Interviewed by Rafaela Prifti
Albanian American Open Hand Association (AAOHA) is a Bronx based not for profit organization that has stepped up its work, during the pandemic, to help meet the increased needs of the community for food, clothing, school supplies and more. Dielli talked to Aleksander Nilaj, Founder and President of AAOHA about its operations and mission at its food pantry in the Pelham Parkway section. It is a converted apartment on the ground floor of a building on Holland Avenue. Before COVID-19, AAOHA helped feed hundreds of people through weekly food-pantry offerings.
Months into the pandemic, Open Hand was providing food at double and sometimes triple those amounts. Nilaj and his team have reached out beyond the borough’s borders to meet the needs of paraplegic and tetraplegic communities in Albania, flood victims, and so on. He believes that “all of us collectively can be more successful rather than each one individually.”
-Food insecurity has been a problem in the Bronx. ICNA Relief USA opened this facility in July 2019. Since then, you say that AAOHA hosted clothing drives and food giveaways in other boroughs. How did you start and how did AAOHA get here?
AAOHA was founded in 2012. My initial idea was supported by a group of founding members. The association received its registration as a not-for-profit organization in 2014.
All along I have been fortunate to have friends who believe in our mission and are willing to give their time and money to support it. In the beginning, the work and the size of our operation were much different. We would prepare 50 food packages as food giveaways per household per week. I contacted several community organizations that operate in different areas in the Bronx. I was an immigrant myself and did not have many contacts. So I approached local organizations that helped out the needy, such as the Bronx Park East, Pelham Parkway Neighborhood Association, Morris Park, and the Bronx House. I said that I can provide food for 5 families per week to each organization to distribute to them. Our role was more a facilitator in the community. The limit was 50 to 60 families per week, for over a year. After a year, the families started to come directly to us. At that point the food giveaways reached to 180 up to 220 families per month. At that time AAOHA had no facilities. In order to notify the community of the time and drop off place, we relied on fliers and social media. We also rely on our partnerships with different community organizations and appreciate the help and support of local representatives, elected officials including the Albanian-American City Councilman Mark Gjonaj.
-What was your inspiration to lead this initiative? What prompted you to lead the AAOHA?
I came to the US in 2006. The Nilaj family is known in Vukel of the Kelmend region in Albania. It has been persecuted by the communist system. I am proud of my family and the heroic history of the people of Kelmend. One way to honor the legacy of our brave ancestors is to extend a helping hand to one another. I was involved with a number of humanitarian efforts of organizations that operate here, both Albanian and American. They are very valuable to our communities. I realized that their work did not meet my vision.
-What did you feel was missing?
Their work was oriented to meet or to address one specific area. I saw such efforts as a multi-directional work. I founded the Open Hand organization with that vision in mind. Luckily the Bronx is such a diverse community in terms of ethnicities that it feels like an international family. The families who come to us have appreciated us. As far as volunteers, more than half of them are Albanians. I am so proud of each and every one of them.
– In August, in your conversion with Sokol Paja, the editor of Dielli, you said that the Open Hand is wherever people need it, so they don’t miss anything, and no one feels lonely. How do you define your role?
Many people are in desperate need. During the time of the pandemic the divisions and gaps grew for various reasons. Our mission is to bring help to everyone who needs it, with no distinction. Two years ago we got the facility in Pelham Parkway as well as another larger storage for clothing items and materials. In the year of the pandemic, while a number of community outreach organizations were conducting their operations under lockdown conditions, a newly founded nationwide American organization started placing orders through us directly. We did drop offs to destinations assigned by them such as churches, places of worship, shelters. The families would arrange the pick up. At that point, we came to understand the large size of established associations that were serving the community for years and years. We connected with a quite a number of them and continue to coordinate with a few ones to this day.
– What is the day to day logistics and planning for you? By the way, I saw the AAOHA van parked outside the food pantry.
