By Stefan KOCHI/
“Rrofte Shqiperia! (Long Live Albania)! This is how my dad would close any toast he raised, regardless of the occasion,” said Nick as he described his father, Bujar Demirali, in front of hundreds of people gathered at the funeral home to pay respects to the person whom they had met sixty years ago when he had escaped Albania, or six weeks ago at the local mall.
Rrofte Shqiperia! – Why would a person feel like this for his entire life towards his birth country, a place where he had suffered so much hardship when he was there, where he had escaped from as a young teenager with his family, and a place where he would almost certainly have died in prison had he stayed behind?
This is who Bujar Demirali was. This is how patriotic he was. Bujar Demirali, who passed away on Sept 12, 2013, was born in Albania in 1933. Verlen, the village where he was born and where he grew up, had experienced its own share of complicated history and emigration. The village is located within the Devoll region, a few hours from Korca, and about the same distance from the border of Greece. Both of these geographic points, Korca and the border of Greece, turned out to be important in Bujar’s life.
The village, along with other villages in the region, witnessed the efforts of the newly created Albanian nation building its own institutions: new borders, new laws, and of course, a new government. The region was at the forefront of the patriotic efforts by many people to consolidate their native language, Albanian. In one of many trips to secure books in the Albanian language, Bujar’s grandfather was killed, presumably by Greek soldiers.
As a result of his life being in danger, Bujar’s father, Abdul, immigrated to America. He was later joined by his oldest son, Myfit. Meanwhile, in Albania, Bujar and his youngest brother, Ali, grew up together, and they were very close. Their mother, Samije raised the two boys and their sister, Kike, alone. After the war ended and the borders were closed, the family faced many situations that led them to escape in 1951. As part of the many changes that the communist regime instituted, the family saw their properties being taken, their relatives thrown into jail, and they suffered other harassment, primarily due to their connection with the U.S.
Though their early years in Albania were difficult, Bujar and Ali were focused on going to school. Although Korca is several hours away from their village of Verlen, Bujar and Ali were dedicated to getting an education, and they attended school in Korca for several years. It was not unusual for their children, and later on for their sons or daughters-in-law, to listen to stories about how Bujar and Ali used to walk and run for many hours to and from their house in the village and back to Korca, or about how hard the winter was in Korca for the two young boys. To their credit, all of these stories contained charm, fun, and joy. None of them contained anger or sadness. Some of these stories were even turned into amusing anecdotes – such as hanging bread from the ceiling of their home’s basement so that the mice could not reach it, when they were in school.
In July of 1951, the family decided that they had no choice but to escape from Albania. People who have escaped a tyrannical government and lived through the experience, never forget the escape journey. Their escape would be even more vivid and memorable due to the fact that on the night that they crossed the border, a full moon shone down on the border area and scared the group of twenty-three people and their horse who were trying to escape. “God protected us that night. We do not know how the soldiers did not see and kill us”, Bujar and Ali used to say when they would tell the story. There was no other explanation for their survival with all of those soldiers around and a full moon shining over them.
After spending a few months in refugee camps in Greece, the family successfully made it to the US and finally reunited with the rest of the family – their father and brother. Eventually, they settled in Waterbury, CT, a city well known for its Albanian immigrants and traditions. In addition to working hard to support himself and his family, Bujar worked very hard to learn and master his new language, English. He was always focused on education – for himself, for his children, and later on, for his grandchildren. It was this kind of dedication to school and education that drove both brothers to work so hard. It was this same work ethic that drove them to open and sustain the Albanian institutions in Waterbury, CT: the Xhami, the Albanian School, the Albanian festival, the Albanian Flag raising ceremony, just to mention a few.
In 1958, Bujar married Dile, a young lady from Turkey whose parents were also of Albanian origin. The happy marriage lasted for 55 years, just as the marriage vow states, “Till death do us part”. To those of us who knew them, their marriage was an excellent example of love and respect. They always enjoyed each other by traveling to many different places, and, doing their favorite thing: meeting with family and friends.
As expected from a person who values hard work and honesty, Bujar worked very hard to support his wife and three sons: John, Nick and Raymond. As his sons pointed out during the memorial services, he never complained about anything. “I sensed something was really wrong with his health”, said Dile a couple of days before Bujar’s passing, “because for the first time in our lives together, Bujar was complaining of pain. He never did that before, ever!”
Bujar also loved to celebrate the many accomplishments of his family and friends. He would come and support you whether you were young or old. He loved watching his sons, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends in their musical concerts, plays, recitals, graduations and of course weddings. He respected everyone and would help out anyone anyway he could just as he did with many newcomer Albanian immigrants by helping them get jobs, housing and enrolling them in schools. He loved when people succeeded, and he loved celebrating their success with them. He was gjyshi to his grandchildren, xhaxhi to his nieces and nephews and the Albanian community and Uncle Bujar to everyone else.
The funeral home where services were held for Bujar was full of people who came to pay their respects to him. It was a weekday, not a weekend. Yet, people kept coming. They all wanted to express their sympathy to Dile, Bujar’s sons and to the rest of the family. The deep respect that they had developed for Bujar over the years compelled them to come. To many of them, he served breakfast or lunch at Robinson’s Luncheonette in Naugatuck, CT, the restaurant that Bujar had owned and run for about 30 years. Others had met him at children’s schools, town related functions, or had seen him serve as the Honorary Albanian Mayor for Flag Day, an event that is very meaningful to the Albanian community in Waterbury, CT. This yearly event, in addition to showing recognition for people who have helped the community, demonstrates the important influence that the community maintains regarding politics, the economy and other affairs of the city. The actual mayor of the city takes part in the festivities. That is how Albanian Independence Day has been conducted in Waterbury, CT for many years since the days when Bergin was the mayor of the city in the 1970’s. The Albanian newcomers dedicate much of their lives to building up their new community, while they also try to develop their own personal lives and assimilate their families within their newfound home.
Bujar was a member of the initial group that built the Xhami in 1968. He was the President of the Xhami for several years; he was also the master of ceremonies for many Albanian cultural events. Dile, with her fashion flair and passion for a project, tailored traditional Albanian costumes for the younger generation to use during cultural events. She did that for many, many years.
This is who Bujar Demirali was. That is how he lived every day of his life. That is why his grandson, Douglas, called him his “role model”. That is why his family remembered, “Rofte Shqiperia” as his final toast for every occasion or event. Bujar made as much of an impression on the lives of those he touched as his native land of Albania had made on him. Long live his memory.
Bujar Demirali, may you rest in peace.