For more than two years, edtech startup Labbox Education has been bringing science, electronics, and computer engineering closer to children across Kosovo, through fun and interactive ways that encourage thinking and finding new and innovative solutions for various challenges.
According to the startup’s founder Arta Zaimi, who has already founded a coding academy in Kosovo and also has extensive experience in programming and electronics, the idea about the company originated while she was searching for a solution that would solve both the difficulty of teaching and understanding the complex scientific fields.
Enjoying the magic of creation
“Labbox aims to expose children to real-world electronics and engineering as early as possible. Based on our testing and general pedagogical advice related to child development, the best age to start exposing children to technology from a creator’s perspective is age 8. This is the time when their mathematical thinking is developing strongly and children have a grasp of the basic math functions, which if compared to how electronics work, are similar in difficulty,” Zaimi tells The Recursive.
“By learning and practicing engineering activities, kids not only start to enjoy the magic of creation, but they also develop crucial skills in the process. That form of thinking takes children a long way in life,” Zaimi points out.
Arta Zaimi combines more than nine years of experience developing complex systems for bank and enterprise use, as well as more than four years of experience in the field of education.
The main concept behind the startup’s products is using STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. Every month, kids that are using Labbox are getting boxes with new STEM projects and engineering tasks, through which they learn to understand ‘Why’ and ‘How’ things work.
While public schools in Kosovo have already started using Labbox’s curriculum, now the company is looking to expand on foreign markets as well.
In 2018, Labbox received joint-equity financing from the EBRD and the EU through the Western Balkan Enterprise Development and Innovation Facility (WBEDIF). Labbox is also a Techstars portfolio company, accelerated from Techstars Berlin in the first quarter of 2021.
This year, Zaimi and Labbox will also be featured in the Romanian investment platform SeedBlink. For Zaimi, this cooperation means that the startup will also gain more exposure and visibility.
“As Labbox is growing beyond the borders of the Balkans, and with the demand, we are seeing from European countries, we felt it is the right time for a crowdfunding round. We decided to share the opportunity of investment with smaller investors that usually don’t have the chance to invest in a startup at this stage,” Zaimi tells The Recursive.
“We also would like to give the opportunity to high-value individuals who are also parents, as we believe that the best supporters and investors we can have with us are those that will be our customers,” she adds.
At the moment, with an investment of €300K the company has set up its own production line in Kosovo. And Zaimi points out that there is room for growth.
“There is an amazing opportunity for growth for Labbox and due to the economics that we are seeing and the market performance, I think the business is basically a no-brainer,” Zaimi explained during the SeedBlink presentation earlier this month.
“The other reason is, especially for those that understand the importance of our mission and the value proposition, I think that there is an opportunity to take joy in helping our world develop in the right direction and opening the minds of those that will hold our future,” Zaimi concludes.
This article was first published at The Recursive – an independent community-born online media focused on the emerging tech and startup ecosystems in Southeast Europe (SEE).
REFLECTIONS FROM THE DIASPORA ON SUMMER VISITS BACK HOME.
Every summer we left at different times. Sometimes at dawn, sometimes in the evening just after dinner, sometimes at midnight. No matter what time it was, the only thing that really mattered was the direction: Kosovo.
Every year we were enraptured by this magic that made us forget the length of the journey, one that sometimes took up to 36 hours. Endless waiting at the borders, nights spent trying to sleep in the car, everyone sitting in their own seat. One summer, having grown, my legs needed more space, so I slept on the ground in a parking space next to the car. I did it with pleasure. We did everything with pleasure because the only thing that mattered to us was to get to Kosovo as fast as possible.
I grew up near Milan, in Italy, and just getting to Trieste at the border with Slovenia would have been enough of a journey. 500 kilometers is a long way. But that was only the beginning.
Once we entered Slovenia everything tasted different. The language changed, the signs on the road were different and my mind was filled with anticipation. Then came Croatia and that endless coastal stretch before leaving the highway and entering Montenegro.
Driving through the mountains of Montenegro we tried to eat up as many kilometers as possible. These mountains were the point when happiness began to take a concrete shape, even if there was still a long way to go. And so, as we toured those mountains, I began to imagine what that summer in Kosovo would bring.
The football matches with my cousins and my friends, the evenings playing hide and seek, all the delicacies I would eat every time I visited a relative. I would lean my head against the window, smile and ask mum and dad to confirm that we weren’t far away.
“Almost there, almost there,” they would say.
After Montenegro, a slice of Albania, with just enough time to enjoy our language, and then finally Kosovo, where we immediately went off to visit uncles and cousins. Their happiness to see us and ours at finding them. My joy at people pronouncing my name correctly and the excitement about the next month of fun.
ONLY DURING THAT MONTH, ONCE A YEAR, DID I SEE MY PARENTS HAPPY.
And so began the most wonderful time of the year, the one we had been anticipating for 11 months. Sometimes I think that the life of an immigrant is just that, survival in the country where she/he has decided to go, just waiting for the moment of the year to go back home. Especially if she/he is as lucky as we were, being able to afford going home to Kosovo every summer. And after all, it was not so far away.
Only during that month, once a year, did I see my parents happy. I have never seen them smiling like that, except in Kosovo. I never saw them so relaxed, so full of life. I saw them living and breathing properly during those summers. But they could do it only one month out of 12, and believe me, that’s not enough for a person.
As a child I didn’t understand, but as I grow older, I am starting to get what it meant to live as they lived, and how fundamental those summers were for my parents. How crucial for their health it was to go back and see their parents, siblings, relatives and friends. To touch, smell and breathe what used to be their life.
But those summers were also important for me. They meant freedom, running in the country fields, climbing trees, playing football until dark, being with my cousins, hugging my grandparents and having someone of my own to share my life with, even if only for one month a year.
