The Honorees: Imam Tahir Kukaj, Skender Bucpapaj, Posthumous Tribute to Prof. Dr. Rexhep Krasniqi, Imam Abdullah Hoxha, Shaban Binaku
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Proclamation Presented to Esad Rizai
By Rafaela PRIFTI
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. in conjunction with the Albanian American Society Foundation, Albanian Community Center and Sons and Daughters of Albania in the United States hosted the celebration of 107th anniversary of Albania’s Independence on November 21. The event has become a new annual tradition that honors a deep-rooted friendship between America and Albania. Even before the start of the ceremony, the setting was a reminder of the historic bonds of the two countries. The metal plaques at each corner of the Veterans Memorial Hall display quotations from American presidents. The quotes of President Woodrow Wilson stand out since he led the US in World War I, and gave the crucial support to Albania’s Independence. The banners of the Albanian American organizations responsible for the event were placed underside the brass plaques dedicated to the memory of the US military service members, and served as a visual reminder of the Albanian-American alliance. The founder and President of Albanian American Society Foundation, Esad A. Rizai, greeted the Albanian and American guests at the entrance, while keeping an eye on all items of the program. The official opening started with the national anthems. The Master of Ceremonies Aida Gashi invited the artist Arian Kerliu who performed guitar-based renditions of the hymns. There again was the connection since it was President Wilson who signed an executive order designating the “Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in 1916. In his welcoming remarks, Esad Rizai thanked the participants, organizers, the Board members of the Albanian American Society Foundation, and the Bronx Borough President, Mr. Diaz, “a longtime friend and supporter of Albanians” and Mr. Edwin Molina for the diligent work on the proclamations. Lastly, Mr. Rizai paid homage to the 2019 Honorees. Mr. Ruben Diaz greeted “Miredita” in Albanian and welcomed everyone to ‘their house’ underscoring the theme of friendship with the Albanian community. Eleven years ago, as the new President of the Bronx Borough, he came in contact with the Albanians in organizing the naming of a street after the great Mother Teresa. “The celebration of Albania’s independence at this venue goes back seven years now,” said Mr. Diaz. Whereas these events are more recent, he drew attention to the old wave of Albanian immigrants from the 1930s. “Anybody here knows Regis Philbin?” he asked, referencing the American media personality who is a Bronx native. “Today Albanians continue to strengthen the core of the Bronx,” and as the home to 1.47 million people continues to grow economically and improve infrastructure and boost small business, so “while Esad thanks me, I am the one thanking you, all the Albanians” for being part of a stronger, better Bronx, because “the Borough has come a long way thanks to the communities who have made it their home,” said the Bronx Borough President. Pointing out the prominent role in specific areas, he said “In regard to Albanians, the examples are seen in the elected officials like Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj, the men and women in uniform, firefighters, real estate etc. that have resulted from the hard work, faith and dedication of the community.” In the end, Mr. Diaz remarked that the fabric of New York is comprised of many threads, and two of those are “red and black, which stand for the Albanian community.” Next item was the introduction of the honorees. “An important part of the celebration of independence and the community is the recognition of the individuals, as we have done in the past. In the words of Esad, they sacrificed so much to the benefit of all of us.” First honoree, Professor Dr. Tahir Kukaj, Vice-President of the Albanian Islamic Center, recently named Muslim Chaplain for the NYPD. His bio summary stated that Dr. Kukaj is an active spiritual leader with deep ties to the New York Muslim community and an interfaith expert. “Having fostered interfaith relations for over two decades, Dr. Kukaj was widely celebrated as a welcome addition to the spiritual leadership of the NYPD by multiple organizations, including the NYPD Muslim Officers Society. Dr. Kukaj was born in 1965 and grew up as an Albanian Muslim in Kosovo. He and his family were survivors of the war and subsequent strife that plagued Communist Kosovo during the 1970s and 80s, having endured the loss of the Kukaj patriarch, Tahir’s grandfather, to a brutal communist execution before Dr. Kukaj was born. Citing his father’s altruistic benevolence, despite the horrors around them, as a major motivation in his life, Dr. Kukaj moved to Cairo in 1984 to study at the prestigious Azhar University (AH-ZAR). Among his other work, he learned Arabic and ultimately achieved a Ph.D. for his research. After immigrating to the United States, Dr. Kukaj became both Imam and Director of Outreach at the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center on Staten Island. An interfaith outreach expert, Dr. Kukaj is widely acknowledged as a skilled spiritual diplomat, representing both his mosque and his faith, and routinely hosts a variety of interfaith dialogues and dinners with other Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders of New York. Dr. Kukaj has served on the clergy Advisory Board for both former New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo and current Mayor, Bill de Blasio, as well as a liaison for the Muslim community. He was named one of the 2019 Staten Island Power 100 by City & State Magazine.” The acceptance speech of Imam Kukaj briefly touched on the proud history of Albanians and the impact of distinguished figures, noting that “the name of the Illyrian ancestors of Albanians relates to the freedom-loving nature of our people.”
