By Dr. David D. Avdul*/
My brief presentation today is titled “The VATRA Experience: Past, Present and Future.” Mine is not a scholarly inquiry, rather, it is a qualitative, sometimes anecdotal statement, grounded in reflection and perception. Thus, my remarks today can be described as a commentary on VATRA, from a personal perspective.
Know that I am the child of parents who emigrated from Albania before the start of World War II. Initially, my father arrived in America in 1918; he made a “second/final return” in 1930. My mother arrived in 1937. I and my four siblings are American born. Our context for knowing Albania and VATRA, is a context known as the “old diaspora.”
I have been instructed to limit my comments to five minutes; I assure you I will be less than ten minutes. That is a very short period of time – so let’s get started.
With all due respect to Fan Noli and Faik Konica, I must confess it is not they who first come to mind when I think about VATRA. Rather, my thoughts are personal, based on my own experience. My reflections upon VATRA can be summed up in three ways, or three recollections: (1) dega 54 (2) Dielli and (3) VATRA scholarships. All of these, I believe, present challenges to VATRA.
Dega 54 was the VATRA chapter to which my father belonged. It was a chapter of no more than 25 – 35 members, from three Northeastern Ohio communities: Canton, Massillon, and Louisville. The number “54” suggests that there were at least 54 VATRA chapters worldwide. In fact, “back then” there existed no less than 80 chapters worldwide; today there are only four! “Back then,” VATRA membership was in the thousands; today it is around 500.
I find in this recollection (dega 54) some challenges/demands, facing VATRA now, and throughout the 21st century. No, the challenge is not to increase the number of chapters – this technological age of ours renders that organizational structure obsolete. Rather, the challenge is to increase the membership of VATRA to the level of a critical mass enabling VATRA to become a force/source for making things happen. How this might be accomplished is not for me to ponder in this short address. That it must be accomplished is a given.
At least three necessary though not sufficient demands emerge here, relative to VATRA’s growth and development as an institution vital to the greater Albanian community:
VATRA needs to review, and perhaps revise its organizational structure;
VATRA needs to increase its membership numbers;
VATRA needs to engage in these tasks through short –term and long – term planning.
My second VATRA reflection or recollection is Dielli, that pioneering instrument of communication for Albanians around the world. My father learned to read on his own, because he said he needed to be able to read the Dielli. At an early age, I enjoyed reading the English sections of Dielli; I wrote an article for Dielli when I was a senior in high school. After my father died, I read as best I could, selected Albanian articles in Dielli to my mother, who, unfortunately, never learned to read or write.
Throughout the years, Dielli has been a source of information and inspiration for many Albanians. As one of the promotional flyers for this centennial anniversary which we are celebrating this weekend has noted, and I quote: “Albanian Americans founded VATRA as an effort to save Albania in its darkest hour from facing occupation, national separation and annihilation.” VATRA, through Dielli, communicated this noble mission to its readers. It sustained that sense of honor and pride which most Albanians cherish. And in those tragic years of the second half of the 20th century, it was VATRA, through Dielli, which sustained that link and sense of hope, between the diaspora and the fatherland.
In this second reflection of mine, on Dielli, the message that resonates for me is the need for VATRA to continue, through Dielli, its commitment to communication on issues crucial to Albanians around the world. My wish is that VATRA’s communication efforts raise the level of dialogue on issues such as (2) human and civil rights; (2) civil rights of Albanian women; (3) the elimination of blood feuds; (4) competent and honest leadership; and (5) matters of economic development, educational development and authentic democracy.
In this age of technology and social media, the concept of communication must be broadly defined-going beyond the printed page. In this time of the decline of the newspaper, VATRA must ask itself: what changes are necessary in Dielli, and what other forms of communication, in addition to Dielli, might be considered? And in this world of soundbites, VATRA must ask itself: and how can we realize and sustain levels of dialogue in communication efforts aimed at educating and engaging our membership for effective problem solving in a democratic environment. Indeed, the challenges confronting VATRA in the beginning of this 21st century are as great as those encountered by VATRA at the beginning of the 20th century.
My third reflection/recollection on VATRA is a very personal one – the VATRA scholarship. I believe VATRA was the first Albanian institution in America to offer higher education scholarships to worthy students of Albanian descent. Fifty years ago I was a recipient of a VATRA scholarship. It was September 1962, and with a twenty dollar bill in my pocket, I was hitchhiking to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio to begin my senior year of study. Because I had been selected as a dormitory counselor, my room costs were covered. Because I had friends in the cafeteria who would take “extra food” so that I might eat free of charge – that basic need was satisfied. But I had no money for tuition. I informed the Dean of Students that I was expecting a scholarship from VATRA which would cover my tuition expenses. He kindly permitted me to register for classes, on the assumption the monies would be forthcoming. The money arrived, and, because of VATRA, I was able to complete my senior year and earn the Bachelor’s degree. I know and value the VATRA scholarship!
Yet, here too, challenges persist. The bottom line challenge is this: VATRA must raise more money to provide more scholarships, at a time when American students are graduating with educational loans/debts amounting to thousands of dollars- not to mention the fact that many Albanians outside the United States do not have the money to even consider going on to college. Education is the key to success for individuals in the Albanian communities here and across Europe, and the world.
The dollar value of VATRA’s education fund, and the dollar value of its annual scholarships awarded, need to be increased significantly. It is time for a capital campaign to support a major effort to increase funding for higher education for Albanian students. It is an investment for our students, for our community and for the future of VATRA.
In many ways the 20th century was not kind to Albania – a short lived democracy and monarchy followed by a world war and fifty years of tyranny! And in many ways, VATRA provided a support structure over these past 100 years, enabling us to survive and to say to our neighbors, we are still here; we are here to stay, we are everywhere! Indeed, at this moment in time, at the start of this 21st century, VATRA is still here and so are its challenges: matters of organizational structuring, membership marketing, long and short range planning, communications, technology, and education, to name a few. I am confident that VATRA, (and to paraphrase a line from a Beatles song) “with a little help from our friends,” will meet the challenge. Our common goal must be one that assures that VATRA and the global Albanian community will prosper over the next 100 years. (Presentation given on April 28, 2012, VATRA Seminar, Helmsley Hotel, NYC)
* Professor of Education (Retired) and Former Dean, School of Education
Pace University: NYC/Westchester County