Faik Konitza

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Pride and Prejudice: Belgium's Albanian community

 

A film production team dining a little while ago at The Oldies café in Schaerbeek, was so impressed by the proprietor Jenny’s typically bruxellois accent that they offered her a role in Jean-Claude Van Damme's new film, J.C.V.D. Yet Jenny isn't Belgian, she's Albanian. Her real name is Mërgime (‘exile’) Lita, and her forebears were clan chiefs in the harsh, inaccessible mountains of the north.

One Sunday last February – the day Kosovo declared independence – many Brussels neighbourhoods blossomed with scarlet flags adorned with the bold, two-headed black eagle of Albania. It was a short-lived but exuberant display of national pride on the part of an immigrant community that is one of Belgium’s oldest, and yet exists almost invisibly, except when it finds itself branded by negative and largely inaccurate stereotypes.

Jenny's story reflects how many long-term Albanian immigrants in Belgium have integrated into their adopted society, without ever losing their fierce sense of national identity.

“My father always taught me to keep our culture and origins but to respect the country which welcomed us,” she says. “We have a multicultural clientèle. We serve a pousse café called the Kosovar, so customers know I'm Albanian, but they appreciate the fact that we are well integrated.”

The first significant group of Albanian political refugees arrived by train on 1 August 1956 - mainly from camps in the former Yugoslavia - under an agreement between Belgium and the United Nations. Those early arrivals, with no way back home, worked hard and settled into their host community. Their children and grandchildren are now established across society, including in the European institutions. In 2006, political adviser Safet Kryemadhi, whose father made that historic journey, and Kolë Gjeloshaj helped to organise a 50th anniversary celebration in the Belgian senate. Albanians are proud to be here, says Kryemadhi, because of historical links between the two countries dating back to 1896, when the writer Faik Konica lived in a house in rue de l'Albanie and launched the journal Albania.

Nowadays, the community has grown bigger and more diverse. There are an estimated 60,000 people of Albanian descent in Brussels (mainly Schaerbeek and Anderlecht), Namur, Antwerp and elsewhere. The 1990s brought a new phase of immigration as Albanians fled the violent anarchy that followed the fall of communism, and others escaped the war in Kosovo. Whereas the early immigrants sought liberty, their successors came looking for prosperity, says Professor Artan Fuga of Tirana University.

Here, Albanians have more freedom to be themselves than in host countries like Greece or Italy, where there is more overt hostility, says Kryemadhi. And yet, stereotypes persist. “People often talk about us when they speak of trafficking or drugs,” explains Ilir Likaj. “They link us to the mafia, or ask us if we are armed, and how many women we have smuggled in. If you are Albanian you must be a voyou, a thief. Newspapers sell more copies if they write about Albanian criminal networks. Of course, like all immigrant communities we have some problems, but we don't have a monopoly on crime. It's not direct discrimination, but an underlying tension – even in the corridors of the EU.”

Most Albanians have high standards of behaviour and those who do not should be punished, states Gani Azemi, a Kosovar journalist who covers EU affairs. Indeed the 15th century code of the Kanun, which to this day exerts a strong influence over Albanian mores, sets standards of loyalty and hospitality perhaps more demanding than in any other European society – as well as laying down the rules of the notorious blood feud.

Although an IT specialist by profession, Likaj is now in catering, where many Albanians find fewer barriers to employment. Lawyer Luan Abadinaj worked for four years as a waiter after he arrived in Belgium as an asylum-seeker in 1997. “It helped me a lot, it enabled me to have contact with people,” he reflects. Elected as a local mayor in southern Albania at the age of 25, he was forced into exile after threats to himself and his family. He is now helping new immigrants integrate into Belgian society.

Language, culture and tradition are the “cement” holding Albanians together, regardless of religion, says Abadinaj. In theory, around 70% of the population is Muslim, 20% Orthodox and 10% Catholic. In practice, many are atheist, and the belief that The religion of Albanians is Albanism was widespread long before the dictator Enver Hohxa banned religious practice in 1967. Inter-faith tolerance is taken for granted, even within marriage. “I am Christian, my wife is Bektash [a branch of Islam]. I find that magnificent,” says Gjovalin Kola. Formerly deputy editor-in-chief of one of Albania’s leading newspapers, Shekulli, he is one of the founders of a new cultural association named after Konica (or Konitza). The organisation is needed to fill a gap, he believes. “There have been other initiatives, but so far there has been nothing that has really succeeded in making Albanian culture well known in Belgium. Konica was a visionary, and he remains a point of reference for us.”

