Hopelessness and Hope Among Young People in Albania

high school students

Ndroq and Tirana       We drove to Ndroq, a village of about 5000 people, that is part of the municipality of Tirana, Albania, even though it took us almost an hour to get there.  Most of the country we drove through was a mixed industrial area interspersed with some vineyards and truck farms yielding produce.  We were scheduled to visit a high school where Marsela Allmuca, my associate, had done work with women and girls on education and awareness projects focusing on empowerment as a prevention against potential domestic violence and abuse.

Most of the young people we visited with here were the equivalent of sophomores and juniors in US high schools.  Their English was good, and they were at that tipping point where they were still mostly children, even as they looked more like adults, but increasingly trying to sort out a path as adults and all of the craziness that goes with that in knowing both too much and way too little.  The dynamics were such that some of the more confident in speaking English and more accustomed to dominating class discussions held sway in the beginning, but gradually, the more we talked about organizing, the more we broke through.  In the beginning we largely heard what their fathers felt, but later we got closer to what they really thought, but it was a struggle.

The opening tone was one of hopelessness about their community and their country.  On a show of hand, almost all of them wanted out, seeing no hope for change or employment in Albania or this small village.  Surveys indicate that 79% of young Albanians want to emigrate to other countries.  Marsela told me that there were some forecasts that projected the current population of more than two million could be halved to only one-million in coming years given the existing outflow of the young and aging of the general population.  Their fathers’ issues were the conditions of roads, the inability to get paid for work performed, and the ever-present issue of resolving land ownership, which one teen thought required a $2000 fee to process, almost as much as a year’s annual wage at the minimum standard.  Finally, one girl at the back spoke up and with help eventually rallied the majority of the students around the issue of needing a playground or cinema.  The argument bizarrely focused on whether or not that issue was too trivial compared to the so-called “big” issue of better roads.  Eventually, we carried the day on a show of hands about whether we should organize for an immediate win on playgrounds, but given the permeation of hopelessness in the room, it took everything I could muster to convince them that picking issues was not a zero-sum game, but both could be handled, and both were important.

activists and volunteers at Human Rights House

Our next meeting was in Tirana at the Human Rights House with some of their volunteers and several activists.  This smaller group ranged from 21 to 25 years of age with most in universities at some level.  Here, I caught a break.  One Roma activist told the story of how he and his friends supported a community of sixteen families being forcibly relocated from a river bank where they were living.  Launching a determined campaign against the municipal housing agency, they eventually won resettlement and a land grant for the Roma families, so that they could rebuild their homes, which gave me a great community organizing story in order to push them more clearly in the direction of building power and creating change.  Several other activists had long experience in disaster relief after a fatal explosion of an unsafe plant in their area and were now trying to create some of the first social enterprises, or so they claimed, in the country.

well-known graduates of the high school

Perhaps if a young person can make it away from their local village and out of the homes of their families who have suffered through cataclysmic changes in the country throughout their generation, including the fall of Communism and mass deprivation and migration, there’s hope as they hit twenty for both themselves and the country.  It’s a mountain to climb, but some at least seem to be making it, so we’ll have to help them build the bridge for a better Albania.

he school’s namesake in NDROQ which is the name of the village
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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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