by Rafaela Prifti
A ribbon cutting ceremony for the Illyria Community and Wellness Center was held Sunday afternoon at the Jacobi Medical Center Rotunda in the Bronx. The event was well attended by a number of politicians, elected officials, community leaders and families. At the celebration, New York City Councilman Mark Gjonaj was joined by senior United States Senator from New York and Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, US Representative for New York’s 15th congressional district and Co-Chair of Albanian Caucus Ritchie Torres, NY State Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, Jordana Bailey, Chief Operating Officer of NYC Health, Hospitals, Albanian diplomats, dignitaries, community members.
After the ceremonial opening of the center, councilman Gjonaj led a tour of the attendees on one floor. Inside one of the newly renovated rooms furnished with tables and chairs, he said “the construction cost that we contributed to is $8.7 million, it’s going to renovate the auditorium, the rotunda, the gym, it’s going to create multi-functional rooms and a library with a technology center. That’s indoors! While outdoors, there will be a community garden and a sports center for the youth and elderly, and most importantly the next generation of Albanians.” Councilman Gjonaj acknowledged Dr. Alan Ross as one of the visionaries for this project. Over twenty years ago, the Illyria Family Practice at Jacobi Medical Center was the brain child of the pediatric doctor. At the end of Kosovo war, some 10,000 ethnic Albanians who settled in the Bronx were presented with new challenges in navigating the health system. So one-of-a-kind medical practice was born and with it, the idea and notion to expand, said Leonora Lulaj, a seasoned Behavioral Health Department Coordinator at Jacobi Medical Center.
In the auditorium, the celebration program included Father Popaj’s invocation, as well as remarks by Councilman Mark Gjonaj, elected representatives and Albanian dignitaries. In giving his blessing to the community center, Dom Pjeter Popaj cherished it as a “place of their own” that will bring people together, closer to one another and “closer to the Creator”. Mr. Mark Gjonaj remarked that the idea of the community center has been brewing for decades, while noting that “after seven years of hard work and commitment of working with city and state over $ 8.7 million have been invested into the wellness center at Jacobi Medical Center.” There was no estimated date for the completion of the whole project. In the renovated facilities, Saturday classes for the staff and students of Alba Life School have started on September 4th.He acknowledged the presence of high ranking officials, distinguished guests, and Albanian diplomats and officials including Minister of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora and Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosova, Donika Gervalla Schwarz, Consul General of Kosovo in New YorkFrymëzim Isufaj, Head of Mission of Kosovo in Washington DC, Valdet Sadiku. In his greeting remarks, US Representative Ritchie Torres called Mark Gjonaj “a local hero” and the wellness center “part of his legacy”.
Councilman Gjonaj has announced that he is not seeking re-election for the city council. Mr. Gjonaj began his political career in 2012 in the New York Assembly. He served as Assemblyman through 2017. The Morris Park resident and Bronx native was elected to the New York City Council in 2017 and became the first Albanian-American to serve in it.
The celebration program ended with performances by the Alba Life Schools, Children of the Eagle School, Albanian Youth Center and Dance Groups like Rozafati, Freski Ana e Malit, Shoqata Kraja etc. The singing and dancing by the younger generation of Albanian Americans exhilarated the audience inside the auditorium symbolically opening the curtain for Illyria Community and Wellness Center.