by Rafaela Prifti/
On the twelfth year of Kosova’s Independence, the 17th Day of February 2020 was proclaimed “Independence of Kosova Day in the Bronx”.
The Albanian-American Society Foundation, Sons and Daughters of Albania in America and the Albanian Community Center at Enrico Farmi Cultural Center of Belmont Library hosted a special commemoration on February 19th. The state and local offices of the legislative and executive branches converged to signal the importance of the day. The New York State Governor’s Office, the New York State Senate and the Bronx Borough President delivered messages of support reinforcing a strong partnership with the community.
Mr. Esad A. Rizai, President of the Albanian-American Society Foundation and a central figure who is recognized for his hard work to elevate the community, thanked the distinguished guests and participants. Starting with Ms. Sophia Zayas, Bronx Regional Representative from the Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a senior staff of State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, Mr. Rizai acknowledged the community members who were gathered to mark the day, including Ms. Williams of the Belmont library that provided the venue for the event. Speaking on behalf of Governor Cuomo’s office, Ms. Zayas drew attention to “the special place that Albanians have in the diverse Bronx community.” She read out a letter signed by the New York Governor sending greetings for the commemoration of the 12th anniversary of Kosova’s independence, which is “recognized by more than 100 countries including many in the European Union.” On this occasion, governor Cuomo honored the state of Kosova with a proclamation. His letter stated that what is most special about the “the people who have made our state their home,” and are part of the history of Kosova are individuals who have committed incredible acts of courage, inspired by the ideals of freedom. A posthumous citation for his contribution was awarded to Mr. Alush Smajli (Hoti). The New York Governor dedicated a special tribute posthumously to a man “of such rare quality and character as Ali Rizaj,” for demonstrating the highest level of commitment to these ideals. As documented, at a young age, he joined the forces of liberation against the Italian and German occupation. Mr. Ali Rizaj was imprisoned by communists who seized power in Albania after the WWII. He escaped to Kosova where he was arrested and jailed. Forced to leave behind family members, in 1951, Mr. Rizaj migrated to the US. As an activist of undeterred conviction and a valiant freedom fighter, Mr. Ali Rizaj was awarded the presidential medal for his bravery in service of Albania’s Liberation War. His son, Esad A. Rizaj, accepted the proclamation on behalf of his late father, whom he remembers as a man “who fought for what he believed in and believed in what he fought for.”
Founder and President of the Albanian-American Society Foundation, Mr. Esad A. Rizai, was also delegated to present the proclamations issued by the Bronx Borough President. Mr. Hajdin Alijaj, Vice-President of the organization that promotes Albanian heritage and values, was one of the honorees. He thanked all who made the event possible. “We,” said Mr. Alijaj “are here to honor the heroes for the sacrifices they made for a free and independent Kosova and give our blessings to the United States and NATO nations for ending the war.” A proclamation was issued to Mr. Ali Haxhaj for his one of a kind contribution in turning his own home into a school facility for Albanians subjected to education bans imposed by the Serb regime. The next honoree, Mulla Zeke Berdyna, was cited as “a distinguished religious leader and activist who gave his life for ethnic Albanians and freedom of Kosova, to preserve his proud heritage despite years of imprisonment.” The proclamation presented to salute and honor the legacy of Mulla Zeke Berdyna, read in part that the President of the Borough of the Bronx, with the largest Albanian community in the US, “celebrates the tremendous contributions to culture and history they have and continue to offer our borough, our city”. On behalf of the Berdyna family in Kosova and in the US, their grandson, Fahri, thanked the officials and the organizers, vowing to work harder to show gratitude to ‘this great country.” In acknowledgement of a KLA legendary founder, Adem Jashari, it was proclaimed that February 17, 2020 would be “Independence of Kosova Day in the Bronx. Regarded as the “father of Kosova Liberation Army”, Adem Jashari, is widely considered a symbol of Kosova’s independence by ethnic Albanians. Fifty eight members of his family perished in the attacks that Serbian forces launched at Jashari’s home in Prekaz in March 1998. He was posthumously awarded with the title “Hero of Kosova”. Mr. Qazim Gashi was invited to accept the recognition. To commemorate Kosova’s Independence, Albanian poet and songwriter Isa Brecani addressed the guests. He presented the view that Kosova’s independence has opened the path towards the unification of all Albanian regions. Then he recited three of his original poems dedicated to three heroes: Commander Adem Jashari, General Tahir Sinani and Vezir Ademaj. A commander in the KLA during the Kosova war, Mr. Tahir Sinani was appointed commander in the Kosova Protection Corps after the war, and went on to join the NLA in the Macedonian Conflict in 2001. In his honor, February 17, 2020 was proclaimed “General Tahir Sinani Day”. Proclamation stated that “his life was tragically cut short but the flame of his heroism will always brightly burn for all Albanians.”
Mr. Esad A. Rizai expressed his gratitude to the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and his staff for supporting the community organizations for 11 years. Indeed, the partnership have made possible celebrations of events like the independence of Albania by raising the Albanian flag over the Bronx County Building in 2018 for the first time. In August 2009, the borough joined its Albanian community to honor the most beloved Albanian daughter, Mother Theresa, with her very own street in the Bronx.
To mark the celebration, the New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi issued a proclamation that was presented by the Deputy Chief of Staff, Mr. Miguel Rondon. It recognized that “in the nation of Kosova, we have an entity worthy of the highest respect and esteem.” A number of distinguished Albanians like Alush Smajl Hoti received recognition by the New York State Senator’s Office.
Following the official part of the ceremony, attendees were invited to say a few words and share their thoughts and messages. Mrs. Mimoza Dajci, Founder and President of Hope and Peace Foundation, is also a family member of Isa Boletini, an Albanian national hero and visionary. She credited the annual celebrations of independence by the Albanian-American Society Foundation under Mr. Rizai’s leadership to the strong bonds with the Borough and the state level government. In order to better support such partnership, Mrs. Dajci called for a more unified community. Remembering the victims of the Kosova war and the survivors, she placed emphasis on demanding justice for the unpunished sexual crimes of the conflict. On behalf of the Smajli family, Mr. Hoti, presented briefly his grandfather’s bio with emphasis on the contribution of Alush (Ali) for the liberation of ethnic Albanians and the opening of his home to be used as a school facility when the Serbian regime outlawed schooling for Albanians. “Such actions spelled severe consequences,” said Mr. Hoti, yet Alush Smajli set an example of patriotism for his successors and all of us. In reference to present day issues, Mr. Hoti urged for a coordinated effort to advocate for Kosova’s rights. The next speaker was the author of this article who briefly referenced the previous celebrations to drive the point that our community is brought together by common values and traditions to be honored and upheld. Attending the event were Mr. Idriz Lamaj, Executive Council member of Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra, and guests from organizations with headquarters in Baltimore, Philadelphia etc. To commemorate the day of Kosova’s Independence, Mr. Egidio Sementilli, Chair of the Bronx Italian-American Cultural Association, highlighted the struggles of the Albanian and Italian community. Reaching back to his childhood years, Mr. Sementilli spoke about his experience as a newly arrived immigrant in the “big family” here in the 70s. From that period to the present, he credited the Albanians with ensuring “the community’s survival in the Bronx.” “And thirty years ago,” Mr. Sementilli said, “Mr. Esad Rizai, made sure that the Albanian community was at the table,” paying tribute to the legacy of the Albanian-American Society Foundation.
At the commemoration of Kosova’s Independence, the 17th Day of February 2020 was proclaimed “Independence of Kosova Day in the Bronx” while the state and local government officials reinforced the strong partnership with the Albanian community.