November 24, 2013
Sunday November 24, in the Pelham Parkway of the Bronx, a large group of Albanian-Americans gathered from all over the New York metropolitan area to celebrate the Albanian Independence Day with a symbolic rising of their flag. This celebration was the 5th annual organized in Pelham Parkway. This year, the event coincided with the election of Mark Gjonaj (D-80 th AD) the first Albanian-American in New York State Assembly.
On this day, a number of Albanian associations were present taking care of the event and distributing Black Eagle, an energy drink something very welcoming on this bitterly cold day. And while this happens, many others are handing out invitations for the next celebration, which ware so numbreus in New York the week preceding November 28.
As always in celebrations featuring the Albanian people, children are omnipresent, considered kings and queens of the party. The dancers of the folk group “Rozafati” under the umbrella of “Our Lady of Shkodra” Roman Catholic Parish in Hartsdale, are struggling to stay warm in their light summer clothing. The world-renowned photographer and mentor of Albanian beauty, Fadil Berisha, is there surrounded by Albanians models and artists introducing Lindita, an exciting and gifted young Albanian singer.
On the corner, a bar with hot Byrek (a thin flaky pie filled with seasonal vegetables, cheese or meat) is being passed out to the eager participants. When you want to pay, the woman handing you the Byrek annouces, « it’s free ! » delighting everyone with a hospitable spirit that the Albanian people know so well. The event was sponsored by Local 32BJ/SEIU 1199, Service Employees International Union with one of the organizers stated proudly, “it is an important and historic day, and we did in our way.”
In his speech, Albanian American Assemblyman had a few special thoughts for his father Zef Gjonaj who passed away this summer. His speech highlighted the love and respect he has for his family, his father and for his adopted country of America. But Gjonaj’s story is the story of many other Albanians of the Bronx. It is the story of people staying together, and aiding and supporting each other. Some of them tell you, with a smile as if it is the most normal thing in life, that they started working when they were six years-old, as one of the brothers Kolaj, who worked very hard. They were thoughtful taking the name “Famous Familglia” as their Pizza brand, something they feel was the key to their success.
An esteemed group of American officials were also present and celebrated with the Albanian Americans. This included: lifelong friends of Albanian Congressman Eliot Engel, New York State Senator Jeff Klein, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Representative of Joseph Crowley (D-NY 14th District), Representative of New York State Assemblyman Michael Bededeto, Representative of outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Such a high official presence in community celebrations is not possible in the European countries. Those kinds of celebrations as well as ethnic parades are not possible in Germany or France. The French position about integration is that you can come from anywhere and become French, as long as you speak French, adopt French customs, and act French, which implies leaving out the ethnicity.
The American Democracy: the respect and acceptance of all different ethnicities as part of the American nation, which is just unthinkable in the oldest European Democracies. They have been slow to understand that emphasizing the difference of all their communities makes America a great country.
New York Congressman (D) Eliot Engel expressed his gratitude towards the Albanian community and spoke of the friendship that connects these two peoples.
“Albanians love America! You can feel it when you go to Albania and Kosova. You feel it when you walk on the streets in the towns of Montenegro and Macedonia. Albanians love Americans and the feeling is mutual, Americans love Albanians too.”
Congressman Engel and NYS Senator Jeff Klein, both appreciated the commitment of the first Albanian American person ever elected in NY State assembly. ”I’m so proud of my friend Mark Gjonaj not only for being the first Albanian American person ever elected in NY State assembly, but also because he is so good, works hard and cares about all the communities. He is not afraid to get out and organize things. It is a blessing to have him in New York Assembly. I personally am very proud to have him as my friend,” said Congressman Eliot Engel.
“We are moving forward, because one of the great things that happened last year is that you elected one of our own, you have elected Mark Gjonaj, the first Albanian American ever to sit in the State Legislator. Someone, who has fought for the Pelham Park Avenue community, someone who has fought for the rights of Albanians in the United States and it is always very special when someone is elected for the first time,” said Senator Jeff Klein who also underlined what makes America a great nation. “This is a great day because Albanians have committed to themselves to rebuilding not only their home land but also areas in the Bronx. And this is not only the celebration of the Albanian community this is really a celebration of each and every one of us. I know that the Albanians year after years really contributed to important renaissance of the Bronx.”
Mr. Gjonaj thanked the Albanian community for their contribution and encouraged them to always be “in the service” of the Democracy and the prosperity of the richest, most powerful nation in the world. He also had a special appreciation for the Albanian Americans that serve as New York City police officers and firemen. “Albanian-Americans are a flourishing group of immigrants who are hard working and optimistic. They contribute to society as entrepreneurs and professionals from thriving businesses, to Albanian-Americans who bravely serve in the U.S. military doing their part to protect this great country and defend our Democracry. ”
A number of those police officers and firemen were present at the celebration and were celebrated with applause from the adoring and respectful crowd. Capt. Flamur Cani, Commanding Officer of the NYPD was one of them, showing by his example what results when one adds discipline to the Albanian tradition.
The party reached its high point with the beloved voice of Merita Halili who sang the American and Albanian national anthems, the modern interpretation of American national anthem by Lindita and the new folk creations of choreographer Angjelina Nika followed by her husband the well-known folk singer Gezim Nika. With the microphone in one hand, and the Albanian Flag in the other, he encouraged the audience to sing along with him. The Albanian Ambassador to the United Nations, Ferit Hoxha, and the Consul General of the Kosova, Bekim Sejdiu, attended the celebration and spent a great deal of time meeting and speaking with other attendees. Other proud members of Albanian community in attendance were :
Reverend Nathan Preston, St Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, President of Albanian American Society Foundation, Esad, A. Rizai, President of Albanian American Academy, Dr. Skender Kodra and General Menager Mentor Mata, President of Fundo Group, Ilirjan Fundo, consulting & investment firm on energy, Nick Markola, Menaging Director of Fieldpoint Private Bank & Trust, Ibrahim Kolari, President of Albanian Roots, Marko Kepi, Miss Universe Albania 2010, Angela Martini, Miss Kosova 2013, President and Owner of Black Eigle energitic drinc, Arben Rustja, Monroe College professor Haxhi Berisha, Danny Blloshmi, Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and Albanian American Community Representative, Rrok Nikqi.
The Albanian Americans were numerous celebrating their Independence Day, even on a very cold weather showing that they are ready, willing, and able to do great things for the community. And this day in the Bronx proves this unequivocally.
All photos as courtesy of Aleksander Nilaj
Original language of this paper is in English