US Congressman Elliot Engel was presented with Vatra’s Award for Outstanding Achievement by the Chairman of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra, Elmi Berisha, at New York Headquarters on February 29.
In the presence of Vatra’s Deputy Chairmen, Dr. Pashko Camaj and Mr. Ervin Dine, Treasurer Marjan Cubi. Secretary Nazo Veliu, several representatives of the Executive Body and Board of Directors, as well as long-standing Vatra members, Vatra’s Chairman Elmi Berisha introduced Congressman Engel “as a friend to all of us” whom “we cannot thank enough for what you have done for the Albanian people and nation.” The Representative of New York was accompanied by his old-time friend, Mr. Harry Bajrakari, a well-known community patron and influential Albanian-American entrepreneur. Providing a very brief summary of Vatra’s mission and role in the community, Dielli’s Editor of English encapsulated 108 years of the organization’s proud history in a few paragraphs whereas Mr. Harry Bajraktari highlighted Vatra’s place in the long journey for Kosova’s freedom and independence. Mr. Bajraktari credited the US policies and personalities like former President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole along with many others for bringing Kosovo to the world stage. “Vatra is a continuation of the community making a difference for the Albanian nation for over 100 years,” said Mr. Bajraktari. In his first Vatra visit, Congressman Engel recounted the story of the first time “Harry” walked in Mr. Engel’s office in 1989, the year he had just been elected as the Representative of New York and how he had learned about Kosovo’s plight in the late 80s. “Ten years later, the US led NATO bombing campaign brought an end to Kosovo conflict in 1999. Since then, we continued to push for the independence of Kosovo,” said Mr. Engel. He pointed that as the current Chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, he is fully committed and vocal in supporting Kosovo in his meetings with statesmen, diplomats and foreign affairs officials representing countries from all over the world. “Although you may not have an elected official of Albanian descent in Congress yet, I do feel that the Albanian fight is truly my fight. Throughout the last decades I have seen the Albanian diaspora in New York flourish to become successful businessmen and professionals. Their stories are similar to the story of my family that immigrated to the US after World War I,” said Congressman Engel. As far as the close friendship with Mr. Bajraktari and the Albanian community, the 16 terms Congressional Democrat, said that Kosovo’s 10th anniversary of independence was another occasion when “Harry and I celebrated together.” Speaking for all Albanians here and abroad, Congressman Engel stated “I am watching your back. I feel that your family is my family.”
His concluding statement was greeted with applause and show of appreciation. Honorary President of Vatra Mr. Agim Rexhaj thanked Congressman Engel for visiting with Vatra. In acknowledgement of his continuous support to Albanians especially Kosovo, Mr. Rexhaj called him “a hero of Albanians”. Vatra’s Deputy Chairman for Integration and Youth, Mr. Ervin Dine expressed gratitude to Mr. Engel’s decades-long work in advancing Albanians. Touching on the current situation in Albania, Mr. Dine raised the issue of the ongoing erosion of democracy in Albania and efforts that will be needed to address it. Expressing a similar concern, the US Congressman mentioned the troublesome signals coming from Albania’s government and its non-Western partnerships. Bringing in focus the Congressman’s role with regard to economic initiatives. Mr. Harry Bajraktari spoke of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which unlocked a $50 million program for Kosovo’s economy. He mentioned that during his 2019 Balkan trip, Congressman Elliot Engel visited Serbia’s PM, Mr. Vucic in Belgrade, and then travelled to meet Albanian leaders in the Presheva Valley in support of the rights of ethnic Albanians. Also last July, the US Representative of New York attended the inauguration of the new US Embassy in Prishtina, and was honored at a special dedication ceremony that a roadway crossing from Bajram Curri, in Northern Albania to Gjakova, in Western Kosovo was named after him.
Drawing a historic comparison between Kosovo and Chameria, Vatra’s Secretary Mrs. Nazo Veliu spoke of her family members being forced out of their homes and lands in Chameria during the 1944 expulsion by the Greek forces. She implored protection of the rights for the Cham population of Albania reminding Congressman Engel of the strong friendship between the two people: “Albanians are the best friends of America in the world.” Echoing concerns about the installation of ‘a totalitarian system of government in Albania’ and its disregard for the country’s Constitution and rule of law, Mr. Asllan Bushati, long-time Vatra member, pointed out that the dire situation has forced America’s Foreign Affairs officials to choose between stability and democracy, in favor of the former. Mr. Agim Alickaj, Board member of the Albanian American Civic League praised the great work by the incumbent Congressman. He voiced concerns regarding Serbia-Kosovo talks, and the Serbian arbitrary conditioning of the lifting of the tariffs. Mr. Alickaj urged to put more pressure on the administration and called for organizing the diaspora in addressing the issue. In response, Mr. Engel expressed his disapproving view of ‘the selective criticism’ on the tariffs, “Serbia’s campaign in getting EU countries to derecognize Kosova, and blocking it from joining UNESCO, the UN, etc.” Speaking about the administrations, Congressman Engel said “It took great courage for Former President Bill Clinton to order the NATO bombing in order to save the lives of Albanians in Kosovo. Following his presidency, in the next eight years, Former President George W. Bush, of the Republican Party was a supporter of Albanians. Today, we don’t know where the administration stands. I want to be sure that President Trump gets all the facts about Kosova.”
A group of questions addressed the unpunished sexual crimes of the Kosovo war, addressed at a Congressional Hearing by US House Foreign Affairs Committee in February 2019, as the spinning by the Serb propaganda portrays perpetrators as victims; the International Court standards with regard to prosecuting Kosovo and Northern Macedonia cases; and issues of frustration in connection with the lack of public transparency by politicians who gloss over the talks between Prishtina and Belgrade with empty rhetoric and little accountability. Congressman Engel asserted his position of not taking sides in the country’s election, expressing his willingness to work with all parties and to be fair. He recognized that floating ideas of land-swapping and border changes cause more problems with no end in sight in the Balkans. Critical of the EU in the context of Kosova, the longtime Representative for New York said that in the case of the demarcation between Kosovo and Montenegro, Albanians are asked to compromise in return for visa liberalization, which is yet undelivered. At this point, Vatra’s Chairman Mr. Elmi Berisha raised the issue of work visas for Albanian nationals who are qualified professionals to be granted temporary employment by Albanian-American owned companies or businessmen in real estate, construction, restaurant, etc. He affirmed that the proposition benefits the businesses in the US, while contributing to the job market, currently in need of migrants and giving skillful Albanian workers the opportunity to pay taxes in compliance with the law. Congressman Engel, who is running for re-election, stated that he is resolute in supporting the rights of all the Albanian people and in his commitment to the Albanian-American diaspora in the US.
To honor his decades long work for Albanian issues, the Chairman of Vatra, Mr. Elmi Berisha presented the award and read the citation: In recognition of the decades of service, The Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra, proudly presents Outstanding Achievement Award to Congressman Elliot Engel for your contribution to the independence of Kosova, democratization of Albania and advancing of Albanians in the Balkans.
February 29, 2020 New York