Fascination and respect – portraits of the Famous by Gazmend Freitag
What motivates an artist to draw the portraits of historical and contemporary figures? Fascination and respect, is the opinion of the painter Gazmend Freitag, whose portfolio celebrates the successful, courageous, kind, creative and beautiful people of the world. A special place in the heart and the ever expanding collection of the artist is reserved for those poets, fighters and philosophers, whose life and work is crucial to the identity and history of the Albanian people.
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.
Los Angeles, February 4, 2019 – International model, actress, media personality and filmmaker Hana Noka will unveil the story of Queen Teuta of Illyria with the launch of the historical fictional novel “Besa Po,” inspired by the true story of love, loss, betrayal, victory and defeat. Queen Teutawas not only a famous Warrior Queen that lived almost two hundred years before Cleopatra, but her love for King Agron was one of the most legendary love stories in history. She was one of the first women to rise to power in the male dominated kingdom and society.
“I feel honored to be the first person to bring the true story of such a powerful woman to English language audiences,” comments Noka. “As an admirer of strong women in history, I was drawn to the stories of the ancient Illyrian women. I felt compelled to tell the story of the great leader Queen Teuta who ruled Illyria, which encompassed the modern day nations of the Balkans from 231 BC to 227 BC. It is my hope that the story of Queen Teuta will inspire women around the world just as it has inspired me. I eventually look forward to adapting the story of Queen Teuta to the big screen.
The Kosovan-Albanian beauty premiered her short film, titled “HANA” at the 9th annual La Jolla International Fashion Film Festival in July 2018. The film received three nominations, including Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Music. Directed by Luey Nohut, “HANA” was inspired by a simple quote from former longtime creative director Alber Elbaz of fashion house Lanvin, “Style is something reflected from our soul to the outside world – an emotion.” Along with her husband Shkumbin, Noka served as executive producer on the film.
Noka stars in the soon to be released film “The General,” starring Goran Višnjić and Armand Assante, and will begin shooting on “Criminal Act” by MPH Films in London this spring. She is represented by MMG and AC Talent and is a brand ambassador for Heinemann Duty Free in Europe.
Hana started her career in modeling and acting at a young age. Despite her busy life as a child model and actress, Hana always took her education seriously. She graduated from Griffith College Dublin, in Ireland with an honors BA in Journalism and Visual Media. Born in Istanbul, Turkey as the only child to Albanian parents, Noka grew up in various countries before settling in Los Angeles.
“Besa Po” is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
For Valon Asani– born in Switzerland to Albanian parents – summer was the only time he could get to know and connect with Kosovo. The little time he spent there was enough to convince him to pursue a career in Kosovo. Valon graduated from the Technical Business School Zurich. During his studies, he started creating his websites and became interested in web development. After graduation, in 2011, he moved to Kosovo and started his initiative of promoting Kosovo in Switzerland by using the outsourcing-model and hiring people from Prishtina through his web and creative agency – based in Kosovo but serving clients in Switzerland. His decision to come back came as a result of growing up with parents who were always nostalgic about living in Kosovo and talked about Kosovo and its culture in daily bases. Valon claims he always felt connected to Kosovo.
In the last seven years, Valon has been testing himself in many fields and that has allowed him to get a broader knowledge in different industries such as IT Outsourcing, Call Center services, the production line of pellets in Kosovo, and he even bought a dental clinic with 10 employees in Prishtina. In addition, he has managed small projects like the dating app “Albanian Friends” which won the first place in Get in the Ring in Kosovo. He currently leads mikgroup.– a digital marketing agency with its focus in lead generation and ROI. MIK which stands for Made in Kosovo, and means ‘friend’ in Albanian is more than business. As an outsourcing destination, MIK is an amazing promotional company for Kosovo.
MIK Group is a digital marketing agency with a focus on Performance & ROI. They offer SEO, Google Ads, Social PPC & influencer marketing. They are Google Partner and are certified by Google, Facebook, and different Digital Marketing Institutes. MIK’s headquarters are at the Zurich Airport and their fulfillment team is based in Prishtina. In addition, they have a small team in Berlin for Influencer Marketing. MIK Group today is the digital partner for many national and international customers. They’ve worked for companies such as Philips, Beiersdorf, Hunkemöller, Novartis and BMW. Valon mainly works on creating a strategy and products he makes sure to be the latest marketing trends because that is key to bring ROI to their customers. Moreover, mentoring and developing his team members is a priority for the leader of MIK. “I’m inspired by the idea that one person can benefit the lives of a large number of people if they have the will to do so, ” notes Valon.
