. As we left for America, he left for Asia.
Contains excerpts from my essay: “How did I get here? Out of the Old country and into the new World.”