Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Albania

Albanian Community Service
Activist Leads by Example

KRUJE, Albania – For the past several years I’ve served as a judge for a national service organization that awards two, $15,000 college scholarships to well-deserving high school students. It’s a difficult decision because the academic achievements and extracurricular activities of the many applicants always are extraordinary. In particular, the best candidates shine in their community service activities.

  I mention this because I’m lunching with 21-year-old Benard Babaj, a Albanian community service activist, and he’s trying to explain why the concept, so common in the U.S., is not very well accepted here, especially among his peers.

  “I think young Albanians are not used to community service as they have to work and earn an income,” he says.

  His answer is not surprising because this is a developing country that from 1945-90 was harshly ruled by a communist party that effectively closed Albania to the outside world, much like North Korea today. As a result, Albania, a Balkans nation located in this southeastern Europe, has spent the past 31 years trying to catch up with the rest of Europe. It has a ways to go.

  One thing that’s needed is more young adults like Benard. Lots of them.

  We had met an hour earlier as Lisena Gjebrea, my interpreter, and I were driving from Tirana, the capital, to Kruje, a mountain resort town 24 miles north. Along the way I mentioned that I wanted to interview a young Albanian involved in something worth writing about. She thought of her friend Benard, who lived in Fushe-Kruje, a small town located on our way to Kruje.

  Lisena reached Benard by phone. He was game and met us near the George W. Bush statue that stands in the town’s George W. Bush Square. [That’s not a mistake. “W” stopped in Fushe-Kruje during a 2007 visit to Albania while he was in the White House. Town officials were so appreciative they commissioned the 10-foot tall likeness of our 43rd president.]

  As we settle into our lunch – a lamb dish to die for – Benard explains how a young man from a small town and modest family decided to get involved in public service.

  “Although we didn’t have much ourselves,” he says, “my parents always told me we needed to help others who were less fortunate than us. For me it was a part of growing up.”

  His first project, which began during his sophomore year in high school, involved working with local Roma youths not interested in attending classes.

  “They’d show up for a couple of weeks and then quit,” he says.

  By his junior year Benard was the coordinator of a group of 25 volunteers, all working with Roma youths. The end result was an impressive accomplishment.

  “We were able to get them to attend classes on average of two years,” he says.

  Despite this success, his classmates were not impressed.

  “They mocked me for what I was doing,” he says.

  How did that make you feel? I ask.

  “I never cared.”

  When he says that, I think back to my school years and remember how hard that is to do, as peer pressure can be an intimidating obstacle.

  Following graduation, while beginning his studies in sociology at the University of Tirana, Benard joined an organization that focused on advocating for quality public services for people with disabilities. To no one’s surprise, Benard was named project coordinator for his region. He didn’t have to look far for his challenge. His town, Frushe-Kruje, was almost completely devoid of ramps for wheelchair access to buildings. Benard produced a video, showed it to the mayor and three months later, after town-solicited donations, access ramps were constructed all over Frushe-Kruje.

  As he concludes his story, a big smile appears on his dark, bearded face.

  “I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve achieved something.”

  In fact, that was just the beginning for Benard.

  Last year he received a note via Facebook from an American friend, Katie McBride, whom he had met when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Albania. She told Benard about an upcoming election for a European Union [EU] program called Young European Ambassadors. [Katie to Benard: “It would be perfect for you.”]

  The youth program is considered part of the criteria for countries seeking membership in the EU. In this case, six countries – Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – were part of the election in which the top 10 vote getters from each country would form the Western Balkans team. Benard spent all of July and August 2020 running an on-line campaign involving 120 candidates in Albania.

  “I was so busy. I had no spare time, and I was very tired,” he says.

  But the effort was worth it as Benard officially was named a YEA, as they are called, in September, 2020. His term lasts three years.

  Although the 60 western Balkans members work as a team they develop individual projects for their countries. In Albania, prior to last April’s nationwide elections Benard’s group knew there was a need to educate young people in Albania about the importance of voting. Their research found many of them didn’t vote in the previous election because they thought their vote didn’t matter. Benard’s leadership role in the project made an impression on YEA officials: He was named Youth European Ambasador-of-the-Month in March. [You can watch Benard discuss the honor here.]

  I ask Benard about the future and learn that he’s working on his thesis on Roma culture to complete his undergraduate degree. He says he’d like to attend graduate school somewhere in Europe. It’s not hard to imagine him achieving that goal.

  Benard knows that a career and possibly a family will consume much of his time one day, raising this question from me: “Can you continue making community service a part of your life?”

  He answers in part with a story: “Occasionally, I run into some of the Roma kids we helped stay in school. They hug me and ask me how I’m doing. Once in a while one of them will say, ‘I’m still going to school, Benard.’”

  This validation that his efforts are paying off is all Benard needs.

  “I am absolutely prepared to carry on in the future doing what I can do,” he says. “I know there will be difficulties and disappointments, but I will carry on.”

  After spending a few hours with Benard Babaj, there’s little reason to doubt him.

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Editor’s note: Sixth in a series from a reporting trip to Albania Aug. 10-13, 2021