To me, it’s especially interesting to note that, in 1994, emigres from Albania to America are having some of the very same problems that Albanian emigres to America had in 1924 – some 70 years earlier – when they began to arrive here in small but significant numbers. In those early days, it was usually Albanian men who came first to this country to find work in the factories and mills of New England and other American cities. Men crowded together in tenements in the poorer sections of cities to share expenses. Five, ten or twelve men often lived together in a single flat, the Konak, where to save money they cooked their own meals, washed and mended their clothes and repaired their shoes. The Albanian worker lived in self imposed poverty — even greater than that which his meager earnings imposed upon him — sending his wages home, saving them against the day of his return to Albania or using them to further the national cause.
My father and some of your fathers and grandfathers were among those earlier emigres who came to America to seek a better life. But although those Albanian men came to America for economic reasons, most of them had no real intention of remaining in this country. Their main goal was to work to save enough money here to take back to Albania so they could live better there. Some of you old enough may still remember the common Albanian expression those men used back in those days “Mot ne vilajet” meaning “Next year, back in Albania.” But as they became settled in America, they slowly began to identify with the new country. Perhaps more of the spirit of American democracy and independence had entered into them than they themselves were aware. They did return to Albania but this time to find wives to bring back to America their now permanent home. Some of the factory workers had saved enough money to begin small enterprises in America — shops, restaurants, and the like.
However, there was one major difference for those Albanian emigres 70 years ago:
Then there were no really established Albanian-American communities so those early emiges sought each other out and banded together to help find employment and create their own social organizations. By becoming even more conscious of their Albanianism in America, they worked hard to establish churches and societies to perpetuate their identity as Albanians and to help their motherland. Indeed, as members of the Pan-Albanian association called Vatra, those new Albanian-Americans, who were at or near the bottom of the economic ladder in America earning anywhere from $5 to $15 a week, once raised over $150,000 to send back to Albania as assistance funds when it was threatened by its neighbors after World War I.
The history of those emigres to America is well known to Albanian-Americans of my generation. Many of my generation went to college — an almost impossible dream of our parents — and began careers in a wide range of professions including education, retail, banking, food, medical, dental, legal, insurance, electronics, and advertising. But as my generation begins to step aside for the next, I believe it’s important that the history of the first Albanian emigres is known to them as well.
Because that small but steady flow of the first Albanians to America was interrupted by World War II and then was stopped completely by a repressive, communist Albanian government that would not permit Albanians to emigrate even if they held derivative American citizenship, the ties between the American-Albanian community and Albania became weaker and weaker. Indeed, except for the initiative of people of The Free Albania Organization such as Dr. John Nasse, Dhimitri Trebicka, Bill Johns and others who prevailed on the then-Albanian government to permit small tour groups of American-Albanians to visit relatives at home, there would have been no physical ties at all with the country of our origin.
Now that has all changed. Beginning in 1992, because of a new democratic government in Albania, another small but steady trickle of Albanians has begun to arrive in America. And because the American-Albanians community was truly unprepared and unequipped institutionally to render assistance and counsel to the new emigres, I formed The Frosina Foundation and named it after my mother who was part of that first group of Albanian emigres to this country.
Now you may ask, who was my mother? She was Frosina Naum Christo, born in 1909 in Drenova, a village near Korçe. She brought me to America in 1928 when she was 19 years old and I was only 1 to join my father, Spiro, who had arrived in America a couple of months earlier to establish a home for us in Boston. She was an orphan who was brought up by her uncle’s family because her own mother and father had both died when she was a child.
My mother was outgoing and had a lot of friends. She also had a reputation as a great cook, particularly when it came to making Lakror and Baklava. I have many memories while I was growing up of my mother singing as she was rolling out dough for Lakror. But life for her was not especially easy and there were many times when money was scarce. Although my father could speak passable English, my mother didn’t know English very well. Because of that, she seldom had the opportunity to communicate at length with anyone except other Albanian-Americans. Where she was outgoing with her own group, among “Americans” she was often intimidated and uncertain. She had many dreams for herself and for me, but, unfortunately, she didn’t have time to realize most of her dreams or to see me achieve mine.
My mother died in her mid-forties in 1956 of heart disease after she had undergone several operations that eventually resulted in the amputation of both legs. I feel that in many ways my mother represents all of our mothers and grandmothers. Her hardship and struggle is symbolic of all the difficulties experienced by our families when they came to America and all their sacrifices to give us a better life, especially when compared to our cousins left behind in Albania. The Frosina Foundation aims to give something of our own good fortune to the mothers and fathers of the next generation of Albanian Americans.
However, I think the real beginning of The Frosina Foundation was the visit to Albania in 1981 by a small tour group from Worcester, Mass., of which I was fortunate to be part, along with my wife, Jane, and our then 4 year-old son, Zachary. When I saw my first cousins there I was struck by the marked contrast between their opportunities and mine. I realized that it was luck — my good luck and their bad luck — that my father came to America while some of his brothers remained behind in Albania.
Now, specifically about The Frosina Foundation: after an initial data-gathering and seed-money raising period, the foundation will serve as a central clearing house and referral service where Albanian emigres can direct inquiries about immigration and naturalization procedures, English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, translation services, employment, accreditation in the USA of Albanian university diplomas, medical and dental assistance, etc.
Some of the longer range services that the foundation would like to provide in the future are short-term, low-interest business and personal loans, business marketing data, information about the availability of educational opportunities and scholarships, social counseling, etc. But that, of course, would be only after Frosina is firmly established and funded.
I am currently seeking 30 founding members who can each contribute from $2,500 to $5,000 to help provide the necessary seed monies to begin our work. To date, I’m pleased to say that the foundation already has 7 founding members: Agim Karagozi and Al Foundos in New York, Anthony Athanas and an anonymous retired educator in Massachusetts, Peter Kole and Gus Thomas in Ohio and Dr. Lynn Berat in Connecticut. The foundation will also contact other foundations and corporations for financial grants to sustain its activities, and we will look mainly to those institutions for continuous funding.
The foundation will be truly ecumenical so that it can serve Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic. and Moslem Albanians alike. As an ethnic minority in America, we must embrace, with pride our religious diversity. As Moslems, Orthodox or Catholics, we must serve as an example to our chosen country, America, of an ethnic group with a glorious history that can get beyond its religious differences to come together to pursue our common dreams.
These days, many Albanians are coming to America or want to come to America to claim a piece of the dream that you and I have been privileged to realize, except that it’s really hard for them now and it’s hard on us, as well. I hope The Frosina Foundation can help make it easier for everyone.
In closing, I believe it would be a proud thing for us to be able to say in the future that Albanian-Americans took care of their own people who came to this country. And we should help all of these new Albanians as they arrive in America from Albania, Kosova, Macedonia, or anywhere else.
Mbahu nena, mos ke frike, se ke motra dhe vellezer kudo ne Amerike.
Jam Sotiraqi, i bir i Froses dhe Spiros. Ju faleminderit shume.