Growing up abroad, you’re rarely lucky enough to have a few relatives by your side. You see your friends going to their aunts, uncles and grandparents, celebrating birthdays and holidays with houses full of relatives, and you know that you will have to wait until summer to enjoy just a small part of it.
But most of all, now I can say how crucial those summers were in shaping my identity, and in helping me understand parts of myself and who I am. This is especially true after having decided not to go back for several years, a decision that I do not regret at all. I might be wrong, but to understand what something means to you, you have to deprive yourself of it and see if you can live without it. It may sound incoherent and weird, but the less I went back, the more I felt I belonged there.
The real sign of what those summers meant to us are all the tears we cried. We cried when we arrived, our happiness was enormous and our bodies could not contain it. And then we cried even more when it was time to say goodbye. I was always the first one to start, both as a child and a teenager, and then everyone followed behind me.
The sadness I felt was too strong. I didn’t want to leave, for any reason in the world. I didn’t want to go back to Italy, I wanted to stay and play with my cousins and be around people who pronounced my name correctly.
Every summer I would tell mum that I wasn’t going to go back to Italy, I would ask my aunts if they were okay with having an extra child. Every summer I tried to come up with a plan to hide somewhere. One summer I thought of disappearing into the fields, I thought that they would never find me, that they would get tired of looking for me and go back to Italy.
I was so sad in the days before returning to Italy that I could hardly wake up in the morning. I started crying days before the return and tried to hide away, like I’m doing now; I’ve been crying since I started writing this piece and luckily there’s no one at home to see me.
I miss those sensations, those smells and that magic that took shape in those summers. I didn’t grow up waiting for Santa Claus, as my Italian friends did; instead of Santa Claus I had that highly anticipated journey home each summer.
IN 28 YEARS OF LIFE, NOTHING HAS MADE ME AS HAPPY AS THOSE YEARLY SUMMER RETURNS TO KOSOVO.
I have a feeling that the concept of happiness for a person changes as they grow. You focus much more on yourself and personal goals become your highest aspiration. You become happy when you get a good grade at university, or get a job, or date someone you like. Yet I have the distinct feeling that the happiness I felt during those summers in Kosovo will forever be the highest point.
I miss feeling that explosion of joy in my heart, I miss living through that 11 months of anticipation, knowing that happiness would arrive in August. I don’t think happiness as an adult can be compared to what we experienced as children. No matter how lucky one may be to have the opportunity to achieve remarkable personal goals, to have a person to love and enjoy good health, nothing compares to the joy one experiences as a child.
In 28 years of life, nothing has made me as happy as those yearly summer returns to Kosovo. Even though I’ve been lucky to have a wonderful life so far, in the end I think it’s okay for this to be the case, because Kosovo is where I was born and people say that the attraction of your homeland is the strongest thing you will ever experience.
I would just like to go back for a couple of days and relive those moments, when my life, looking back at it now, was so simple. I was constantly waiting for that journey, because Kosovo represented my idea of happiness and I didn’t need anything else.
At the same time I’m so proud and happy to be able to write about those moments, about the fact that the happiest moments of my life were related to my roots and the place where I was born. Is there anything better? I don’t think so.
On November 2nd, 2020, GERMIN and ITP signed a contract to attract diaspora engagement in the private sector, vocational education, and research and innovation in the Innovation and Training Park – Prizren.
Kosovo, a growing economy with steady development, a young labor force, and a stable monetary policy is a potential destination for many investors, entrepreneurs, and business communities. Many argue that its key asset aboard is its diverse diasporic community that is rich in terms of financial resources, entrepreneurship skills, and know-how; diaspora is the best entry point to foreign markets and a huge investment power group inside Kosovo. Therefore, through this collaboration, our goal is to reach out to diaspora communities as potential future investors in ITP, which provides a complete infrastructure and safe environment to serve Kosovo’s development efforts and offer/enable Kosovo Diaspora to play an active role as a developmental agent of the home country.
The multifunctional park has been officially opened for tenants in May 2020, and is now open for interested national and international businesses to become part of the Park. ITP aims to attract diaspora engagement in the private sector, vocational education and training institutions, as well as research and innovation activities. Beyond the real estate structure offered, the park offers business services and a secure and stable investment environment with German management that looks after the tenants. The main areas of focus for the park are the following sectors:
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) / Technology-based firms;
Agro / Food Processing; and
Creative and Cultural Industries (including tourism).
Moreover, to support these three above-mentioned sectors and to increase synergy effects among them, there will be two cross-cutting topics that have been identified and will be pursued within ITP:
Vocational Education and Training (VET); and
Research & Development (R&D).
In the upcoming months’ we will promote the Innovation and Training Park (ITP) Prizren among diaspora businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs living in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
Stay tuned for more information, and let us know if you want to be part of the upcoming events in the three above-mentioned countries in 2021, please send us an email at [email protected]
“FOL” movement awarded Shpresa Loshaj with the prize for Civic Courage for 2020, reports Kallxo.com.
Shpresa Loshaj is a returned diaspora expert from Canada to Kosovo to establish the organization “Pishtarët”(Torches), which deals with environmental protection. Shpresa has been a role-model with her civic activity in advocating for the protection of the Deçani River (Lumbardhi).
Mexhide Demolli-Nimani, director of the FOL Movement, during the award ceremony said that “Shpresa has proven that a good job can be done if you have the courage and are not afraid of the authorities who try to silence you, but in the same time she has set an example for everyone that there must be determination for things to go to the end.” Today, Shpresa filed three lawsuits against the Energy Regulatory Office and the Ministry of Environment for giving the Kelkos (the private company building hydropower plants) permits to work.