The second honoree was Skender Buçpapaj, an Albanian poet, political commentator, author, scholar, and publisher, who played a key role in the downfall of Albania’s communist dictatorship. The short bio noted the professional career of Skender Buçpapaj, as the Editor of “Drita” (Light) for fifteen years, a prominent newspaper of the Writers and Artists’ Union of Albania, dedicated to literature and art. “In 1991, Skender was the initiator and co-founder of the Independent Union of Albanian Journalists, which later became the Union of Journalists, where he was twice elected as its president, as well as Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper “Kosova,” for a short stint. Later in December of 1991, he was appointed Deputy Director General of the Albanian Radio and Television Broadcast and in 1992, the first director general of the RTSH – Albania’s Public Broadcaster, which played its role in helping bring about the downfall of the communist regime, a duty that he maintained until the August of 1995. From 1995 he returned to diplomacy, taking a position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Albania, followed by his posting with the Embassy of the Albanian Republic in Bern, Switzerland, where he covered the different sectors and was appointed the Chargé d’Affaires at the embassy. In 1998, Skender returned to journalism, becoming Editor-in-Chief for the daily newspaper “Bota Sot,” headquartered in Switzerland. During this time, the paper expanded its circulation to 200,000 copies daily, distributed in new markets such as Pristina, Tirana, Skopje, in Albania, as well as Frankfurt, Germany and New York City. In 2008, he and his spouse Elida Buçpapaj, became publishers of the Voice of Albanians Website, the most-read Albanian-speaking platform in the whole of the diaspora.” On his behalf, the proclamation was accepted by the Master of Ceremonies Aida Gashi. A posthumous award went to Prof. Dr. Rexhep Krasniqi, Ph.D., an Albanian-American historian, teacher, and anti-communist politician and activist, who is best remembered for his long-time leadership of the “Free Albania” National Committee. His bio noted that Dr. Krasniqi was a humble school teacher prior to World War II’s short incarceration by occupying forces. “Dr. Krasniqi would become more politically engaged while working as an educator, after his incarceration, becoming member of the Albanian Parliament in 1943 and was appointed later Minister of Education. As the Communist gained more power in Albania, and Kosovo being reinstated as part of Yugoslavia, Krasniqi and other leaders joined the Second League of Prizren. By 1944, Dr. Krasniqi immigrated to Austria, and later Damascus, where he coordinated publication of the “Bashkimi i Kombit,” which opposed Albanian communism. With an invitation from U.S. State Department and support from Xhafer Deva, Dr. Krasniqi settled in US, in 1954, taking leadership of the “Free Albania” National Committee. The Committee was an opponent of the Communist regime in Albania, and gathered most of the anti-communist Albanian émigrés of post-World War II, serving as a government-in-exile until 1955 when Albania joined the UN. Dr. Krasniqi would continue his advocacy after moving to Australia and later the United States, helping Albanian refugees to resettle in the United States through the New York-based Committee on Free Albania, which he chaired for 35 years, until the fall of the communist dictatorship. Dr. Krasniqi was instrumental in helping not only preserve Albanian culture in this country, as well as fighting for the Albanian human rights and democracy.”
