Photo by George J. Tanber
Letter from Albania
Teenaged Asylum-Seeker Returns Home to Forge Previously Unthinkable Career
TIRANA, Albania – In my 17th summer, I was preparing for my final year of high school and thinking about which university I wanted to attend. My life was comfortable and secure, my mind untroubled.
On a July morning in 1990, 17-year-old Denisa Kaca said good-bye to her parents and two younger brothers and left the only home she knew – an apartment in central Tirana, Albania’s capital. It was 6 a.m. She wore a simple cotton dress and a pair of sandals. She carried not a single item and was penniless. It was a 15-minute walk to the Italian embassy, her destination. There she met hundreds of other Albanians, all seeking the same thing: asylum. Similar scenes unfolded at the same time at other embassies in Tirana. In total, around 5,000 Albanians sought freedom that day as political refugees.
To understand the desperation it took for a teenaged girl – and all the others – to leave their country you need only to know that from 1944 to 1990 Albania was ruled by a Communist party so oppressive up to 100,000 dissidents were executed and tens of thousands more imprisoned. Albanians were forbidden to leave the country, practice religion or own anything.
Albania was the North Korea of Europe – a closed, mysterious land that seemingly existed only on maps.
Thirty-one years later, Denisa is telling me her story over coffee at Quo Vadis, a café/bar not far from the family home she left that summer morning long ago. She operates a service business called Expats in Albania which, ironically, helps the many people suddenly moving to Albania, mainly from the U.S. and Europe, navigate the country’s considerable bureaucracy. The Communists are long gone, a quasi-Democracy is in place and the country’s unspoiled beaches, majestic mountains and low cost of living are proving to be a strong pull to adventurous travelers looking to settle elsewhere.
For Denisa, now 48, her current business is another chapter in a life filled with hard decisions and occasional setbacks but many successes and good times as well.
“I am a problem solver,” she said, explaining why her new occupation fits her skill set.
I told her at the start I was more interested in the present than her past. But it became clear early on that I needed to understand how she got here. So, I stopped her: “I need to know more about your journey.”
Escape from Albania
Denisa spent 10 days at the Italian embassy wearing the same clothing she arrived in the entire time. She was joined by her boyfriend, 21-year-old Lorenc. They departed with the others from the three embassies by boat to Italy, where they were designated political refugees. She ended up in Cortina d’Ampezzo, a ski resort in the Italian Dolomite mountains. Compared to Albania, it was heaven, she remembers. And she was free for the first time in her life. She worked at the resort, learned to ski and supported herself.
Things didn’t work out with Lorenc and she eventually met a Canadian working on the set of the American movie, Cliffhanger. Denisa married Stewart Bradley in 1995, the year after moving to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1994. She was 23.
She joined her husband in the film industry, learning the post-production side of the business. Artistically gifted, she shined in her new profession. Denisa liked the work but not the environment.
“I didn’t like being indoors, and I didn’t like sitting all day,” she said.
After eight years, a business opportunity surfaced. She opened a fitness center. One eventually became three. By 32, she was a millionaire, a real-life Cinderella story starring a once-poor Albanian girl.
In 2008, the impact of the Great Recession in the U.S. hammered businesses in Canada as well. In seemingly a blink of an eye, Denisa lost almost everything. She hung on for a few years with the one fitness club she was able to save, but it was clear she was going to have to either find a job in Vancouver or move.
At that point she was on her own, as her marriage had ended a few years earlier after she and Stewart drifted apart.
“I wanted to travel. He wanted to settle down,” she said.
Meanwhile, her parents and brothers left Albania in 1996 – they won an immigration lottery at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana – and were living in Seattle, 143 miles away.
Her mother wanted her to move to Seattle.
Denisa said no.
“It would have been the same for me as Vancouver,” she said.
Gradually, a plan emerged, one she would have thought unthinkable a few years earlier. She missed Europe and considered moving to Switzerland. But the high-cost of living there quickly nullified that idea.
Denisa then began thinking about the apartment her family still owned in Tirana, which they had abandoned years ago.
She asked herself: “Why should I move somewhere else and pay rent when I can stay in my own place?”
In 2012, Denisa sold her last fitness club and her home and headed to Albania.