Leonora Kryeziu, chairwoman of the Advisory Board of the FOL Movement added “What Shpresa has done has passed all the initiatives that have been taken so far, and has awakened the awareness of everyone for the protection of the environment.”
Throughout this year, Shpresa Loshaj has been committed to protecting the Deçan River through an intensive social media campaign, as well as by writing numerous letters to Kosovo politicians, embassies, and foreign organizations dealing with the environmental issue. She has been advocating in the media in defense of the Deçani River. Shpresa has raised the issue of the destruction of the River of Deçan in the Municipal Assembly of Deçan, in the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry, and her work has gonne far so that the issue has been raised in the parliament of Carinthia, Austria, where the Kelkos Company comes from.
Loshaj, through the activity with the organization “Pishtarët”, has raised awarness to the general public in Kosovo and abroad about the environmental damages done by the private investors. She has shown a civic courage by bringing into attention a very important issue to the eyes of all.
In an interview for “Prishtina Insight” on October 2020, Shpresa states “Pishtaret has often been told that we shouldn’t even bother to try and bring law and order to the Decan gorge. People even said that they felt sorry that we were trying so hard, because things don’t work according to the law in Kosovo and we should understand that.”
She continues “There are a number of problems in Kosovo, some of which may seem daunting and impossible to change, but KelKos’ endless violations of the law and their influence over Kosovo’s institutions once seemed limitless. Today, we believe that the balance is shifting towards the people.”
Shpresa Loshaj is a co-founder of environmental organization “Pishtaret” based in Decan, a policy Advisor to the Canadian government and a member of the Germin organisation’s Diaspora Network.
Qamlije Lokaj was born and raised in Kosovo, in the town of Malisheva, where she lived until 2007, and then migrated with her family to Germany, where she attended High School studies and University studies. Her Bachelor studies at the University of Regensburg were devoted to South East Europe (mainly in the field of history, culture and language) in combination with Political Science. Following the Bachelor studies, she attended a Masterprogram, i.e. the interdisciplinary Elite Graduate Program for East European Studies (Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich and the Univerisity of Regensburg), whose focus was on regional competence for central Eastern, South Eastern and Eastern Europe.Currently, Mrs. Lokaj works at the German Federal Office for Migration and Asylum in Nürnberg and her spare time she devotes to human rights issues and the Albanian diaspora. Also during her studies she was actively engaged in Albanian and other intercultural associations.In this interview she outlines the findings of her research on the factors that drive diaspora professionals to return to their country of origin, their potential and willingness to contribute to their homeland, and how well the diaspora’s human capacities match with the institutional needs in the homeland.
KD: Can you inform us about your research findings?
Qamlije Lokaj: My research is mainly devoted to the topic of Kosovar migration. I will try to summarize it as briefly as possible, because the thesis is around 80 pages. The title of the thesis is “Against the flow? Why do Kosovar migrants return to Kosovo voluntarily? “What are the Push and Pull factors that play a role in taking this decision?” That is, “Against the flow” because while most of those living in Kosovo, and according to the statistics, especially young people, want to emigrate from Kosovo, while at the same time there is a certain number of Kosovar emigrants who actually want to return voluntarily to Kosovo. The thesis is of an anthropological nature, because it is mainly based on people who migrate, their perspectives and motives in the micro perspective. The focus of the analysis has been confined to the last fifty years, because the analysed group of emigrants that have decided to return to Kosovo have emigrated from Kosovo during these last fifty years. The purpose of this thesis has been the findings and analysis of the motives for the return of various generations of Kosovar migrants back home. The starting point of the hypothesis was that “The return of Kosovar migrants is not a rational decision, but rather a complex and emotional process, which is influenced, among other things, by family, social networks and strong ties with the homeland”. I have conducted a total of 24 semi-structured biographical interviews with emigrants returning to Kosovo from different countries, e.g. from Germany, Sweden, Italy, Austria, USA etc. As any other student naturally I have used also secondary literature, external surveys, theories on migration and return of migrants, etc. In order to better understand the reasons for return, in the first part of the thesis I have tried to deal more with the reason and period of time of migration. Taking this into consideration, Kosovar migrants who have migrated in the last 50 years can be divided into three groups (which of course do have subgroups). I started with the“Gastarbeiter”, i.e. those Kosovars who migrated as seasonal workers in the ’60s and’ 70s, which were followed by their families and now there are third generations, almost also the fourth. Most of these “Gastarbeiter” are retired now, have returned to Kosovo or even have passed away. The second group consists of those who have migrated as refugees and as politically persecuted during the ‘80s-‘90s. Some have returned willingly or unwillingly after the war, while others have made family reunification. The third group, of those who have migrated after 2000 until today, i.e. in peacetime, are people who have migrated for reasons of employment, education, a better life, or a better perspective for them and their families. In the three aforementioned groups, we have also the phenomenon of family reunification or transnational marriage, i.e. those who live in Kosovo and form relationships or marry someone outside of Kosovo.
