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Rediscovering My Albanian Roots

In 1974, I took my father back to Greci, the Arbresh town near Naples that he left in March 1929, at the age of fifteen, to find economic opportunity in America. It was a very emotional experience for me, his oldest child, to see my father in tears as he greeted in his native Albanian language childhood friends and relatives whom he had not seen in forty-five years.

Last week, my wife, Shirley Cloyes, and I led an Albanian American Civic League delegation of Albanian Americans from California, Detroit, New York, and New Jersey (who were born in Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosova, and Albania) to Pope John Paul II’s beatification ceremony for Mother Teresa at the Vatican in Rome. As part of our five-day schedule in Italy, we decided that it was important to travel by bus to my father’s birthplace—the most northern and the first of the fifty-one Albanian-speaking towns and villages in Italy. (Shirley, who has made three trips to Greci, stayed behind in Rome for important meetings related to securing the independence of Kosova now.)

Thirty years after that first visit with my father and mother to “Katundi” (the Albanian word for “village,” which has become the official Albanian name for Greci), I again saw men in tears as they were greeted by the descendants of Gjergj Kastrioti’s soldiers. Those soldiers settled there in 1461, after Kastrioti, leading four thousand Albanian troops, defeated the Lombards, who came from what is now southern France to invade what was then the Kingdom of Naples. This was a repetition of what had happened eighteen years earlier, in 1443, when the great Albanian general and hero, already recognized as a great military strategist, was summoned by the Pope and King Alphonse of Naples to repel the invading Lombards. But this time, in 1461, King Alphonse decided to reward the victorious Kastrioti and his soldiers with a land grant of an ancient trading center called Greci, situated on top of one of the highest mountains between Naples and Bari and originally established by Greek farmers in the year 525 A.D. It was King Alphonse’s way of inducing Kastrioti to leave half of his soldiers on the Italian peninsula as security against future attacks by France, while he returned to Albania to continue his long fight against the Ottoman Turks who were invading the Balkans at that time. (Kastrioti died seven years later in 1468; he never returned to Greci; and his soldiers never returned to Albania, which was overrun by the Ottoman Turks, causing the flight of tens of thousands of Albanians to Calabria in 1488.)

Today, five hundred and forty-two years after the first Albanians from the Balkans settled in Italy, our delegation was warmly received by the young and vibrant Mayor of Greci, Donatella Martino, her town council, the local priest (Fr. Luciano), and other residents of Katundi, including my cousins from the Tozzi (my grandmother) and DioGuardi families. After a long journey from Rome by bus, we were received with great Arbresh hospitality, including a wide assortment of local food and wines. Most memorable were the greetings and remarks in the Albanian language, which has been preserved in Greci for more than five centuries. This was the clearest and most profound sign that we had found our “lost blood” or, as my father used to say when, in the 1940s and the 1950s, he met strangers in the Bronx who spoke Albanian, “Gjaku i shprishur.” Big embraces and tears always followed the utterance of these words in my childhood days in the Bronx, and this is exactly what happened when our Albanian American delegation met their Arbresh brothers and sisters in Greci on October 18, 2003. I believe that all of the members of our delegation experienced a cultural and national reawakening that day, or at least a reconnection with our historic and proud Albanian roots in Italy.

I also believe that this trip to Greci brought home to all of us the importance of the work that our Albanian American Civic League does as a lobby in Washington and around the world for all Albanians who represent a great nation of people—a people that have kept the faith with their past in spite of great suffering and oppression by Turks, Serbs, Montenegrins, Greeks, and Communist regimes (including the tyrannical regime led by Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha).

Our October trip to Greci also made me recall three earlier trips. The first took place in 1987, when I brought my children, Kara and John, to see their Albanian heritage. (By some magic coincidence, we met Papas Antonio Bellusci, who was on one of his infrequent visits to Greci, which is about two hundred kilometers from his home base in Calabria.) The second trip occurred eight years later, in June 1995, when Shirley and I made our first trip together to Greci, right after we attended the hundredth year anniversary of the beatification of Our Lady of Shkodra at the Clementine Chapel in the Vatican and a corresponding mass at Genanzano. (In Genanzano we enjoyed a memorable lunch with Fr. Bellusci, where we discussed that fateful meeting in Greci in 1987 and our plans to visit Greci once again.) The third trip to Greci took place in June 1999, two weeks after the signing of the Kumanova Agreement that ended the war in Kosova, when Shirley and I brought the widely read and respected magazine National Geographic to see the Albanians of Greci. By then, the town included Kosovar Albanians who had fled Slobodan Milosevic’s military assault in 1998 and the Albanians who had sought refuge from Ramiz Alia’s Communist government in Albania in 1990. All of the Kosovars in Greci have since returned to Kosova, and all of the refugees from Albania have gone on to settle in Western Europe and the United States, except for one family who stayed in Greci to work and raise their children. Our delegation visited this family just before boarding the bus for Rome. What a great story! An Albanian family that was forced to leave Albania in 1990 (because of Albanian Communist government oppression) is received in Italy, just as their forebears were in the 15th century, when they fled Albania to escape the Ottoman Turkish conquerors.

Today, more than five hundred years later, Albanians in Albania are still being victimized by the former Communists (now recast as “Socialists”), who head a corrupt and bankrupt regime. Meanwhile, Albanians from the Former Yugoslavia are still subject to racism at the hands of hostile Slavic regimes that are supported by Russia, Greece, and France. This pattern must be brought to an end in our time, and I hope that all Albanians will work hard with Shirley and me as we lead the Albanian lobby in Washington with our friends on Capitol Hill to bring justice to all Albanians in the Balkans.

Before concluding, I want to reference the letter that Fr. Bellusci sent to me after we first met in Greci in 1987 and my reply to him after I returned to Washington. He became aware that a U.S. Congressman with Albanian roots could make a difference to the national cause of all Albanians, and he put me to the test almost immediately by lobbying me in Washington by mail from Calabria. Thus began a personal and professional relationship, which has lasted to this day. Recognizing the great importance of Fr. Bellusci’s work to preserving Albanian culture, history, and language in Italy, I invited him to join our twelve guests from Kosova at the Sheraton Hotel on April 28, 1990. His passionate speech from the hotel ballroom dais that historic day—in front of 2,700 Albanian Americans from all parts of the Albanian world—began a new chapter in our quest to build a meaningful bridge between Albanian Americans and Albanians everywhere through our lobby in Washington.

The visit of the Albanian American Civic League delegation to Greci in October 2003, more than sixteen years after that fateful meeting of an Albanian American Congressman and an Albanian priest and sociologist in Katundi in 1987, has begun in my mind a new chapter of reconnecting Albanian Americans with their roots in Italy, in the Balkans, and around the world. I am confident that I will return to Greci many more times in the future and with many more Albanian Americans in order to continue building the human bridge that I hope someday will bring together all Albanians as one great and historic nation. Perhaps, soon, borders in Europe will be meaningless, and Albanians will emerge as a great nation of fifteen million people worldwide, making their presence felt as a powerful economic and political force in the twenty-first century. Let’s toast to that on Albanian Flag Day, November 28, 2003.Gezuar!

November 2003

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