Community Center Clashes Show Darker Side of Berat

City official and center social worker after the meeting with Marsela Allmuca, my fellow

Berat       We drove several hours south from Tirana to Berat, the 9th largest city in Albania.  The city is along a river with a massive mountain, the 2nd highest in the country dominating the valley.  A castle dating back to the 500 years of the Ottoman Empire’s rule, constructed with Byzantine architectural elements tops the hill overlooking the city, housing a old church, and the Onufri Museum, named after the great painter of religious icons in several hundred years ago and the distinctive red color he pioneered.

view from playground at center

We were there to meet activists in the Roma and Egyptian communities at a community center, housing social services and a kindergarten, designed to serve these minority populations.  In the meeting room where we sat with our offerings of soft drinks and snacks, the wall trumpeted the funders from the municipality, the United Nations, and the European Union that made the center possible.  Around the table were five activists from the community, three women and two men who sat across from us.  At the other end were the center staff, the director, social worker, psychologist, and dentist.  Next to me was a man from the municipality and their child protection and welfare division.

Berat neighborhood near center

Normally, these visits follow a pretty straightforward routine.  Foreign visitors from America are in the house, everyone is on their best behavior, there’s show-and-tell and a spirit of cooperation and “we’re all in this together.”   We have the advantage in Albania in that the United States is enormously popular still, all the more remarkable in that the country is almost 60% secular Muslim and slightly less than 17% Christian in the 2011 census.  Normally, we probe the community leaders, hear a couple of issues, hear how everyone has their shoulder to the wheel together, make a couple of mild suggestions as we tell about our work, and go on to the next event, learning somethings, while trying to come to grips with a perhaps illusive reality.

market in neighborhood that restricts Roma used clothes sellers

Not this time!   Little did we realize it when we walked in, but we quickly found that the knives were out.

view of mountain from Beret Castle parapets & the city below

After the introductions, asking a simple question to the activists about what they saw as community issues, one replied, access to the kindergarten.  The city official then belligerently attacked, blaming the Roma & Egyptian communities for not doing enough to make sure their children were in kindergarten.  The tone was set.  Another activist raised the issue of housing title, which is a universal problem in Albania since the fall of Communism.  The women on the center staff then seemed to take turns, often at the top of their lungs, arguing that the community should wait, since every community had this problem, and at other times, contradictorily, accusing the community of not being accurate or, if accurate, not being specific.  They didn’t look at the maps one would say, and then when asked by the community for help acquiring the maps, another would answer that they were still making them.

The community center staff and the municipal official were at war with the community members.  The racism, paternalism, general bad manners, and antagonism were palpable, and no amount of intercession, plea for calm, or even scolding abated the problem.  One center staffer tried to claim that “this is the way Albanians talk to each other.”  No, that is the way people in a position of some influence and power talk to people who they do not respect and regard as beneath them.  The center director offered that her husband has gotten all of the paperwork together and was able to get title to their property, but offered no suggestion how the community could do so and eventually, rather than showing leadership or counseling her staff on their constant interruptions and attacks on the community, simply left the room.

church

Tellingly, late in the donnybrook, I asked if I could pose one more question, wanting to know how the governance of the center worked.  It turned out there was no board composed of community members, explaining much of the hostility and lack of accountability.  A staffer claimed they had consulted with the community about joining the governance and that they had expressed no interest.  A man from the community said they were invited to one meeting, and then there was no follow-up by the staff to them.

Onufri Museum

This was both the worst meeting I had attended, and perhaps the most honest.  There was no pretense or coverup.  It was raw.  We witnessed and learned lessons we could only have guessed, if we had not been there, about the level of discrimination experienced by the Roma and Egyptian communities.

Berat riverside

Half of our party stayed for another few minutes to try and point the community members in the direction of organizing, but that’s no one’s job at the center.  Talking to the social worker outside while we waited, we were not surprised to learn from her that the services are underutilized, the center is largely unknown outside of the kindergarten on the upper floor, and participation is a problem.  Our Albanian associate visits the Berat center twice a month on a contract or grant to increase their capacity, largely working with their staff, not actually the community residents.  She is unfailingly good natured and upbeat, but this is not a problem she can solve as long at the center is only accountable to its donors and holds the very community members and the community itself in contempt.

houses of a 1000 windows

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Bet on the Players Not the President

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

New Orleans   President Trump could have, and in fact should have, just declared victory over the cowering and hapless National Football League billionaire owners and called it a day, case closed.  He had proven that a poorer man could successfully bully a whole gaggle of richer men.  For once in his life, he should have just shut his pie hole.

But, no, he couldn’t of course, so now the players are going to have to teach him a lesson.  Sports betting is now legal.  Soon it will be available in your town, too.  Delaware jumped off the line first.  If you are betting, I’d bet on the players this time.

There might be a dozen or so of you out there who don’t know what I’m talking about, so here’s the brief context.  Some NFL players, led initially by Colin Kaepernick and then Eric Reid and others, began protesting police brutality and racial discrimination during the anthem before the beginning of football games.  Some owners were fine with it, some weren’t.  The NFL brass was respectful in the beginning.  Before the protests could run their course or lead to some reforms, President Trump jumped into the fracas and tried to claim the protests were unpatriotic.  Then it was on!  Jerry Jones, the bully-boy owner of the Dallas Cowboys, threatened his players, and away we go.  There were stutter steps towards a resolution.  Players like Kaepernick filed grievances over collusion to prevent them from being able to work.  Secret recordings of the owners’ meetings became public proving how spineless many were.  Jones was fined and forced to pay the league’s legal costs for his mischief.  Finally, in a ham-handed move the league announced that their players would have to stand or stay in the locker room:  no more protests.

Trump of course declared victory, reminiscent of George W. Bush on the aircraft carrier, he mistook one successful skirmish for a bigger battle in the war.  Whoops!  The owners, the league, and Trump forgot about the players when they threw in the towel.  Furthermore, the players have a union so the owners can’t simply announce a unilateral change without negotiations, so there’s a problem there as well.

Trump then tries to have the standard White House celebration for the Philadelphia Eagles victory in the Super Bowl and suddenly finds out that he can hardly pull a van load of players and Eagles staff to drive the short trip to Washington.  The Eagles players had never even protested during the anthem, but now they are in it to win it on this front as well.

We all know what’s coming unless someone puts a sock in Trump’s mouth and the owners grow a backbone.  There are going to be whole teams that simply do NOT come out for the anthem and stay in the locker rooms unless this rule is changed. Constitutional lawyers are starting to weigh in now that the new NFL rule is a breach of freedom of speech and illegal.  Steph Currey and LeBron James in the midst of the NBA finals have already declined a visit to the White House and others are expressing solidarity with the Eagles and the NFL players.

We all know football.  When there’s a mess this big and the ball is bouncing all over the field, count on the players to pick it up and run with it.  That’s my bet, and I’m sticking to it.

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