Mr.Idriz Lamaj, Honorary Member of Vatra, Pan-Albanian Federation of America, accepted Dr. Krasniqi’s proclamation and summed up the mark of his colleague and fellow companion at the Free Albania Committee from 1956-1992. “Dr. Krasniqi was a politician, a statesman, a historian, a patriot and one of the iconic figures in the Albanian nation. He was honored with Award Merits from the White House, the US Congress and New York State Governors and Mayors’ Office during the time he was alive and carried his duties. Today, I am emotionally touched because we still have Albania Americans and American politicians and patriots of the great New York State that memorialize Dr. Rexhep Krasniqi with gratitude and honor him with this proclamation, after 20 years of his passing.” The honorees to be recognized posthumously were Imam Abdullah Hoxha and Shaban Binaku, who distinguished themselves as leaders of popular uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1910-1912. They were patriots and popular strategists who organized and led the liberation movement of national unity in Albania. “Imam Hoxha and Shaban Binaku fought in the battles of the Albanian League of Prizren, starting with the siege of Maxhar Pasha in early-September 1878, and the battles of Plava and Gucia in 1879-1880. Imam Hoxha and Shaban Binaku were executed by the Ottoman Turks, in late November 1910, not far from the foundations of the Tabaccus Bridge. The tombs of these heroes remain to this day as memorials dedicated to the nation’s freedom.” The proclamations honoring the patriots who paved the way to independence were accepted by their family members.
Sophia Zayas, Bronx Regional Representative of the Office of Governor Andew M. Cuomo, said that she was there as a friend of ‘the vibrant Albanian community.” Recognizing the dedicated leadership of Esad Rizai, with whom she works closely, she presented a proclamation by Governor Cuomo! Additionally, she read the Governor’s letter of appreciation awarding Alush Smajl Hoxha “for the commitment to ideals of freedom and democracy by noble Albanians.”
Albanian poet Isa Brecani recited his poem dedicated to the love of homeland and the notable individuals of history focusing on the flag as a unifying symbol of Albanians.
On behalf of Senator Alessandra Biaggi’s, the Deputy Chief of Staff, Mr. Miguel Rondon office awarded a special appreciation to Igbal Milaku.
The closing remarks by Hajdin Alijaj, Vice President of the Albanian-American Society Foundation, emphasized key historic moments and highlighted the lasting friendship of both countries with gratitude to President Woodrow Wilson. “The Albanian people united by the Albanian League of Prizren and its leader Abdyl Bej Frasheri tried to unite all Albanians but failed after the Congress of Berlin of 1878 did not recognize it. First, Albanians proclaimed independence from Serbia on November 28, 1444 in the city of Lezhe by Iskanderbeg (George Castriotas) and second, on November 28, 1912 in the city of Vlore by Ismail Qemal. We, Albanians are proud of our heritage and our forefathers and heroes who gave their lives for freedom, democracy and independence for all the Albanian people! After World War II, President Wilson stood up to the victorious nations of Europe in defense of Albania as one of the oldest people of Europe, and a true nations whose borders needed to be preserved… we hope that one day our dream will be fulfilled and all the Albanian lands and people will be united under one Albania, the United Democratic Republic of Albania!”
At the end of the ceremony, the President and Founder of Albanian-American Society Foundation, Esad Rizai said that the honorees of the event that celebrated 107 years of Albania’s independence were respectable and upright individuals that lived by a high moral code of “‘Besa’, (Oath) Dignity and Justice,” guided by one true faith known as “Albanianism.”
Edwin Molina, Press Secretary at Office of Bronx Borough President for the Honorees’ Bios.