In the shadow
Internal migration and migration abroad, mountain areas and countryside abandoned and left to decay.
Which future remains for young people and families left?
Through their photos and reports, Jutta Benzenberg and Mila Teshaieva bring us into the lives of Albanian children, women and men of whom we know nothing at all. A striking encounter.
Shkodra, Kukes, Puke and Burrel
Texts Stela Suloti and Mila Teshaieva
My second trip to Albania brings me back to remote mountain towns and villages, at the very best time of the year: golden autumn. Here, with the help of various local organizations that work with young people, we get to know some fascinating characters, those who can proudly be said to represent the future of Albania. Our first destination is Shkodra or Scutari, one of the oldest cities in the Balkans and the second cultural center of Albania. Here we meet two girls: Samanda Zadrima and Rafaela Doshi. They have known each other from the time of the youth parliament, a local social initiative in which both girls were active and considered a good place to meet people.
Samanda Zadrima has just turned 18 and in the next few days is going to move to Tirana, where she will study Mathematical Engineering. She is very motivated and passionate about being an independent woman. It’s her dream, she says, to live independently abroad. Through the youth parliament she had the opportunity of a short stay in Luxembourg, during which she was shown the new campus for the University there, which she found amazing, and she hopes to have the chance in the future to be a part of that campus. At the moment Samanda lives in Shkodra in a small privately owned house with her mother and cat. Samanda is quiet but very resolute and self- confident. The first thing she did as soon as she turned 18 was to obtain a driving license and get a car. She is already an independent woman and a very practical and kind human being.
After getting to know and talk with the two girls, we decided to meet with a third girl, Denajda Bisha, a friend of Samanda, who also agreed to be photographed. She is a stunning beauty with a boyish style and she knows the power of good looks. She transmits an air of self-confidence and coolness on a first impression. Denajda has also just turned 18 and is going to move to Tirana together with Samanda. She is going to study Interior Design and said: “I had to start thinking about myself and be sure of the job I want to do in my life, and it is Interior Design. And yes I want to go abroad and bring new and creative ideas back to my country as we are its future.” She had the opportunity to study in New York but although the University accepted her, she was denied a visa. From the age of 3 to 15 she was part of a folkloric group, much to our surprise given her contemporary look, but Denajda is indeed an energetic young woman, who believes in the strength and power of women. She considers herself a fighter and when we asked how she fought, she replied: “I fight through work”.
We spent the longest time with Rafaela. She wanted to go to a special place, somewhere which would tell us about her character and habits. She puts on her best vintage clothes and paints her lips black. There is definitely some fight growing inside her and the question is which direction will it go in. So we drive outside the city and climb up to the ancient castle near Shkoder. Rafaela comes from a Catholic family and is deeply religious. “I can feel the presence of God in my life and I have experienced some real miracles in this presence.” At sunset, looking over the mountains and fields of Albania, she starts to pray. What does she wish for in her prayers?
In Kukes our guide to young people is Lavdrim Shehu, the head of the Center for Youth Progress. He presented us to four young men and women who are actively involved at the center and spend a lot of their free time there. Although at first sight there is nothing interesting here, a short conversation with them is enough to discover the extraordinary history of this city and their personalities. Dorjan Beluli is 18 year old and lives in a nearby village. He has a big family with 5 sisters and 4 brothers, and his mother passed away 8 years ago. During his high school years Dorian also worked for Radio Kukes, and it is here that we photograph him with his best friend, with whom he is moving to Tirana to study.
Our next hero is Briliant Demalia, who is 14 years old and the youngest of the group in Kukes. Speaking with Briliant, we were surprised at his rigorous time schedule. After school he goes home and learns German with his father, who is also a manager at the youth center, and does his homework. He also takes private lessons in maths, and plays football professionally. When asked if he was going to make a lot of money and become famous, he replied very frankly that it was not for the money, but about what he wanted to do with his life.
Enisa Domi is 17 years old and frequently attends the youth center. She says that going there in her free time has changed her in a positive way while she keeps arguing with her friends who don’t understand her volunteer work. She says that the center helped her because she was a shy person and now she is much more open and self-confident. Talking with her, we realized there is not very much for young people to do in their free time besides drinking coffee or going for walks. Her father encouraged the family to start jogging and now Enisa and her mom always go running together. It’s not so common here, she says, and not so many people go running, especially women, but they do. Enisa has a secret place where she wanted to be photographed. It’s where she feels most free.