The second part of the thesis, which was the main point of my analysis, was focused on the ones who voluntary returned to Kosovo, key factors for return, their experience from the place of migration, the role of family, other social ties and other factors during this return process. In sum, as to the results from the interviews, all the interviewees are academics or well-qualified workforce. Most of the interviewees had at least a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, some of them even have a doctorate in countries where they have lived and they speak different foreign languages, while after returning to Kosovo they worked in state institutions or international organizations and some of them have even opened their own Start Up companies. None of the interviewees was employed in the private sector, which is more or less self-evident given the salaries and conditions of this sector. For all migrants who have lived abroad, it is worthwhile to mention that they have gained new knowledge, learned new languages, known new cultures, (which is positive for their engagement in Kosovo) and in these particular cases it has served them even after their return. Some of these interviewees have projects or are engaged not only in Kosovo but also in the countries where they have lived, i.e. this is the phenomenon of transnationalization as we call it. They are active in both countries. During their living in the west, they have gathered not only experience but also established contacts, which they still keep. Almost everyone has kept their western country citizenship where they lived, because they saw it as an opportunity for movement, for work reasons or even for tourist reasons, but also as a kind of back up plan in case their return fails, because the return process and reintegration in Kosovo is not that easy. I have seen this in some people who have returned to Kosovo but due to various problems have re-emigrated, left Kosovo again, and in some cases have tried to return more than twice, and this is known as the rotation phenomenon. These people complained that they encountered problems with corruption, nepotism and two of them were even threatened with death, because they tried to change mis-created structures, so they decided to leave Kosovo again, although they would have wanted to stay and engage for a longer period in Kosovo. The rest, who lives in Kosovo do not want to leave Kosovo but complains that Kosovo does not offer much for their children’s education and that the health sector is not as good, and if they would leave Kosovo again they would only do it for the sake of their children.
KD: Which are the main factors pushing professionals from the diaspora to return to their country of origin to give their contribution?
Qamlije Lokaj: The most important factors, during the planning of emigration but also of their return, have been the family and the social networks. All decisions are directly or indirectly related to the family, because family is the one which provides them with moral and financial support. The family plays a key role, often being the main reason for emigration because often this path is the only opportunity to provide a better life for the family. In other cases, some family members are already in the diaspora and “attract” other members. Family influence also exists during the returning process. In most of the cases, a phenomenon we all know to well, their families have constantly talked about the country, even if the children were born abroad, or were young when they emigrated. Usually Albanian families listen to news or other programs in Albanian at home, go to concerts and other Albanian activities, maintain strong ties with the family, relatives and friends, visit Kosovo regularly, and these factors play a relevant role. This means that those who return are directly or indirectly influenced by the family and, then, when one of the members returns to Kosovo the others are also influenced, returning together or later, as the first returned member creates the conditions for the return of others. The second much-mentioned factor has been the connection to the homeland and the longing for it. This was especially seen among those who emigrated during the war because they did not have the opportunity to come to Kosovo often. For these people, longing was a very important factor. The third factor has been the desire to engage in the development of the country, and here I have seen two main phases. The first phase immediately after the war, 1999-2000 and the second phase directly after the declaration of Kosovo’s independence in 2008.
The fourth factor in the return process has been negative experiences in the country of residence, eg discrimination, feelings that they do not belong to that country, etc. The fifth factor, but which has been only in a few rare cases, has been marriage with partners living in Kosovo. In my case, I only had women interviewed and, thus, unfortunately we can not make a deeper comparison in this regard. Respondents who returned to Kosovo for the sake of love, decided to return to a partner living in Kosovo because he was probably financially stable, which facilitated the return, or because both wanted to live in Kosovo. Hence, these are the five main factors, which according to my results influence the decision and realization of voluntary return to Kosovo. Often times, 2-3 factors can affect simultaneously. Most of returnees emphasized that after returning they had a feeling of relief, a spiritual fulfillment, the feeling of being at home, which is usually associated with positive feelings, while when they left Kosovo they had more negative feelings.
It should be added that in the group of those who emigrated after the war, their willingness and readiness to return are not as present as in with the other groups. This is due to the fact that, they are extremely disappointed with the Kosovo political reality and do not see perspective in Kosovo. Another reason may be the fact that the group decides to emigrate not because it is politically persecuted or its life is endangered but because these people are forced to emigrate because they see no other perspective, regardless of their professional background. This is the bitter reality of Kosovo and the Balkans in general and I do not want to dwell too much on the issue of politics, because our reality is known and constantly discussed.
KD: Which is the potential of the diaspora to contribute to the development of the country of origin beyond remittances, through their professional fields?
Qamlije Lokaj: I believe that there is a potential, especially among the younger generations, who are engaged in various fields. Only in the department where I work, there are two Albanians, and everywhere I go I see Albanians in different fields, starting in the field of IT, politics, medicine and in almost all other fields there are Albanians from Kosovo, Albania and other albanian territories, who are willing to engage directly or indirectly in their home countries. I believe that we are no longer at the time when our parents and grandparents dropped out of school and came to work, simply to provide a living for themselves and other family members, who were left in Kosovo. Our post-war generation, the second generation of those who came pre-war, and those who migrated for education are present in all possible fields. We have many Albanians in the best universities in the world. In Regensburg and Munich, where I studied, I met dozens of exemplary Albanian students. For example, we have the association of Albanian students in Regensburg, where over the years some 30-50 Albanians have been willing to come from time to time and engage in various activities. The number of Albanians in the university has been even greater, but also in other universities in which I have contacts I see that Albanians are already achieving more and more, because the generation of those who came before the war or during the war as children have reached university age or have just finished their studies and are already active in various fields, and I believe this is a potential that should be used.
KD: How can the human capacities of the diaspora match the institutional needs and market demands in Kosovo and Albania?
Qamlie Lokaj: As mentioned above, the Albanian diaspora is very complex. Post-war generations in particular are educated in the best education systems in different parts of the world. Albanian youth is active in various fields and professions. We have Albanians who are active in policy-making in the most important western countries, in medicine, law or even lecturing for the most prestigious universities, have successful businesses and compete with world famous companies. In all German state institutions, in many governmental and non-governmental organizations, with which I have had the opportunity to cooperate, I have met professionally well-trained Albanians. This is a great potential for Kosovo. Even in the sectors of gastronomy, construction and many other fields which are related to vocational education, which in Kosovo is not sufficiently developed and urgently needs improvement, we have experts who are ready to engage, be it for a temporary period or longer.
