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The Albanian-American Community in New York City

Erin Gorman and Stacey Richman

Introduction

     Lydig Avenue in the Bronx is home to the most highly populated Albanian community in New York City. According to the NYC Department of City Planning's Publication, "The Newest New Yorkers," 925 Albanians immigrated to New York City between 1990-1994. Of that population, 326 Albanians settled in the Bronx. However between 1995 and 1996, Albanian immigration to NYC increased by 154.9%. This is mainly due to the escalating violence in the region of Kosovo.

     After doing research online to find out the names and phone numbers of several Albanian businesses and organizations in the Bronx, and making a number of phone calls, we jumped on the 5 train. Eager to do some explorations of our own, we were mainly concentrated on gaining insight into the Albanian language, the extent to which it is employed by the members of the community, and the services available in Albanian.

Businesses

     Though at first glance Lydig Avenue appeared to be rather quiet and residential, a few blocks farther revealed a diverse mix of Albanian pizzerias and bakeries, side by side with kosher Russian butchers, convenience stores and small European markets. Intrigued by this seemingly unlikely mix of shops and businesses, we paused to snap a photo.

     Immediately, a petite brunette emerged from her beauty salon demanding (in a playful tone) to know our purpose in photographing her store. Upon discovering our innocent intentions as eager students, this Turkish salon owner disclosed her origins and explained that her minimal knowledge of Albanian stems strictly from the need/desire to communicate with her clientele, almost solely consisting of Albanians. Even after a pleasant exchange this woman refused to be photographed, joking that she didn't want to see her face on the cover of the newspaper.

     Encouraged by the kind, lighthearted nature of this woman, we continued on our investigative journey, looking into shop windows for hints of Albanian culture, flipping through papers at newsstands for sign of their writing, and listening to detect the languages being employed by those around us.

     Storefronts, as well as overheard conversations, revealed English, Spanish, Arabic and Russian to be the most popular languages of the area, aside from Albanian. Curious to discover whether banking was being made accessible to Albanian speakers, we tried out the nearest ATM machine, only to find that English, and Spanish were the only choices of languages. Fortunately, we learned that most Albanian New Yorkers speak enough English to get by, or are aided by friends/members of the community until they can do so.

     Suddenly hungry for lunch, we stepped into a small Albanian restaurant we had found on the Internet. The food at the "Burektorja Dukagjine" was both authentic as well as delicious; an Albanian version of pizza. However, the owner only spoke enough English to communicate that she was Albanian and didn't speak English. She was, however, watching an English news program, seemingly more concentrated on the images of the rubble of the World Trade Center- despair speaks no one language. During our time in the restaurant several other customers came and went, exchanging several words in Albanian while waiting for their take out food.

Medical Services

     In an attempt to gain insight into medical services available to Albanian speakers in the community, we went into a medical supply store, whose owner sent us to the Pediatric Group next door. Interestingly, we were informed that while this particular office caters largely to the Albanian community, none of the doctors are themselves Albanians, nor are they speakers of the language. Hospitals in the area, such as Jacobi Medical Center, however, do pride themselves on having Albanian translators available for those uncomfortable with, or unable to, communicate in English. These translators come from a volunteer bank. While the services might not be highly publicized, members of the Albanian community in need of assistance are both aware of such services and able to employ them when the need arises.

     With the hour getting late, delighted, but somewhat overwhelmed with the abundance of helpful information we were able to gather, the two of us headed back downtown to sort through our newly found material and divide up useful phone numbers and contacts. We were satisfied with what we had at the moment, but knew there was a long ways to go before we truly had a grasp of the language of the Albanian community on Lydig Avenue in the Bronx. Since neither of us are Albanian, we felt we needed the additional perspective of an Albanian American to tell us what being an Albanian American in the Bronx really means.

Case Study: George Poepai

     Through contacts we were fortunate enough to be able to schedule an interview with George Poepai, an Albanian engineer working at the Jewish Home and Hospital in the Bronx, who along with his wife and children lives on Lydig Avenue. George began by explaining to us that due to its phonetic nature, the Albanian language is not at all difficult to speak or write. It is made up of 36 letters, and is apparently pronounced precisely the way it is written. Interestingly, it has been extremely difficult to pinpoint the origins of the Albanian language, as it does not resemble any other language.

     George, who grew up in a small village in Greece called Kilmene, and moved to the Bronx with his family when he was a teenager, had little trouble learning English. In fact, he pointed out that many Albanians have some command of the English language as English classes are often offered in Albanian schools. George's wife, however, is far less comfortable communicating in English. Though both George and his wife speak to each other and their children in Albanian, more often than not their kids respond in English, as that is the language they learn in school and use when speaking to friends. However, as a community effort to preserve Albanian, Catholic Churches in the area offer both Albanian language and continuing education classes taught in Albanian.