Return to Albania
The Albania that awaited Denisa was nothing like the one she left 22 years earlier. Now 40, she was not the same person, either.
She spent her first months renovating the family home, something she enjoyed. In her spare time, she discovered Albania for the first time.
“I was amazed at the beauty of this country,” Denisa recalled of those early days back in Tirana. “I had been wandering the world looking for a special place and it was here the whole time in my own country.”
Denisa posted photos and stories from her travels on Facebook. Albanians from all over the world who had not been home in years and only knew it from its repressive regime responded with a collective: “That’s our country?”
She always had a singular response: “Yes, it is. Come home.”
From that simple effort, Denisa was recruited as a volunteer for a German-based on-line networking company, handling Albania. In two years, utilizing her marketing skills, she boosted participation by 1300 percent.
Seeking income and always looking for new opportunities, Denisa and her new Albanian boyfriend opened a bar in 2014. Tree House, the first saloon in Tirana to serve Albanian wines [which are excellent], was a success. But, just like her fitness business in Vancouver, it all came crashing down five years later when her landlord refused to renew the lease. Denisa had invested most of her savings in the bar and was just starting to see a profit when it ended. The boyfriend was out as well. [It turned out there was a significant difference in mentality between an Albanian man and a Canadian-Albanian woman.]
So once again, in 2019, Denisa was faced with a life-altering decision: Stay in Albania or return to Canada?
The Future is Now
We had been talking for nearly an hour. Our time was supposed to be up as Denisa had a typically busy schedule. But, she had more to say and was happy to continue. This is not a sentimental woman, and she wasn’t looking for sympathy for her setbacks. Rather, she wanted me to know – and anyone who reads this – that she did not give up, and why.
“I decided to stay,” she said. “I did not want to accept defeat and leave Albania a second time.”
There was something else: “I know myself. And I trust myself. I knew that with all my work and life experience that you can throw me anywhere and I can stand on my feet.”
Once that was decided, Denisa began considering what she could do. She briefly took a marketing job but quickly realized she couldn’t work for anyone but herself.
One thought lingered but was not in focus. The Facebook page she started in 2014 was still active and its participants had grown considerably. Mostly people wanted to know how to get things done in Albania as they were either visiting or moving there. Sometimes, Denisa spent an hour or two a day answering their questions.
One day, as she was working on the Facebook page, she suddenly thought: “It’s right here.”
“It was one of those ‘duh’ moments,” she said. “I realized there was an obvious need for several important services. I just had to plan and organize it all and figure out a way to monetize it.”
Of course, she did, which is why her days are so active now.
The Expats in Albania website, launched in September 2020, offers four services: Immigration assistance, finding a place to live, weekend hiking trips and tours. She employs three people, only one full-time. To fund the business – mainly the website - she rents her apartment and lives with a girlfriend. Business has been good – Denisa earns a modest income from service fees and website advertisers - and she believes it will grow because she is building a reputation .
Denisa still has a ways to go, but she’s getting there. Eventually, she wants to focus on the tourism part of her business, organizing small, offbeat trips around Albania that set her apart from other tours.
“I have a vision. I see beauty where others don’t,” she said, not boasting, just being candid, which is a part of her charm.
The rest of her life is looking up as well. Her parents retired and have returned to Tirana, where they spend a few months a year living, for them, in a fairyland compared to the unthinkable life they previously endured here. [Her brothers have remained in Seattle.]
“My mother can’t get enough of me as she wants to make up for all the lost years,” Denisa said, not unkindly.
Looking ahead, she’d like to move to a nearby village or a beach town and commute to Tirana a few days a week. As busy as she is here it’s nothing compared to the hectic life she led in Canada. She wants to have more time for hiking and yoga, two of her passions, and to find new hobbies.
Denisa explained her thinking: “I’ve lived through a lot of tough times. I just want to live a full life and enjoy it. And I don’t want work running my life.”
As we departed, I wished her well and meant it, as my respect for her was considerable. Later, I couldn’t stop thinking how the lives of two once 17-year-olds were so different – hers a bold plunge into the unknown, mine a cushy path down a well-traveled road.
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Editor’s note: Third in a series from a reporting trip to Albania Aug. 10-13, 2021.