In Kosovo we have many girls and boys who, despite the opportunities and not very favorable conditions in Kosovo, can undoubtedly be compared to young people in Western countries. We all know that the level of education in Kosovo, for various reasons, is not good. We know that Kosovo, as a country, is isolated and that many things do not work properly. It is not the idea that experts from the diaspora will engage and save the country. Only by combining the knowledge and experiences of the diaspora and those living in Kosovo and knowing the Kosovar reality well, a productive result can be achieved. Because you can be an excellent expert in a certain field in the country where you live but this does not mean that you can use this expertise directly in Kosovo. It must be adapted to the needs but also the mentality. Some of those who return or engage in Kosovo or Albania sometimes seem to me to forget this fact and try to apply methods which may be very well suited to western countries but which you cannot apply directly to our countries and where we can not expect similar or immediate results because the basic conditions are not the same.
KD: How willing are professionals from the diaspora to offer their assistance to the country of origin, and how willing are institutions in the countries of origin to offer opportunities and to cooperate? What can be the obstacles in this regard?
Qamlie Lokaj: The result of interviews and analysis of what are called secondary sources, other surveys, etc. indicate that there is a willingness to engage in the home country. The majority, i.e, I am always talking about my perspective, my analysis and my personal experiences, the readiness of the diaspora for engagement is very high. But the opportunities for engagement are few. Most of the respondents also mentioned the “Brain Gain” campaign, which was initiated by the Ministry of Education but there were cases who said that they applied there but never received a response. During the research I was in Kosovo for 2-3 weeks and I visited the Ministry of Education, but no one could tell me anything about this campaign. Everyone sent me from office to office excusing that that they were not part of the ministry at the time and that maybe someone else might know something more. Some respondents told me about their internships done in Kosovo. There are also those who engage in the return or temporary engagement program in Kosovo. But often there are no proper programs, other than those of the German GIZ, which are still in development. The problem that is often mentioned is that local institutions unfortunately often have no idea how to use diaspora expertise in the right place. Kosovar institutions must be taught to see the diaspora not only as financial potential, but to know how to use it as a good opportunity to achieve something for the development of the country. Awareness is often lacking in the sense that the person who will be engaged can really contribute something from their experience. Often, it happened to me twice, young people from the diaspora come to Kosovo or Albania, spend a month in internship, more or less as a kind of vacation and not as a job. In this case, neither we nor the institutions benefit much, and neither know how to get more out of that internship or that commitment. Maybe more needs to be done there. Which is the best method, I do not know. I believe that in that direction the institutions should have a higher awareness, and a more intensive communication should be developed between the institutions and the diaspora. And here I must add that your programs like Germin are the best example in this regard. You have paved the way for better communication between the diaspora and home countries and made clear the potential of the diaspora beyond remittances and its willingness to engage.
In a corner building in East Village, New York City, the entire uppermost floor has been turned into a photography studio. It is the studio of the renowned Albanian-American photographer, Mr. Fadil Berisha. Surrounded by windows and an abundance of natural light, there’s a certain positive energy that you feel the moment you step foot inside. The walls are covered in giant photographs of Halle Berry, Tyra Banks, Emina Cunmulaj, etc., and countless awards, autographed photos, and souvenirs from people that have worked with Fadil over the years.
When I arrived at Fadil’s studio on a sunny Saturday afternoon, he was adding some final touches to one of his recent photoshoots. Once he finished editing, he suggested going to a pizza place around the corner where we could talk more about his life, and I gladly obliged. Over delicious Italian food, Fadil began his engaging storytelling about his early life and career.
Born in Kosovo to Albanian parents, Fadil Berisha moved to New York City with his family at the age of nine. His upbringing was similar to that of any average immigrant family. Every major decision, he recalls, revolved around personal finances. So, when he chose to major in men’s fashion design, his family was not particularly thrilled. He graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology, but the degree did very little to quench his thirst for art. Put simply, Fadil didn’t feel like he was in the right career path, yet.
Driven by the desire to be exposed to different forms of art, Fadil, along with his friend, Donna DeMari, a photographer he had met in New York, traveled to Italy. Fadil would spend hours styling and observing her photoshoots, secretly wishing he was the one taking the photos, until one day he finally asked her if he could borrow her camera for a session, and she agreed. “I set up the camera and the moment I heard the click, I found my power. The next day, I packed my bags and moved back to America,” says Fadil with enthusiasm and sheer joy in his face.
“As a kid, I loved faces, all faces, and I was genuinely curious about them.”
—Fadil tells me.
Being the first person in the family to pursue art, he struggled to convince his family members that it was the right thing to do. Fadil is kind, polite, and understanding when he talks about them. It’s almost a non-verbal acknowledgment of their struggles. Most beginnings are often hard and his was no different. He soon found himself at a dead end. Evicted from his apartment shortly after becoming a father, he was forced to return home to his parents where he drowned himself in work. At one point, Fadil was working three jobs that brought some financial stability and very little joy. He could have chosen to lead a more comfortable life, but that was not in his plans. Within six months, Fadil got himself a big studio and has not looked back ever since. “The best advice I ever got was that you can never run away from yourself.” And for Fadil, not attempting to run away from his true self did pay off.
Today, we all know Fadil Berisha as the Albanian-American photographer whose work has graced the pages of some the most prestigious magazines such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Nylon, etc. He’s photographed the likes of Roger Federer, Kendall Jenner, Placido Domingo, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Sharon Stone, Nick Jonas, Zendaya, Michael Bublé, Kris Jenner, etc. for clients including Rolex, Estée Lauder, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Lexus, Peugeot, Bulgari, Miss Universe, Sherri Hill. His work has been featured on the major networks, such as MTV, NBC, CBS, CNN, E!, etc.