While the early immigrants cherished their culture discreetly within the family, younger arrivals are more confident, more determined to raise their nation’s profile and play an active role in their host country.

Alisa Aliu is president of the dance troupe Shqipet e Diasporës, which won first prize at the annual arts festival of the Albanian diaspora in Berlin in 2003. “I am very proud of what we have done in presenting our culture to Belgians,” she says. “We give performances around the country and our name is widely known. Whenever there is a multicultural activity, people invite us.”

The President of the Konitza Association, Genti Metaj, arrived in Belgium in 1999, and was surprised to find the Albanian community poorly organised. “The older generation was a bit closed in on itself,” he remarks. “The new challenge of our Europe is cultural exchange in place of conflict.” Albanians have also started to venture into the Belgian political arena, with at least 12 standing in local elections in 2006.

Two contact points are the Albanian bookship Albel Librarie in Schaerbeek, and the two-hour programme L'echo des aigles on Brussels’ Radio Panik every Sunday, also available on the internet - (Shqipëria – Albania - means Land of the Eagles). Insurance broker Sakip Skepi has hosted the show for 22 years. “When I arrived 30 years ago, Albania was hermetically closed. I wanted to have some contact with my culture and my language, and share it with other people,” he explains, “to explore who I am, where I come from. At that time it was the only point of contact, but by now it’s an institution.”

The drive among ex-pat Albanians to preserve their national identity stems to a large extent from a widespread conviction that they have suffered more than most Europeans in winning their freedom and independence. “We are a people with a tragic past,” says Kola. “Small nations have a similar history, and we were dominated, menaced and crushed by the big powers.” After more than 500 years of Ottoman rule, interrupted only between 1443 and 1468 when Albania's revered national hero Scanderbeg, whose statue stands next to the Parc Josephat in Schaerbeek, united clan leaders against the Turks, the country seized independence in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. But the frontiers defined in 1913 failed to reflect Albanians’ linguistic and cultural boundaries, causing strife in the region to this day.

The end of the Second World War plunged Albania into isolation and generated cases of shocking tragedy. Lek Pervizi and his family arrived in Brussels in 1990 after 45 years of internment under the Hoxha regime.

“We were considered Royalists,” he explains. “In 1944 they burnt down our house and confiscated all our belongings.” His father escaped to Belgium, but some 30 members of the extended family left in Albania – mainly women, children and elderly relations – were detained. “Ten of them were killed or died in prison, including my mother and grandmother,” says Pervizi, with tears in his eyes. The camp, encircled by barbed wire and armed guards, was in a former Italian army barracks, with no proper sanitary or health provision. “We were given 500gm of maize bread a day,” he remembers. “People started to get ill. In one night 33 children died.” He is still searching for his grandmother's remains.

By the mid-1960s he realised he would never be free to find a wife outside the camp. “Time was passing, so I married a young girl who was four months old when she was interned with her mother. They gave us a room that used to house chickens, and Gjuliana and I had three children in those conditions. The dictatorship condemned innocence.” Pervizi’s oldest son, Leonard, went on to study at Brussels Royal Academy of Fine Arts and is now a successful painter.

For families who have been here for half a century, Belgium is home. Arta Ertekin's mother arrived in Brussels in the 1960s as a five-year-old refugee. But Arta went to the European School and says she feel completely integrated. Besides her career as a journalist, the 25-year-old is carving out a reputation on the Belgian music scene with her young band Otherwise. Would she ever go back to her Balkan roots? She is doubtful. “I have only visited Albania once. I am fine here ... but you can never say never.”

Yet in Albania itself things are changing fast. The country signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union in 2006, and is now talking about submitting a formal application for membership within months. Pro-European feeling is strong: polls show a massive 94% of the population in favour of EU integration.

Albania's socialist opposition leader Edi Rama, in Brussels recently, claims his nation is still the victim of widespread prejudice. “Albania has nothing to do with the stereotypes that continue to prevent public opinion in Europe from understanding it,” he insists. The country's youthful population wants not emigration, like its forebears, but a higher standard of living and the same opportunities for work, education and travel that others have in Europe. Many believe such freedoms would help to sweep away crime and corruption. “We should not allow another generation to be nourished by the past,” declares Rama, “not only in Albania but in the whole region.”

Kate Holman

An edited version of this article appeared in The Bulletin, Brussels, August 2008

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