by Jona Beliu | Voices | Fall 2017
The stories in this piece come from a private realm of my family’s history. They show the difficulties we’ve faced as Albanian immigrants and highlight the faults within our own culture. History affects everyone, but immigrants especially must interact with both the history of our own country and our adopted one. In both instances, we experience loss: the loss of our homeland, and the feeling of being lost in integrating ourselves into our new country. Albania is on the Mediterranean Sea, north of Greece, and is one of the very few Muslim-majority nations in the European continent. My story centers around a recurring pattern I’ve seen in my own Albanian immigrant community—incredibly welcoming, warm, and generous, until American racism creeps in. We show our limited perspective through the phrases we sometimes say and how we view other marginalized groups in this country. The United States has equated ‘Muslim’ with ‘foreigner,’ with ‘immigrant,’ and, most importantly, with ‘person of color.’ This false assumption that all Muslims are people of color has permeated our worldview. It creates a monolith for what Muslims “should” look like and has aided in the persecution of both the religion and its people. This story isn’t as simple as the oppressed becoming the oppressor. This story is far more complicated. It’s a testament to how powerful whiteness is in America. How white assimilation—especially because Albanians are not considered “white” in Europe—can corrupt a person to the point where they love their own executioner because they refuse to see themselves as the target.
I am of the Albanian diaspora and have grown up simultaneously immersed in both my history and the culture of the United States. Albania is obscured by the giants that surround it—Greece, Italy, Bulgaria—and my people are relegated to brief mentions within European history. For many decades, my nation’s history and existence have been silenced, erased, and ignored by the rest of the continent. As more of us leave the country, we create a global diaspora. We begin to carve out our own livelihoods and share our experiences, and we garner an international political power that has been actively taken away from us. In many ways, this piece is political action against the continued erasure of my country within the modern-day discourse of the European continent. This is also an analysis of how our history of persecution in Europe has manifested in the United States and expresses itself in insidious and racial ways. Western culture has filtered into Albania; I can see the vast changes happening every year to Tirana, the capital, and to the rest of the nation. With an introduction to the Western lifestyle, we were offered access to an enticing linguistic platform. The English language has a power that creates a monumental opportunity, allowing English-speaking Albanians to begin to translate our own experiences for the global audience. By using English, Albanians can subvert Western dominance and make our stories heard.
I was born in Tirana, Albania to a Cham mother and a Tironce father. We are an ancient and isolated country—these cultural groups are long-established and create particular identities. To be clear, most of my immediate family, with a few exceptions, aren’t practicing Muslims. That was washed away by years of Ottoman rule and communism, but much of our culture, language, and ontological and theological understandings of the world come from Islam. One of the few practicing Muslims in my family is my uncle on my father’s side. He goes to mosque almost every day, observes Ramadan, and lives very much within the Muslim community. If you were to ask my extended family what religion they are, without fail they would say, “We are Muslim.”
For much of my life I have been taught fragments of my family’s history. Albanians are proud people; this pride has taught me the benefits of patriotism. In just the last 50 years, over half of my country has been taken by the Greek, Serbian, and Montenegrin governments. Without a strong sense of identity and pride, my land, language, and people would have dissolved long ago. This isn’t to say that Albania is devoid of internal tension. My mother is from Chameria and my father from Tirana, which are only 220 miles from each other and share the same language, yet each have distinctive communities. These divergent cultural groups, while still Albanian, created familial tension when my parents first started dating. My grandmother on my father’s side said her son shouldn’t date my mother because Cham people are “dirty and of a lower class than us.” Albania has a long history of ethnic tension, which has bred an “us versus them” mentality. In some ways this has been beneficial: Arguably it is what fueled Kosovo’s success in separating from Serbia in 2008 with hopes of achieving its own quasi-statehood and own separate identity as Albanian people. More than 80 percent of Kosovars are Albanian. However, that kind of mentality is also what creates blinders for most Albanian immigrants when they come to the United States.
We are a persecuted people. During the London Conference of 1912, a summit of six world powers held in the aftermath of the First Balkan War, the treaty signed took about half of Albanian land, giving Kosovo to Serbia and Chameria to Greece. We’ve had our land, our family, and our history stolen, and therefore (in the minds of some Albanians) our perpetuation of American racism and nationalism is justified. Racism allows us to enhance our own social standing as white Americans and feel more included in this country, perhaps more so than we’ve ever felt in Europe. We see this pattern continuously in the history of European immigration to United States: People migrate from States because of cultural, religious, or ethnic tension, and are eventually granted the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness. This assimilation creates a social comfort that leads us to believe that ethnic tension, racism, and classism are not prevalent in the United States because we do not experience it here.