Among the sea of celebrities whose beauty Fadil has greatly captured, there are many Albanian stars. Bebe Rexha, Era Istrefi, Inva Mula, Xherdan Shaqiri, Robin Krasniqi, and Heidi Lushtaku, Ermonela Jaho, Eliza Dushku, Saimir Pirgu, Blerim Destani, Rame Lahaj, and Nik Xhelilaj are just some of them.
When you hear Fadil’s stories, you wouldn’t know that there was ever a time when Albanians were not part of his life, but such was the reality. At the beginning of his career, Fadil tried to distance himself from his fellow Albanians, in fear of being ridiculed for his career choices. However, that was a short-lived attempt. With a noticeable change in his tone, he recalls the day a couple of young students, refugees from Kosovo, showed up to his studio, unannounced. He refers to that day as the day that changed his life completely.
It was around 1997, Fadil does not remember the exact year, and the early signs of war in Kosovo had already started to show. These kids had heard about him and were seeking his help in raising awareness for the dire situation back home. They even brought along photos documenting the massacres that were happening back in Kosovo. Given that his work revolved solely around fashion and beauty, Fadil couldn’t fathom how he could possibly help them. “That night, I went home and told my Mom what had happened. We had a long chat where she shared emotional stories about her upbringing and she spoke to me about the importance of helping these kids out,” recalls Fadil. The next day, he got back to his studio and picked up the phone. “You have ruined my life,” Fadil told them. “I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, I had nightmares. I know I have to help you, but I don’t know how,” he continued. Despite the hopelessness, he vowed to help in any way he could.
Around that time, along with Avni Mustafaj, Tracey Aron, Gary Kokalari, and Donika Bardha, Fadil co-founded the Kosovo Relief Fund, an organization that aimed to help families who had lost loved ones in the war. He recalls nightly meetings; frequent post- Broadway show visits from the famous Hollywood star, Vanessa Redgrave, who had expressed desire to help; and the way Albanians had come together for a greater cause. In his voice, I almost sense a little bit of nostalgia as he recounts countless interesting stories.
Fadil goes on to explain how, together with other volunteers, he had planned to use the photos he had received and created an awareness campaign. They solicited help from Stan Dragoti, the Hollywood film director of Albanian origin. Having previously been deemed too graphic, they worked their magic and turned the massacre photos into a campaign. However, despite raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, they couldn’t quite cover the fees to run the campaign on a major newspaper. However, one of those days, a peaceful protest was organized in front of the White House in an attempt to draw attention to the Kosovo cause. It wasn’t much different from other protests, or so they thought. Nevertheless, the following day, Fadil woke up to see the photo on the New York Times. A man was holding the sign they had created and a reporter happened to take a photo of it. The photo ended up in the print version of the newspaper. Fadil believes it was the sign and the push they needed to continue the fight for a free Kosovo.
“I haven’t thought about this story in such a long time, I just got goosebumps talking about it,” said Fadil as we got up to leave the restaurant.
Back in his studio, I asked Fadil if he has any pictures or videos from the events he used to organize in his studio. They must be somewhere, he tells me, but who knows where they ended up when he moved studios. “I like to recall these moments without dwelling too much in the past. I don’t like focusing on the past because you can get stuck. Remember the past and look to the future,” he says to me.
His phone rings. A famous Albanian couple, friends of his, were stopping by. The number of Albanian artists, sportsmen, political figures, and ordinary people that come to his studio, even just for a chat, is astonishing. I have heard people refer to his studio as the unofficial Albanian Embassy. “It became a duty to me,” says Fadil about his willingness to help others. “I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I help my people?’ To give is gratifying!” Whereas, for Albanians, he has one important advice: “Albanians are great to other people, but not always kind to one another. We need to change that.”
Fadil Berisha has been the official photographer for Miss Universe since 2002. With his help and guidance, both Albania and Kosovo became successful Miss Universe participants. Then he points at the picture of Marigona Dragusha, the 2nd Runner Up in Miss Universe 2009. With a big smile on his face, he explains how everyone loved her, the same way they loved Zana Krasniqi the year before. “When Gona walked out on that stage, tears starting flooding. I was so happy but also so scared of her. People loved her and they compared her to Audry Hepburn. But I was afraid of a possible backlash from other countries who may have thought that I favored her. So, I had to keep a distance.”
Fadil began working with talent in Kosovo as soon as the war ended. He took it upon himself to showcase the Albanian beauty to the world. “I always asked myself, ‘How can I get a girl that will never otherwise get a chance?’” says Fadil. And those photos around his studio are proof that he gave the opportunity to those who indeed would not have another opportunity.
So, what draws Fadil to people? “Smile, eyes, a good heart, and soul,” the answer rolls off his tongue.
Fadil talks about his career and his beliefs with a passion you don’t often encounter. He believes that arts and sports are of crucial importance as they have the power to change people’s hearts and minds. He leads me around the studio as he points at different photographs hung on his walls, telling a story about each of them. When I asked him if he could single out a person who has made a significant impact in his life, he grabbed a framed picture of him with a gentleman and says, “Without a doubt, this guy. He’s the former owner of Rolex. In 2005, he gave me a lifetime contract and was a close friend till the day he died. That opened so many doors for me.”
From sitting at his desk to running to get a bowl of seeds from the kitchen for the birds on the fire escape, Fadil Berisha never stops moving and never stops talking.