     George remembers the days when it was extremely difficult to find any services in New York City catering to Albanians, however that has taken a huge leap in the past 15-20 years, as the Albanian community here has established agencies to aid their own. This type of service proved greatly effective in treating George's father in law who was suffering from manic depression. Unfortunately, he had made little headway until he was introduced to a doctor at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in the Bronx, who was able to speak to him in Albanian, making treatment all the more comfortable and effective.

Education

     Another area in which language has proved especially important is that of education. The local elementary school in the Albanian community in the Bronx is P.S. 96. This school provides a variety of services for all children who speak another language, as well as some specific services for students who speak Albanian. In general, the ESL services depend upon the student's degree of comprehension on fluency in English. The school district also provides ESL instruction for parents on evenings and weekends.

     These specific services for Albanian speaking students, however, are very few, and are somewhat misleading. For example, on the Community School District #11 website (this is the district including P.S. 96) the Office of Second Language Instruction Program section states that there is a newly formed Albanian bilingual class at P.S. 96. This information is not exactly true. When we talked to the teachers at P.S. 96, they said that there was no such Albanian bilingual class. The Albanian speaking students are in the general ESL class with all of the other ESL students. The only new thing this year is that the school hired a teaching assistant who speaks Albanian fluently to assist with the instruction of the Albanian-speaking students. The Albanian students are not in their own separate class, and do not receive bilingual instruction.

     There are also several privately run Albanian language schools in the area. The Shkollat Shqiptare school, or in English, the "Albanian School" in the Bronx, teaches Albanian to young children of Albanian immigrants. The Albanian Catholic Church, Our Lady of Shkoder, in Hartsdale, N.Y. provides similar services. The students in both of these schools usually understand Albanian, and can speak it fluently because they learned it from their parents. However, their parents wish them to have a more formal grasp of the language, and the schools provide mainly reading and writing instruction.

Government and Community Services

     We found few government services provided in Albanian. The only service that we could find in Albanian was voter assistance. The New York Immigration Hotline provided voting services in Albanian on Primary Day. They answered voting questions and also took comments and complaints. Even the office of the state representative for the area of Pelham Parkway, Jeff Klein, had no information on government services in Albanian. This is somewhat disturbing since the office is on Lydig Ave., which is the heart of the Albanian community. In fact, they had no literature in any language other than English, despite the high LOTE use in the area. On Lydig Ave., we heard and saw evidence for the high use of the following LOTE's: Albanian, Turkish, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish.

     Jeff Klein, did however, provide us with the number and address of the Albanian Assistance Center in the Bronx. The Albanian community relies on this organization to receive help on government and immigration affairs, as well as many other services. This center is registered with INS to provide immigration assistance and translate immigration paperwork. The center also provides many other civic services for the Albanian community. They help Albanian immigrants understands the rights they have in the United States, they assist in filling out Social Security paperwork, and with any other translation services Albanians might need regarding government paperwork.

     In addition, the Albanian Assistance Center provides assistance to battered women. Specialists assist these women in understanding their rights regarding domestic violence, and act as interpreters between the women and the police. Workers from the Albanian Assistance center also act as mediators between parents and the school districts when conflicts or misunderstandings arise about students due to language barriers.

     The center also is involved in many cultural activities within the Albanian community, such as the Global Ethnic Awareness Programs. These programs attempt to unite the school district with the surrounding community. Middle and high school students who come together to share their different cultures. Students bring in traditional music, food, and dress to share with others students of different cultural backgrounds as well as parents and other community members.

Albanian Publications

     There are several newspapers and magazines that are published in Albanian for the Albanian American community. The most popular is a newspaper that is published bi-weekly by the name of Illyria. "Illyria" is the ancient name for Albania, literally meaning freedom. This particular newspaper is published in the Bronx and mainly only sold by subscription. Interestingly, during our trip to Lydig Avenue we saw only one newsstand that carried the paper.

     Illyria is divided into two sections: the English section, and the Albanian section. The paper covers the news in Albania, Kosovo, and the surrounding countries. Recent articles also included Albania's statement of support for the U.S. in the campaign against terrorism and Albania's denial of harboring any terrorist cells. Many businesses in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx advertise in Illyria, especially restaurants, lawyers, and travel agencies. Other Albanian publications include a paper written only in Albanian about the news in Kosovo, and a Catholic religious magazine called, "Jeta Katolike".


     Our experiences with the Albanian American community in New York City has led us to believe that although services to the Albanian community have improved, more improvements are definitely still needed. The Albanian community has managed to make their language an integral part of community life, as reflected in the number of Albanian businesses, schools, and publications. The community, in response has acknowledged the Albanian community in various ways, and many non-Albanians actually learn Albanian. However, this acknowledgement is on a very local and informal level. The Albanian American community could benefit from having more official government involvement in providing services in Albanian and publishing government information in Albanian.

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