Albania is uniquely ositioned when it comes to our relationship with the United States. Unlike most other Eastern Europeans, most Albanians feel favorably toward the United States. We have statues of Woodrow Wilson scattered around our capital, and continue to revere the Clintons for assisting Albanian Kosovars during the Kosovo war in 1999. In that conflict, Serbian military action caused the displacement of 1,500,000 Albanian Kosovars and the murder of over 10,000. Our love for the United States began after the First World War, during the deliberations between the Allied powers at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The Allies wanted to divide control of Albania piecemeal among our neighbors—Greece, Italy, Serbia, and others—removing our country from the map and erasing our national identity. Wilson spoke out in our favor, stating that we were a true nation and deserved to be protected. The delegates found his arguments persuasive: Albania was not split among the countries of Eastern Europe. We were independent for twenty years, but by the start of World War Two, Italy had invaded. We went from Italian to German control in 1943, and from the Germans to our very own Communist Party, led by Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s reign was authoritarian. He followed in the footsteps of other communist leaders by eliminating all freedom, religion, and hope. Hoxha created prison camps, much like Stalin’s gulags. An estimated one in every fifteen people was sent to prison camp and that one in three was contacted or intimidated by the Sigurimi, state police who were sent to monitor the ideological correctness of the country. Enver Hoxha created and maintained a “state atheism” by shutting down and destroying mosques, and punishing those who partook in Ramadan and Lent. During Hoxha’s authoritarian rule between 1944 to 1992, people were confined within the Albanian borders. Immigration and travel were relegated to a small minority. Most of our exposure to other cultures has come from a limited amount of travel into and out of Albania, most significantly from Turkey, Italy, Western Europe, and northern Africa. With the death of Hoxha, the communist regime slowly started to fall, and in 1991 we transitioned into democracy.
During the presidential campaign, my mother and I were talking at home in Albanian. I said “inshallah”—a word meaning “god willing,” a word directly from the Quran, a word imbedded Albanian colloquialism, culture, and life. She paused the conversation and told me not to say that word and other “Muslim words” when we’re on the MTA or walking around the city because “we don’t need to bring that kind of attention to ourselves.” Very rarely during my life in the States has my mother been so direct in her erasure of our culture and country.
I wear the symbol of my country’s flag around my neck, and my parents have ensured that both my sister and I know our language, culture, and history. They refuse to let America erase our nationality. For my mother to distance herself from a core aspect of our identity is terrifying. It’s the compartmentalization of Albanian identity, the ability to cherry-pick and erase certain aspects in order to become palatable. My mother wanted to ensure we weren’t targeted on the streets, but that is already incredibly unlikely since we have few visible identifiers for which other Americans and immigrants are targeted. We do not wear the hijab and we are white-passing. The only thing that distinguishes us is my parents’ slight Eastern European accent—our language is the one thing that could give us away.
Albanians trace our ethnic history back thousands of years to the Illyrian tribe, one of the very first peoples to live on the European continent. My family can trace its history back 300 years through every name and town. We keep our ancient tradition and history alive. A significant part of my cultural identity is a strong belief in unity: We are a Muslim-majority nation, but we pride ourselves on living in peace with Christians, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox people. Our flag, a two-headed eagle, is indicative of this commitment. It was originally used as a symbol to unite the North and South of Albania against the Ottomans and is an intentional sign of our solidarity against the political forces that attempted to divide us.
Unity and respect have a legacy in Albania. One of the most notable aspects of Albanian culture is an ancient law we hold and abide by to this day: besa. This is a fifteenth-century law originally created to govern the northern tribes of Albania. The word can be used and translated in many ways. At its core, it means trust or a promise. Besa is a moral testimony, a law inherited from distant ancestors, a law that is brought up in our daily lives. There are many citations and sayings that express the meaning of besa. One of the most notable is “Shpija para se me qenë e Shqiptarit, eshte e Zotit dhe e mikut,” which translates to “a house, before it belongs to the Albanian, belongs to God and the guest.”
There are many Albanians and Eastern Europeans alike who say that the law of besa is what sustained Albania through the ages, quelling disputes and providing safety for travellers through our country. Besa was the force that allowed my country to welcome the Jewish population during World War Two. Besa is an idealist law, and like all laws there is a circumstantial limit to our generosity. The limitations on our empathy are exposed in the U.S., where our history is unknown, our race is white, and our identity is European. Whiteness in America is founded upon the sanitization of internal difference in favor of a neutral white unit which can be separated from “others.” A caveat in American whiteness is that contemporary white foreignness is attractive and something to be proud of. That idea is enticing for Albanian immigrants. It allows for an assimilation unlike that which we face in Italy and Greece, where most Albanians refuse to acknowledge their nationality or speak a word of our language in fear of being found out.