A couple of hours had passed and I did not once sense any regrets in his voice, which got me curious. So, I decided to ask him: Does Fadil Berisha have any regrets? He is human, after all. “Not taking pictures of Mother Teresa. I will always regret that” he says pensively. “You know, she was in New York City in 1997 with Princess Diana, and I could have taken pictures of her then, but my plan was to go to India and capture her and the environment in which she worked, so I put it off. She died before I got the chance to do it and it will always be something that I wish I had done,” says Fadil. I could easily sense the disappointment and sadness in his voice as he finished saying those words. It almost made me regret asking the question in the first place.
In recent years, Fadil Berisha has been doing a lot of self-reflection. Nowadays, he enjoys a day off, long walks, and meaningful chats over coffee with friends and family. Whether it’s about his siblings, his mother’s flowers, or his grandson, there’s an overwhelming sense of adoration in the way in which he talks about his family. Spiritually, he does believe in higher powers, in God. But there is one thing he has no doubt about: “We are all energy. Our souls never die, only our bodies do,” he tells me. The energy of New York City is what he claims has kept him there for so long. The crystals scattered around his studio are a testament to this.
And although there are plenty of reasons to be discouraged by people, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to let that happen anytime soon. “Whenever I’m ready to give up, whenever people disappoint me, there’s always someone that comes along that shows genuine appreciation and makes everything worth it.”
The doorbell rings. His guests are here and he greets them with the same smile and hugs that he greets everyone, ready to dive into another deep but lively conversation.
Prishtina Gastronomy Festival aims to promote Albanian gastronomy by promoting Albanian cuisine and cultural traditions, that will inspire movement and action. At the very heart of this festival there is an issue and a message at hand ‘Our grandparents showed their love for us and the rest of our families through the dishes they were serving on the table. Let’s spread this love around the world!
The event will take place on 21st and 22nd of July 2019 in Prishtina at “Zahir Pajaziti” Square. During two days there will be symposiums, workshops, restaurant corner, trade fair with food and drink products from local vendors, organic section where organic product will be presented, games and music.
The festival will be an annual meeting for companies, chefs, restaurant owners, bartenders, historians, anthropologists, and our grandparents themselves.
The Albanian American Diaspora is uniquely positioned and has the experience to impact US policy on Albanian issues through lobbying, diplomacy and by providing professional expertise.
From the end of WWII until late 1960, very few Albanians emigrated to the US, due to the restrictive and oppressive Communist rule in Albania and the restrictions placed on foreign travel in the former Yugoslavia. In the 1980’- ’90s, the end of the dictatorship in Albania and the wars during the breakup of Yugoslavia brought hundreds-of-thousands of ethnic Albanians to the US, both legally and illegally. According to the US census bureau, there are 201,118 Albanian Americans, however this figure only includes those from the Republic of Albania and not ethnic Albanians from other regions of the Balkans, so the actual number is not known. Within the past decade, thousands of ethnic Albanian students have come to the US to further their education, and some have graduated from the finest Universities, earning Bachelor, Masters, and PhDs. They work, in government, business, medicine, research, education, the arts, etc. and are represented at the World Bank, the UN, US Congress, think tanks, well known financial institutions, law firms, IT companies and more, and they can provide tremendous knowledge for the Kosovo government and the people of Kosovo to help design more effective strategies and to expand their network throughout the region. They offer the unique advantage of having an international perspective and best practices expertise in many fields, combined with local know-how both in the US and in Kosovo. Albanian Americans are dispersed with significant communities living in the States of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Texas, California, and the greater metropolitan areas of Boston, Chicago and Detroit. This is very important because each community participates in local and national elections which increases support in Washington, DC.
From migrants to lobbyists The critical role played by the Albanian American Diaspora on the war in Kosovo 1999 fundamentally changed the community from recent immigrants, going about their daily lives, to active participants in the American democracy. We learned how to effectively lobby the US Government by supporting numerous candidates for US President and Congress, both Democrat and Republican, and even met President Clinton in the White House to coordinate activities and to explain what was going on back “home” and the need for intervention in the ethnic cleansing that was taking place. We set up a lobby/advocacy organization and formed the “Albanian Issues Caucus”, which are members of Congress who supported and promoted our issues. To sensitize the American public, we initiated media campaigns, organized ongoing demonstrations, held numerous fundraisers with well-known individuals, raised money for refugees. We fought side by side, shed blood, and died with our brethren in Kosovo. It is also important to note that the Albanian Americans formed the Atlantic Battalion and fought in the war. Additionally, we developed friendships with ambassadors, administration officials, diplomats, scholars, human rights organizations, aid organizations, and with individuals at key organizations and think tanks in Washington D.C. that focus on the Balkans. These “Friends of Albanians” made contributions to favorably shape US policy towards Albanians that are immeasurable and are still remembered and supported today. Albanian Americans have risen to support Kosovo not just in time of crisis and war but at other times as well. The US community was instrumental in establishing the rule of law soon after the war, have contributed financially, regardless of religious background, to help build the Church of Mother Theresa in Prishtina, and have been supporters in the fields of health, education and beyond in Kosovo. Beyond remittances The Kosovo government must see the Albanian American Diaspora, indeed the Diaspora at large around the World, beyond just remittances and the amount of money they contribute to the economy during tourist season. Throughout the US, and EU countries, talented and educated ethnic Albanians are passionate for an opportunity to return home to contribute in an impactful way. While the Albanian American Diaspora was effective during the crisis, we’ve had less of a role of late and at risk of feeling more and more disconnected. It is our/my belief that the Kosovar government must develop a policy for actively seeking out and involving this vibrant Diaspora. Since the needs and the capacity to contribute is broad and deep, each Ministry should have a Diaspora department to coordinate activities. Abroad, Embassies and Consulates should be staffed and provided funds to facilitate connections within the community. Some could effectively serve in key positions in every Ministry, even as a Minister, but they need to be more than “advisors” that can easily be marginalized. Some can also be a part of strategic advisory councils, whether in Kosovo or abroad. Additionally, there are many educational scholarships and grants for students and professionals requiring that they work in the public or civil society, and engaging them in a meaningful way could be a tremendous benefit to the government and society. Under many scholarship programs and under the US visa rules students must return to their country of origin for at least two years. These students should be supported by jobs in the public sector. The Kosovo government, with input from the local and Diaspora private sector, should identify key strategic short-term and long-term national strategies and then identify members of the Diaspora and locally to help develop, support and implement stated goals for long-term sustainability. In certain cases, some individuals or groups can be hired full time to have both a local and international presence or be given a stipend to support specific projects. A specific strategy must be implemented to appoint more women, to executive positions, not just to meet gender quotas, but as agents of change. Women offer unique talents and skills and often forge closer working relationships, especially with those in the international community. The Government of Kosovo’s ability to integrate the vast wealth, knowledge, talent and network of the Albanian American Diaspora would have a profound impact on its future as a modern state, and growing acceptance into the community of nations.
