By Krisela Karaja and Céline St. Pierre/
The Albanian Student Association (ASA) and the Polish Cultural Society (PCS) at the University of Connecticut (UConn) hosted the first Eastern European Conference in the Rome Ballroom on the main UConn campus in Storrs, CT. on Sunday, March 31, 2014,The event was an amalgamation of two past events: the Annual Albanian Conference hosted by the ASA and the Annual Polish Festival hosted by the PCS.
Both groups were enthusiastic to collaborate on one event this year, in an effort to learn more about each others’ cultures while also exposing the greater UConn community at large to both cultures. The ASA and PCS were also excited to co-host a formal event together, as they were able to invite guest speakers to make remarks on issues crucial to their communities.
ASA and PCS members, other UConn students, family, friends, and guest speakers were in attendance. The night began with the opening of the buffet—featuring byrek, pierogies, and an assortment of other Mediterranean and Polish foods—to all guests. Dinner was accompanied by introductory remarks by both Presidents: PCS’s Céline St. Pierre and the ASA’s Krisela Karaja. The two presidents first introduced their respective organizations and issued their president’s speeches, both of which dealt with the notions of community and touched upon the various views in regards to nationalism for both of these diasporic populations.
The guest speakers offered their insight on specific topics relevant to their communities. On behalf of PCS, Adrian Baron, attorney and partner at Podorowsky, Thompson, and Baron in New Britain, CT opened with a few remarks about the Polish Community in New Britain. He spoke about how the area along Broad Street eventually became known as Little Poland. This designation helped revitalize the town and fostered a strong sense of community which resulted in lower crime rates.
He was followed by Mithat Gashi, Chair of Vatra Education Foundation, who spoke about the importance of collaboration between both cultural groups, the importance of ensuring that younger generations involve themselves in leadership roles in their respective communities, and the necessity of ensuring that future leaders of both ASA and PCS are prepared in order to continue the progress that the organizations have been making in recent years. Gashi said that the Pan Albanian Federation of America-Vatra was established on April 28, 1912 in Boston by a group of mostly Orthodox Albanians to promote and defend the independence and security of the Albanian territories because Albania’s existence was threatened by its neighbors. He extended greetings from Vatra’s President, Dr. Gjon Bucaj, and encouraged students to learn more about Vatra’s history, to apply for Vatra’s Scholarship for next academic year, and to join Vatra.
Michael Gwara, an alumnus of the PCS, followed Mr. Gashi and spoke about the Visa Waiver program for Poland. This is a strong issue in the Polish American community as it is very hard to obtain a visa to come to the US, despite the fact that the Polish nation has no visa requirement for citizens of the United States.
ASA alumnus and current JD candidate at New England Law in Boston, MA, Esmeralda Bardhollari, then informed the audience of her current efforts to start a nonprofit organization and battered women’s shelter in Albania in the near future. The final speaker for the evening for PCS was Darek Barcikowski, founder of White Eagle Media and the Polish Newspaper BiaƗy OrzeƗ who explained how his grassroots effort to establish a Polish newspaper eventually blossomed into a successful media establishment accessible to Polish communities across the country.
The evening reached its conclusion with a few remarks by ASA member Marsilda Bialczak, who is currently helping the organization spearhead the “Wheels For Olsi” initiative on GoFundMe.com [http://www.gofundme.com/7vta1s] in an effort to raise money for a young man and friend of the ASA living in Albania. This young man suffers from Becker Muscular Dystrophy, and is in dire need of an electric wheelchair for mobility.
These remarks were followed by the issuing of awards for the alumni and seniors of each organization, the opening of the dance floor with an Albanian valle, and a short demonstration of Polish traditional dancing. The evening included a mix of music from both cultures, courtesy of DJ Gëzim Bylyku.
The event was enjoyed by all. Both presidents sincerely hope that the organizations can turn this into an annual celebration and/or continue to collaborate on similar events in the future.
Caption: Mithat Gashi with Krisela Karaja (standing), her father, Stathaqi, and sister, Jonela, a teacher and a doctoral student at UCon’s First Eastern European Conference