I immigrated to the United States in the winter of 2000. My parents and I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, a predominately white area with practically no Muslim population. By definition I am an immigrant, by culture I am called “first-generation.” This duality is a foundational aspect of many child immigrant stories. We live in a time where immigrants (more specifically, non-white immigrants) are targeted. Now more than ever, immigrant narratives are flooding our Facebook newsfeeds. The United States is again at a point in time where it is publicly fighting against the very people that it prides itself on attracting. The demonization of Black Lives Matter and Trump’s Muslim bans are vain attempts to scapegoat this country’s economic and political failings: A dwindling blue collar working class, a populist president, rising distrust in the federal government. It was during the 2016 presidential elections that I felt closest to my Muslim identity, the most confused about my positionality, and the most frightened by what white American culture had done to most Albanians in the States and to my family.
My family came to this country just a few months before September 11, 2001. After the attacks, my grandparents called us right away and said, “Come back home, America isn’t safe.” My dad calmly replied, “We’re hundreds of miles away from New York City—we’ll be fine.” Aside from the distance separating my family from New York City, he was also implying that we are not seen as Muslims here. My mother’s retellings always point to the fact that we came from Albania, known to be predominantly Muslim. The United States is still seen as the best destination for emigrating Albanians: It is full of opportunity, it is wealthy, and there are plenty of other Albanians, but most importantly, we do not have to hide our culture or nationality. Washing away our Muslim heritage has been the norm for my family for three generations, and has only strengthened by my parents’ defensive reactions to the attacks on 9/11. This fact has dramatically shaped my parents’ immigration experience. Our history in the U.S. has been significantly shaped by our religion and culture, as well as by years of European ethnic tensions and our fighting to gain the right to exist as a people on our own continent. The privilege to immigrate to the United States and assimilate by virtue of our skin, while still retaining our national pride, has put blinders on many Albanian Americans. These privileges obscure our ability to understand how our actions are perpetuating a system we have been able to escape.
Since the World Trade Center attacks, my parents have been attempting to distance themselves from any aspect of our identity linked to Islam. This has become one of the largest contradictions within my household—fierce pride of our nationality combined with fear and aversion. What’s difficult to explain to my parents is that by distancing themselves from our Muslim heritage, they are aiding in the erasure and dilution of Albanian identity.
Dinners at my house means a table encircled by immigrants from around the world: India, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Korea, Australia, Mexico, Greece, and Albania. At dinner, my parents rarely ever drink more than a couple of glasses of wine, but this time it’s different. My dad gets tipsy. The quiet, shy, paunchy, 40-year-old man opens up and begins talking about the election cycle: Hillary, Trump, Obama, nationalism, race. I’ve known about his right-leaning opinions for years now, but since Trump took the stage to announce his candidacy, my father has careened to the right. Until now, I haven’t been able to quite figure out his ideology. During dinner, he holds forth in front of immigrants who would be directly affected if his words became actions. In front of the very people he considers his closest friends, in front of people who have given him a community he so desperately needed since moving to the United States, he says that Trump is right, that we need to curb immigration from Mexico and from Muslim-majority countries. He goes on to state how our national economic problems are caused by the laziness of racial minorities, and how a degree of racial homogeneity is best for a country.
I sit there for an hour, two hours, chiming in when he steps out of line—which is often—in defense of the older adults around me who are obviously getting uncomfortable with him. Then my dad says, “Trump is the best thing to happen to this country. What he stands for is the only way.”
That’s where I lose it. The first thing that comes to my mouth is, “How dare you, after everything we have gone through.” I tell him the only thing that makes sense to me at that time: “Look at who is sitting around you, and think about your words. Our family would be embarrassed to hear you speak like this.”
I have three and a half years of Oberlin rhetoric and higher education under my belt, but I knew the only thing that would get through to him would be to see his friends around him as they are: all of different nationalities, just as proud of their identities as we are. He did not need any help to see their humanity—we’ve been close family friends for years—but he needed to see their race, their history, and how our society has discriminated against them. What my father wasn’t able to understand, and what many Albanian Americans who are not practicing Muslims refuse to accept, is that we have fallen into the racial hierarchy within the United States. Here we have been given a social power, an equality that was routinely taken away in Europe. We have forgotten what discrimination feels like and because of that, we have fallen into the trap of believing that, in America, everyone is free.
Since my father’s dinner speech, he has slowly unclenched his far-right ideology. This isn’t entirely thanks to the subsequent conversations I’ve had with him about his political logic. A good portion of the credit should go to Trump, whose actions and speech highlight his hypocrisy.
My mother, father, and I had the privilege of selecting our identities when we immigrated to the United States. We were shielded from much of the harm that is falling on the shoulders of other immigrants—especially Muslims and people of color—and yet my parents hide from this fact. This destroys their own narratives, and they see it as an undermining of their individual success in the United States. We, the Albanian Americans who are not practicing Muslims, cannot assist in the destruction of anti-Islamic sentiments if we do not admit our own. We cannot help Albanians and other persecuted people until we come to criticize our own racism and xenophobia. For a people who have experienced the pain of stolen land, destruction of family, communism, socialism, civil unrest, and persecution all within the last 50 years, we must do better. Our pain cannot resonate so far inward that we are unable to criticize our own actions.