Avni Mustafaj is Former President (1989-1991) and Executive Director (2005-2014) of National Albanian American Council (NAAC); Director of Hope Fellowship, a USAID funded Women’s Leadership and Empowerment Program (2005-14); Deputy Director of RIT/AUK (2004-2005); Vice President of Kosova Relief Fund (1998-2002) and Executive Director 1993-96) of Open Society Foundation for Albania (1992-‘96); Campaign Manager for Vedat Gashi, Democratic Candidate for NY State Assembly (May 2018-November 2018)
The new wave of talented architects of Albanian origin, living and working in Western countries, is expanding each day. This is not a surprising trend, if we consider that the most influential architects in the Ottoman Empire were of Albanian ancestry, with Mimar Sinan at the helm. More latter-day examples in the 1800s Europe are Karl von Ghega, the most prominent of Austrian railway engineers and architects, and Luigi Giura, an Italian engineer and architect who built the first suspension bridge in continental Europe.
Architect Sokol Malushaga lives and works in New York, and in partnership with Eduard Malushi, owns Ari Group, an architectural-construction company specializing in ultra-luxurious projects in Manhattan.
Sokol has studied architecture at Cooper Union, one of the most respected schools in the world. His Thesis project (1997) was selected to take part in Archive and Artifact – The Virtual and The Physical, an exhibition that celebrates the school’s pedagogy, by presenting projects completed at the school over the past 50 years.
Curated from vast materials in the school’s archive, the exhibition includes 35 chosen Thesis that includes physical hand drawings, born-digital drawings, and models. Sokol’s work conceives its inspiration from the concept of the wall and the brick and is presented among the projects by graduates of the school who have become prominent architects and educators, including Stan Allen, Peggy Dreamer, Elizabeth Diller, Diane Lewis, and Daniel Libeskind, among others.
According to Sokol, his project is “a study that began as an exploration of boundary/threshold conditions defined by the presence of walls and their continuous rebuilding: the boundary of a room, house, street, and city was always defined by the wall…walls are alive, they have roots…in order for a new wall to be erected, a sacrifice is made”.
Sokol pays homage to his birthplace of Peja (Kosova) – known as a town of many artisans, one of them of brick makers – “the brick and the wall symbolize the dialogue between the old and the new, allowing for structures that are never finished”.
From the mason of the antiquity to the modern day designer, from Mimar to Karl to Sokol, the talent of the Albanian architect continues to enrich the world heritage.
The Diaspora School in Kosovo, or DSK, hosted its first edition in October of last year. The program brought young adults from all over together to collaborate and create initiatives to better Kosovo.
Syzana Kajtazaj, a Computer Science and Engineering major at the University for Business and Technology in Kosovo, was one of those young adults. Together with her team, she created “The Future.”
“The Future” set out to better Kosovo’s future by working directly with the youth. The initiative took form as a club at Lasgush Poradeci high school in Kjevë, a village in the municipality of Malisheva. Through various activities, “The Future” connected with the students and helped them with health education, self-confidence, schoolwork, and more.
We interviewed Kajtazaj on her experience with the Diaspora School in Kosovo and her initiative.
KD:What was your experience as the leader of The Future initiative? Was it valuable or not?
SK: The Future initiative, for me as a leader, was one of the most beautiful projects I have ever participated. During the project, we successfully achieved to instill hope and motivation in our participants. As a leader, my job was to grow new leaders and not say “I” but “we.” In our project, our staff held the leader’s role. The experience was very valuable and inspiring. We not only worked for the problems of the youth but also to include the youth to solve the community problems and go further together.
KD: What did you gain from the process of the implementation?
SK: From the implementation process we learned more of how to manage time, students, lecture lessons, and other little things that sometimes are very important for a project to work. I gained more thoughtfulness for my surroundings, learned how to manage difficult situations, and I can say that I am now more prepared to lead any other projects. I can find smarter ways to help students, especially how to remember the lectures they will learn.
KD: Do you think your work has had an impact on the target group and community?
SK: We analyzed the results of our surveys and found that 95% of the students answered that they gained benefits that they will need and use in their future journey with education and life in general.
By the end of the program, everyone had become friends with each other and they were free to speak their mind without the fear that someone will judge them or think badly of them. They learned to use their freedom to express themselves by asking questions and sharing their opinions.
KD: Do you think that these kinds of initiatives should continue in the future?
SK: We strongly support the idea that these kinds of projects should continue for our youth. These projects will help our youth to become more open-minded, open doors that they did not know of before, expand their horizons and create big dreamers out there. No one achieved something big by dreaming small.
As the saying goes “Dream big but start small.” The students will start small by participating in projects like this and work hard towards their goals.
The Future team working together at the Diaspora School in Kosovo. Photo provided by DSK.