Igli Cengu, speaks remarkably good English with a strong American accent. He says he spends a lot of time with Americans who are there to do volunteer work. Igli is 15 year old and dreams of becoming an actor. His favorite actress is Emma Watson and he loves to watch movies, cook and sometimes just laze around. He has a somewhat fascinating style with Elvis Presley hair and a James Dean wardrobe. When asked about his style, he just says he doesn’t give it much thought, he just puts on the first thing to hand and his hair is just like that. The place we go to with him is an abandoned hotel. It was once holiday accommodation for former communist leaders but since the 90s has been left abandoned and gradually become a ruin.
Puke and Burrel
After a long serpentine mountain road with a wonderful view and some short stops, we finally made it to Puke. Breathing in the fresh air far away from the city smog was certainly a good start to the day. Before arriving in Puke we spoke to Linda Hyseni, a leader at the Puke Youth Center, who said that there were a few girls waiting for us. We were very surprised to see that the young girls waiting were a big group. They were waiting inside the youth center, where it was impossible not to notice the homely atmosphere and the friendship that united them all. Many of them were doing their homework as they waited for us and none of them wanted to leave. Ema Hyseni, 14 years old, attends Sabah Sinani high school. She is the daughter of Linda Hyseni, who kindly allowed us to take photos in her home. Most parents don’t like strangers coming into their homes and taking pictures. “They are not used to it,” says Linda. Her daughter Ema likes animals and painting in her free time. She would like to study Veterinary Science in the future. Ema and her friend Sara spend a lot of time in Ema´s room and they share common interests.
The most fascinating characters we met there are three girl friends: Klejda, Arseda and Eliasa. They are all 15 years old, with lots of positive energy and a bit rebellious. Each of them thinks the most important thing is to become an independent woman, free to travel and explore the world. They spend almost all their time together and I wonder if they will be able to stay friends for a long time.
A sister of Klejda is Anisa Abazi, who is one year older and a totally different kind of person. With her melancholic look, she likes to be alone with herself and care about her beauty. Anisa would like to study medicine as she wants to be successful, but also useful to other people.
Burrel - Amelia Stafasani is the oldest of four sisters and each one of them is special in their own way. The family lived for two years in Sweden, where she and her sisters integrated very well and learnt to speak perfect Swedish, which they still use to communicate with one another when they don’t want to be understood by anyone else. Amelia likes to do her own thing and comes across as very opinionated and free in expressing herself. She says: “I like horse riding. I used to live in Sweden and when I was there, I learnt and practiced horse riding. Here I can’t pursue this passion, but I do origami and like to take pictures and then draw them.” Her sister Deborah also has a special interest: she likes boxing. When asked if and where she practices boxing in Burrel, she said: “I used to do it in Sweden, but not here anymore because in the gym there are more boys.” She was a bit bashful about posing with her boxing gloves on the street but she said that she doesn’t care what people might say.
Anxhela lives in a small mountain village near Burrel. Every day she has to walk for at least an hour through the mountains to get to school. She speaks perfect English and has a strong character. She lives with her father and younger brother and has a very close bond with her father. At first she didn’t want to bring us to her home as she didn’t want us to see the poor living conditions, but after a while she agreed and we also met her father and brother on the way to her house. She lives up on a hill with a beautiful view and a river down below. Though absorbed in the amazing view, it was difficult not to notice that there was no proper road up there and the young woman goes to school on foot in all weather conditions. Looking into Anxhela eyes, you can imagine what a struggle her life is but also see the self-confidence to overcome all obstacles in her path.
Bathore, Ballsh and Mjeda
Text Mila Teshaieva and Ben Andoni
Our first destination in Albania is the settlement close to Tirana called Bathore. The history of the place explains its present condition. In the early 90s, after the collapse of communism, many poor families from all over the country were moving to Tirana in search of work. They were mostly farmers, desperate and penniless, making the long trip down from the mountains and while the capital provided some form of work, they found it difficult to find a place to live. After some years, the new government gave these people empty land on which to build a new settlement.
Nevertheless, the families who settled in Bathore were never able to change and adopt a truly urban lifestyle. That’s why I found here very closed and traditional families, where total gender inequality and the practice of arranged marriage are very common. The girls are never allowed to leave the yard and their friends are mostly cousins with whom they grow up in the same yard. We got access to these families through the school director, who kindly agreed to accompany us, and her authority made it possible to get the children to talk to us.
