By Merita B McCormack/ Washington DC/
Like many other Albanians of my generations, who grew up in Albania, I knew about VATRA since a little girl, knew a lot about Fan Noli, very little about Konitza. Later when communism fell, we finally received a letter by a relative of ours in New York who was telling us about my great uncles in New York, about the Albanians in general and his involvement in Diaspora and that they were eager to reconnect with their families in Albania. He also expressed joy to reconect and that they were very hopeful for the future of Albania. We knew our relatives were Vatrans but that was it. Nothing much about the activities or its strength or Dielli. I also did not know much about Agim Karagjozi until I moved in the USA myself and got to know Vatra. I heard about him and the word was that he was a brave, tough, and very caring man. I heard that he did not let Vatra stray and that he was known to boldly defend democratic values and that he had fought for all Albanian nation. I meet him in the early 2000-s. We had lived in East End of Long Island since 1996 but my husband’s job had taken us to many countries in the world and raising three children was a priority then. Yet I used to write a little, fearing I might forget Albanian, and that’s how the connection was made. Agim had read a piece I wrote in early 2000s , which was published in Illyria newspaper about some trips abroad which of course had involved Albanianism, and through a mutual friend sought to meet with me . He thanked me for the articles and after praising my writing skills in Albanian he asked me if I could write something good for Vatra and “Dielli”. I was shy and a little afraid to say yes, as VATRA was this giant organization and national treasure to many of us and I did not see myself worth of it or able to contribute. But I heard him speak and saw his loving care for Albania, for the truth, saw that his concern was real and that the gentleman was really a good man, a virtuous man, nothing to be scared of. He was like a loving father who asks his children to do the right thing. As we were talking , it also hit me how he loathed the communist ideology. he did not proclaim, neither made a statement , we just talked, shared ideas and I was convinced that he was not tainted by communism at all. That ideology (communism) that had tried to crush my mom, that caused so much harm to her entire family and to my paternal side too back in Albania. I was affected myself by such tyranny and so were my brothers. So , seeing a good Albanian man, that had such good ideals , made me melt. I felt I had met the people from forty years ago, before the values were destroyed and shaken and twisted , to create a new man as Communist party tried to do. I felt that as we spoke, a bond was created and stayed as such. Thus I committed myself and said “yes” to work with him for Vatra (of course on a pro bono basis). So I started first with few articles(in Albanian language) and helped with whatever errands needed, sometimes discussing organizational issues, sometimes simply celebrating the national feasts, reaching out, raising awareness about Vatra and its mission. Our communication was good, understanding and Agim was very supportive. After some friends and I put together a book dedicated to Mothers to be promoted in May, on Mother’s Day, I recall him walking into Vatra building on that day and was very happy for the liveliness of the event and to see the house full. He greeted us, laughed with us, ate with us and then read us a beautiful poem he had written about his own mom and I wished I had that copy now with me. (May be some people that filmed the event might have it). I remember that it was that day that we were reminding each other that “Dielli” would soon be 100 years old and VATRA must do something to revive it. He asked me to think about “how”, “what” and “where” and to write him a note to be faxed or mailed to him- so typical of his communications, not emails, not texts, but handwritten notes and best way yet, faxed. So, I prayed about it and sent him some thoughts. Of course he had asked many other Vatrans to do the same , and soon a commission was set up and planning work began. Little did I know that I would be one of the moderators of that event and that was to mark the rebirth of Dielli’s monthly publication, which is going strong. I will never forget his joy and his enthusiasm after Dalip (our current Dielli editor) and I assured him we had enough materials to start the volume 100’s, number one publication, soon. At that time Dalip Greca was still an editor for Illyria but God had other plans and it is not my intention to talk about it now, but I want to mention Agim’s enthusiasm when Dalip was available full time. I am going through some of the letters he wrote to Vatra people , myself among them, and one can see how much joy and hope this event had given Agim. He was rejoicing and was happy. But he was also caring and cautious. He was like a parent to me and many others. He was a little afraid that things might slow down after that event. We were assuring him that was going to be okay. Continuous publication of Dielli is a proof but Vatra has sustained and grown since, though we must heed his word and be aware of what was he hinting. Anyway, at about that time we had moved to DC metro area and he was sad as another family, which had newly been engaged to work with Vatra had also moved out of the area and Agim was looking forward to work with them, yet he lost them too (to the distance). I promised to work remotely, technology allowed for it, and told Agim I was available to help with articles and events or in whatever was the need. But he thought more than I did and better then I did. He said you go to DC , we will make sure we have VATRA represented in DC and operate from DC. I was humbled to be appointed as VATRA representative in DC. Later we founded VATRA DC chapter, boosted with a strong presence by Bucaj and Zotaj families, both families are known vatrans. We started doing little things at a time, but with great love, as it is custom for Vatrans and Albanians in general. We sort of inaugurated our DC presence when in October 2008 we went to the White House as a VATRA delegation to attend NATO membership ceremony for Albania, officiated by President GW Bush and also later in February 2009 to celebrate the First Anniversary of Kosova Independence. We then have had a series of events that have made VATRA not only known as the oldest Albanian-American organization, but its mission as well, which identifies with the Albanian cause. The mission has been served well. It was Agim’s vision and idea that Washington DC should be a key place for Vatra and it has been done so. We have raised awareness and have promoted Vatra over time with several events , speakers, visits, book promotions, celebrations, which were mostly held either at the Library of Congress or at the congressional rooms . We have visited offices, politicians, diplomats, experts, institutional leaders and always have fondly and boldly presented our federation’s missions and our founders but also Ing. Agim Karagjozi that led well and navigated Vatra federation through some tough decades. He and I would often speak on the phone and he would often send me hand written letters guiding me what to do and how to do it. I loved his class, his vision, his gratitude and respect as he was a honest, virtuous man. After he resigned from the office, we stayed in touch and we chatted often. I would update him and a couple of times we would meet in New York for the Flag day celebrations. Sometimes he was a bit concerned with new membership and with was always saying we must make sure we enrich Vatra with good Albanians, and he would elaborate further saying: “Do you know who is a good Albanian? See their works, read their articles, judge their conduct on how they care for Albania and not for themselves, read their motivation through their deeds, that would give you a good idea of a good Albanian”. Very interesting, I had thought, he never said anything about “bad” Albanians . He must have always looked for the good and he knew how to see it in every one and everywhere. I recall calling him once after a celebratory event, telling how well the event went and that he was sorely missed. He said he was happy and glad that all went well and not to worry about him not being present , as Vatra was important- he said,- not me(referring to himself).
I cried for several minutes after that. What a man! He was a good, a very good Albanian! I was very fond of Agim, indeed, as I learnt a lot but he also gave us hope for a better Albania and He showed us that virtuous and honest men that care for just causes are still around and he was the one example among Albanians, but unique for Vatra and with his death we lost a colossus, but inherited a great legacy. That’s why many people came and pledged the same oath during the farewell ceremonies, to respect and continue his legacy. At this difficult time, I wish the family peace and courage as they are coping with the loss, and pledge to keep them all in my prayers during this very difficult time of losing their dear husband, father and grandfather, but also praying for all Vatrans, my colleagues, who are also mourning. May God comfort all Karagjozi family and relatives, may blessed mother Mary wrap her mantle around us all and may angels bring Agim Karagjozi, our beloved Vatra president to Paradise.
Rest in peace, beloved friend and leader, may God rest your soul.
Until we meet again, farewell!