Stretches of barren land and hills separate the cities. Thus Albania presents itself to those landing in Tirana and headed inland. Almost an unexpected slap as the statistics speak of “emerging COUNTRY” with growing tourism. In 2014 Albania was granted candidate status for EU adhesion. Local politicians and citizenry are looking forward to this goal. With its mosques and Orthodox and Catholic cathedrals, adjacent to one another, its cities where bell chimes and muezzin prayers alternate during the day, Albania is a model of coexistence that can only do good to the European continent.
A Church of martyrs. The secret of the friendship that binds the various religious communities is found in its past. Albania has experienced one of the fiercest communist regimes. It lasted from 1944 to 1992 and reached the point of enshrining State atheism in its Constitution in 1976. The persecution that ensued did not spare anyone, it exterminated Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims with arbitrary executions and ferocious tortures. It is worthwhile travelling to Scutari to visit the Memorial of Persecution built inside one of the 23 prisons disseminated across the city during the regime’s dictatorship. Run by the Poor Clares, the structure testifies to the suffering of Albanian faithful under the Communist regime. Restructured and renewed, today it houses the memory of an unknown “holocaust” that schoolbooks rarely report. The numbered cells where 10 to 15 prisoners were detained and thus forced to remain standing; the instruments of torture used by secret services; the prison cells where they were interrogated. The signs engraved by the prisoners of different faiths: crosses and Surahs. Today the visit takes place in that same darkness and silence. It’s the place where most of the 38 martyrs beatified in 2016 perished, they never spoke words of revenge and resentment despite the horrors of arbitrary, unfair persecution. They were witnesses of forgiveness and mercy until their last days.
It’s the seed of this new Albania that is called to stand as an example of fraternity and as a warning to Europe to never forget the extent of the evils of extremism.
Social commitment. The Albanian Church feels and lives out as a mission the duty of “cherishing the memory of her past”, but “today she is constantly called to be in the frontline of social commitment, with a widespread presence in situations of emergency”, said Monsignor Angelo Massafra, Archbishop of Scutari. The new challenges include the arrival of “transit” migrants crossing the border as they are headed to other European destinations. Nonetheless Albania “continues being an emigration Country.” The search for employment or even the hope of a better life, motivate citizens – especially young people – to leave their homeland. “My great disappointment – the bishop said – is that we have been abandoned. Nobody helps us anymore and every day there are people with requests and needs which sometimes we cannot meet. Please help us! Most of all, help us convince our adolescents not to leave Albania.” The bishop voiced his concern: children who leave alone can easily fall in with bad crowds because unfortunately they represent easy labour for organized crime. He added:
“while it’s true that it’s important to be free to leave, the freedom to remain must equally be guaranteed”.
Youths and children. Sister Elizabeta Lulaj is one of five Franciscan missionary sisters of the community of the Infant Jesus in Scutari. Her life is entirely dedicated to children and youths aged 3-14 “I keep them all inside my heart”, she said with pride. Every day she opens the doors of the convent offering families a daycare Centre where youths can do their homework, eat “some healthy food” and most of all find a peaceful place to play, study, and interact with their peers. The centre has classrooms with desks, bookshelves, all kinds of toys. Children are divided into age groups and cared for by volunteers. Sister Elizabeta does not like to talk about it, and with great modesty she mentions difficult family situations, unfortunately marked by alcoholism and violence; where men have lost their jobs and thus the meaning of life. She rejects the expression “lost generation.” “I give my heart to these children”, she said.
“I put them at the heart; I make them feel Kings, and when children feel loved they give love in return.”
Scutari’s Franciscan community comprises a physician nun who opened a medical office specialized in paediatric cardiology thanks to the support of the Madonnina del Grappa Association. Further down the Franciscan friars minor run a soup-kitchen that is open every day from 12 to 14, except for Sunday, providing a total of one hundred daily meals for the “poor”, to men who lost their jobs, single mothers, widows, old people.
The land of Mother Teresa. But the last are not only the poor. In Albania, as in all the corners of the world, they are alone. Here in the country where Mother Theresa was born, the Sisters of Charity opened a home in Scutari for children with serious disabilities abandoned at birth. They continue living here “till they die.” As many as 57 are currently living in the home, all of them female except for Eraldi, a boy that is completed paralysed. He’s lying down on a bed, only his head can be caressed.
He communicates true happiness with his eyes.
No interview, utmost discretion and privacy, the nuns say almost as if to apologize. It’s the same all over, I reply. It’s a welcoming home: coloured, clean, adjusted to meet the different abilities that are welcomed here. From the most aggressive to the less serious ones.
Celebration and suffering. Music and silence. Hope and inevitability. Friendship and loneliness. There are rooms for dance and for work, rooms with small beds. There is also a room that is equipped for people with seizures, completely covered with soft panes to prevent youths from getting hurt with music and soothing colours. In a corridor a young woman is lying on a mat with her arms tied and a casket on her head. That’s how she spends her days: the only worry is that she might hurt herself. She moves constantly. She can find no peace. What is the meaning of a life lived in this way, I ask the nuns who accompany me. Behind that life, spent on a carpet in the corner of a corridor, with the head constantly banging on the wall, the nuns reply, there is a greater life made of all the people who decide to come here and spend time donating themselves to these young women. It’s a rich, precious time because it is made of conversions, of people who recover hope, who heal in their souls, some even discover their own vocation. Here, in the contradiction between uselessness and welcome, the only key is not logic or efficiency and not even the usefulness of a service. It’s love.