Edlira Koloshi just graduated from high school last year and is planning to apply for the sports university in Tirana. Her dream is to become a sports teacher but the only place she can practice running is in her own yard. She also likes singing, mostly traditional Albanian songs. “I would like to be professional singer but you can see for yourself there’s no possibility here of doing your dream job. I could stay with my mother and help her to do the housework, then wait and see what turns up next”.
The fathers of two girls, Olta and Klauvisa Sefa, are working hard in England now and come back home only in summer. They are both 16 years old and very close, and during the day they spend their time with other relatives of the same age. They don’t use Facebook or other social networks and are watched closely by their families. The main form of entertainment is volleyball, which they play in the yard. “We like to learn also English because is a kind of possibility to go abroad. Anyway, we are waiting that our fathers to decide for us”.
While the boys normally have more freedom to go outside the house, they rarely find much to do. Gerald Hoda (17) and Erion Spahiu (18) spend time together watching videos on YouTube and talking to one other. Gerald doesn’t have a very clear idea about his future but his first choice for sure is to have the possibility to study abroad. Erion has some idea about life abroad; his family applied for asylum in Germany but weren’t allowed to stay. He is very determined to go to Germany again: “people who have never been there do not understand real life in Europe. I will try again, but this time legally.”
Two friends, Igli Spahiu (17) and Mariglen Domi (18), spend most of their time playing soccer or cards in their houses. Igli has one year left to finish high school and is still uncertain about the future. Mariglen has finished school and now helps his parents in the house. He is anxious about going abroad but also disappointed with his daily life here. “I really don’t know what can I do. I am afraid to be alone in the foreign land but see no prospects in Albania.”
Our next destination brings us towards the south of the country. A broken-up road leads to Ballsh, the city where an oil refinery facility makes the air heavily polluted. The smell of petrol makes it hard to breathe but the inhabitants don’t seem to notice it anymore and, in any case, are happy about the work the refinery gives them. Here I find a group of girls who are all in the same class, living in the same neighborhood and closely connected to each other. They have different personalities and characters, but what impressed me is their ability to speak good English. Living in a city with so few opportunities, they are used to watching American movies and so learn the language. One of them is tender and sensitive Valentina Malasi; she is like a bird trapped in a cage. Her parents run a restaurant in the city center and she spends much time helping them. Most of all she loves painting and her room is full of drawings and pictures.
Another friend of the group is Fabiola Dishaj, the shy quiet daughter of a school director and a fire fighter. Her father recently had 60% of his body burned in a work accident. The incident provided her with a stimulus. “I like to be a doctor because I like to take care to my father and my people. To be a doctor is very good because you bring smile to the face of people”.
Fiona Lamaj idols are her peers in the USA; she wants to be as free as them and get full enjoyment out of being young. She is brave and romantic and dreams of being in love, though at the same time she is afraid that love brings nothing but pain.
Klevi Malasi is under constant observation by her family. But, when she has the chance to go out, she is happy to play with her friends. Her dream is to be an IT engineer and develop programs. “I would like to be an IT, because I like to share with people and connecting people by internet. I watch films where people are doing great things with computers. We still are very apart from life..."
I asked for permission from the parents and under the scrutiny of the school director, we were allowed to go outside their yards to a small lake nearby.
Our last destination is Mjeda, a small settlement in the Shkoder region, famous worldwide for its tradition of the blood feud. Here we see the true beauty of Albanian nature: powerful rivers surrounded by mountains, forests and beautiful meadows. People here seems to be more relaxed than in other places and have better means of livelihood. Two girl friends, Griselda Brahimi and Erisa Brahimi, act as our hosts and show true Albanian hospitality. Again, both girls speak very good English, which they learnt from movies, and in their characters these girls definitely break with the perception of “women roles” in traditional society. Though both families call themselves Muslims, their lifestyle is rather neutral with regard to religion. Also, it seems the girls don’t have any religiously motivated restrictions and are free to choose their own way in life.
Erisa likes biology and her practical aim in life is to be a doctor. “I like go abroad and if you are a doctor you could get job everywhere in the world. I am ready to do everything to fulfil my dream: to live good life and to help my family”.
Griselda’s family used to live in Greece, where her father worked but now he is out of a job. Her family invests everything in the education and future of their children. The girl is very close to her mother, and I can see that her mother will do everything to help her daughter be free to choose her own life.