The van was donated to us by a fellow Albanian from Kosova last year. He has been helping us for years. From February through December of 2020 we got 500,000 meals from a catering in the South Bronx and delivered them to families. It was Representative Nathalia Fernandez who referred them to us since Open Hand was the only place that stayed open in the time of the pandemic to serve those in need.
– The work is done by hundreds of people who give their time, support and funds for the betterment of our communities. As you say, the list of supporters and volunteers is too long to cover. I talked briefly with two of them, who were at the pantry today. Hysni Lika and Viktor Popaj. They said to me they have been involved with humanitarian efforts and organizations in Albania before joining AAOHA. You said that more than half of the volunteers are Albanians but there are other nationalities as well. What do they all have in common?
This is a calling to help people who are in desperate need. During the time of the pandemic the divisions and gaps grew for various reasons. Our mission is to bring help to everyone without distinction. The purpose is to help everyone who is in need that we are able to reach. That’s what brings all of our volunteer together. And they are so many of them who offer their time and services. I never have to look for volunteers. They find us. Other than food we provide equipment supplies for people with physical challenges. One example would be a wheelchair. If someone in need contacts us for a certain item, we try to get to the right place to provide that need for someone.
– Open Hand started as a nonprofit organization almost a decade ago. It has hosted food and school supply giveaways, as well as clothing drives and care packages for the disabled. Since then, its work has well exceeded the local borders and stretched across the ocean. To give one example, “Albanian American Open Hand Association delivered 2,600 aid packages to Bosnia that was impacted by flooding in 2014. In 2015, AAOHA partnered with other associations to organize a clothing drive for Albania’s flood victims. It has raised funds and shipped home care materials to Albania and Kosovo. How do you work internationally? Is this part of your vision?
We have a coordinator in Albania, Luigj Gegaj, who is in charge for all the region. Rexhep Myftari from Dardamedia and Kanto Sokaj have been tireless in their roles to the association. We also coordinate with churches and various centers there. Once the shipment is ready from here, it goes to these points and they do the distribution themselves. Due to the high costs of international transport and customs, we don’t ship out food to Albania. Another restriction with regard to food is the requirement for sanitation certificates, expiration dates etc.
– You take pride in the fact that Open Hand is an Albanian American Association.
I do. To be able to help the fellow countrymen is very rewarding. We are aware of the needs they have. Although AAOHA is limited in its capacities, our mission is to give as much as we can. There are good people who want to help here and there. With our coordinated efforts we can reach out to more families in need. It is also a matter of giving hope to so many who despair and feel hopeless. A package once in six months will not last long but letting someone know that people care makes the whole difference in the world.
– What stands out about the Open Hand Association?
This is an Albanian American organization. Its name is meant to convey the idea of open arms and an open heart. One more point is that just like the founding members, donors and our volunteers are as diverse as the community we serve. In terms of our operations, we distribute in all boroughs of New York. The food pantry is open twice a week. The hours go on from Monday to Saturday. The number of people who come here reaches 200 to 250 on Saturday. Up until May, we distributed to 1,000 people. Our contract is good for two more years. We will keep on going.
-You hosted an event in early September to honor donors and volunteers. You said that you also intended for it to be an annual event.
This Labor Day event coincided with the fifth anniversary of Mother Teresa’s Sainthood and International Day of Charity. The best way for our organization to honor her figure as an Albanian and appreciate her legacy of giving and being the champion of the needy is to start a tradition that marks the day annually.
– I noticed that you make a point to thank sponsors, volunteers and always the media. Local and city papers and online media like Bronx Times, NYCity News Service, News 12 Bronx have covered AAOHA’s help to feed families during holidays, the clothing drive and other events. With respect to Vatra and Dielli, you have been a supporter over the years. As recently as this month, you participated at a book promotion hosted by Vatra’s offices where you donated Back to School giveaways to ‘Children of the Eagle’. How do you see the role of the media?
The physical work in on us. The sponsors are very valuable to us. Our volunteers are priceless. The media brings and connects us to the people who might need us. That is how I see the role of the media. And all of us together and collectively are able to be more successful rather than each one individually.
– Thank you for the interview! Much success in the future!