The Children of Adriatik City
5th - 15th of August
Text by Jutta Benzenberg, Interview by Ben Andoni
Yesterday I set off for Adriatik city on my last trip to Albania as part of the project. The Albanian journalist Ben and I travelled through numerous sleepy ribbon villages.
In some cases newly built, each house has its own style and its color shows which of the local political parties the occupants support. Socialistic from pink to loud red and maroon, “Democratic” light blue to petrol blue. The yellows, then, may be the colors of the emigrants.
Today we’re in the town to ask the youngest inhabitants how they see their life in their country and to take photos to supplement some of the stories already started on.
We’ve always set out on the off chance. And today a lot is going on. I always work that way. Just see what happens.
For the children and their mothers – the fathers are all asleep – we were a welcome change during the long holidays the children spend at home in what to us feels like a wilderness. I got them to show me everywhere they use for playing, doing homework and sleeping. The children form a group like the ones in the German children’s TV series Die Pfefferkörner. All closely bonded, lively and adventurous, they take me by the hand into a bizarre barren landscape; you might think we’re in Africa and it’s just as hot too.
Then they take me to the rooms they sleep and play in. They had no children’s bedroom, “the small divan in the kitchen is slept on”; the way they behaved took me on a journey into the past, back to the year 1991.
They have limitless space for playing and move around in all the dwellings as if they were theirs. There’s no separation between the families.
A strikingly beautiful young mother proudly tells me that they rent a dwelling and have bought the one opposite.
The furnishings thrown together from old tables and wooden items. But they were proud of what they had. Admirable.
A young man calls out to us from a window asking if he can help. It turns out that he lives in the capital and spends his holidays here as he still considers this place his home. He tells how as a child he set out every day on the donkey to fetch fresh water. He shows me his arm and tells me to see how “when I talk about it, I get goosebumps.”
On the way back to Tirana, the journalist and I discuss the project’s title "In the Shadow". I don’t see these children being in the shadows. They’re happy here even without the things the children in Tirana, Berlin or Paris have.
The freedom they enjoy gives them a full life.
But there still remains the question as to what they want their future to be.
Here are their answers in their own words, which say more than all the analysts you hear every day here on the many talk shows.
Adjola (10 years old): I am convinced to be a lawyer. You could win and be very important person. Also, Albania needs beauty girls to be lawyer. But, also I would like to be a doctor in medicine. I like this profession too, because I see in Turkish movies how important the doctor are. We need also here the doctor because we do not have the doctor. You have to go far to confront the doctor.
Gerald (11 years old): I would like to be singer. The singer can profit a lot and like to be in TV every day. I should sing and dance even here you cannot get proper place to do, but I get possibility to do this lonely in my room. I like to be as famous and I will do that. Also I like to be Ninxha, but I do not say this to the people, because they can laugh with me.
January 2018, Adriatik City
“I’ll show you a place in Albania you won’t forget in a hurry.” And yes, Hervé the Frenchman, who just like me had already been living in Albania for quite some time, was right. Adriatik City wouldn’t let go of me after the first encounter. This ghost city is like a place you only really find in a dream. 4 blocks of houses in the middle of nowhere that were built in Hoxha’s time for workers who were going to be employed by a state-run factory. Yet the factory was never finished, but the people who lived there stayed on after the ‘turnaround’. It struck me that there were so many children there who really were having a lot of fun in such a spacious secluded landscape. They jumped around on the bunkers, ran aimlessly from one house to another, and showed me the old dilapidated school. An unbelievable energy that is set loose in this desolate region. They tell me: "we’re just waiting ‘til we grow up and then we’re off out of here".
On my 2nd trip, we – Ben the Albanian journalist and myself – met the men in this forgotten city in the modern restaurant that, absurdly, was built in the middle of nowhere and, as is so common here, drank lots of coffee and raki, which of course I hardly dared to touch. Of all their complaints, one thing stuck in my mind. One of them said to me: "you know Jutta, if your chancellor told us that Albanians could come to Germany without any difficulty, tomorrow there wouldn’t be a single person left in the country".
When they saw how dismayed and sad I became at this, they joked and enthused about the landscape, the good food and that it’s not really so bad as it looks and they haven’t given up hope, and so on.
They didn’t want to let their guest go home feeling despondent since, wherever you are in Albania, hospitality is at the top in their code of honour.