When asked how he manages to stay organized Valon says that what he usually tries to do is: “Keep it simple. Develop routines, implement systems. Have a place for everything, and put everything in its place.” Valon is an individual who takes control of his routine and focuses on top revenue-generating priorities rather than spending time with reactive actions such as emails, phone calls, and other interruptions. “I continually set goals which serve that to serve me as a roadmap and without them, you lose focus on where you’re going and you end up running in circles getting nowhere.”
“I continually set goals which serve that to serve me as a roadmap and without them, you lose focus on where you’re going and you end up running in circles getting nowhere.”
Seeing MIK’s clients succeed and managing a business that is growing and provides for the team is amongst the achievements of MIK what makes Valon proud of the work they are doing. A hallmark for their business is the collaboration they have with three multi-billion dollar companies Philips, BMW, and Beiersdorf. Valon highlights also their partnership with Google Partners which made MIK the first and only agency in Kosovo to achieve that. An additional milestone for MIK is the development of a team and company certified by Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, the Digital Marketing Institute and other well-known organizations.
However, doing business in Kosovo comes with many challenges. Lack of professionalism in public institutions, customs procedures, low purchasing power obtaining loans, high-interest rates, and a shortage of higher qualified staff are problems Valon faces every day. Coming from Switzerland, Kosovo was obviously a difficult environment to navigate. Overtime, Valon has learned how to be more solution-oriented in order to avoid mental breakdowns every time he lacks the Swiss infrastructure he’s used to having. Valon tells us about some of the obstacles he keeps encounters and fights, sometimes even within his own team. “I have mixed feelings and thoughts when it comes to the business environment in Kosovo. On one side we have some small business hubs making positive impacts and we have a lot of skilled young people most of who are bilingual. On the other side, unfortunately, we have no quality, no love for details and for doing the right things the right way.”
“I have mixed feelings and thoughts when it comes to the business environment in Kosovo. On one side we have some small business hubs making positive impacts and we have a lot of skilled young people most of who are bilingual. On the other side, unfortunately, we have no quality, no love for details and for doing the right things the right way.”
As a well-established entrepreneur, Valon is a fond believer that businesses in the diaspora and the ones in Kosovo should cooperate more, exchange knowledge, skills, and ideas in order to improve the image of Kosovo. For Valon, every Kosovar living abroad is an ambassador who can promote Kosovo as an outsourcing destination for IT-services, digital marketing, engineering, architecture, customer center services, and many other services.
“I think the best way to help the people in Kosovo is to help the economy. And to do that for me it is to talk about Kosovo whenever I get the chance to do so. With our customers, partners, family, and friends. This way I was able to motivate also other entrepreneurs to come to Kosovo and create businesses and jobs opportunities. Promoting Kosovo as an outsourcing destination is one of my missions and my way of making a long-term impact.”
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.
The Diaspora School in Kosovo is an initiative that aims to bring together young professionals from Kosovo, the western Balkans and Albanian diaspora members from all over the globe. During the five-day event, selected individuals work together to create their own initiatives to promote the growth of Kosovo.
“The Bus” team collaborating at the Diaspora School in Kosovo.
Inspired by the tragic story of her friend, Albanë Hoti and her Diaspora School in Kosovo team launched The Bus initiative.
In 2009, Hoti’s friend missed her school bus and her parent’s assumed she had been involved in immorality or unchastity. To preserve the family “honor” they married her off immediately. At just 17-years-old, her friend had become a bride.
“The Bus” is a reference to her friend’s tragic story and the team set out to raise awareness on such issues as child marriage, gender inequality and the importance of education. With the motto, “Keep the pen, not the ring,” the initiative won first place at the Diaspora School of Kosovo with the prize of a €6,000 grant.
We interviewed Albane Hoti about her experience at the Diaspora School in Kosovo:
KD: What was your experience as the leader of The Bus initiative? Was it valuable or not?
AH: The experience as the leader of The Bus initiative was valuable, considering the fact that the project had a social nature, and its impact was designed to change the mindset of the youngsters and the community for early marriages with the main focus to the young girls and raising awareness for the importance to the education.
This was the most different and most creative project I ever led.
KD: What did you gain from the process of the implementation?
AH: During the implementation process, we faced some barriers but we understood what really were we doing. We realized how sensitive is the issue of early marriages, and how hard is to try to have an impact in the community mindset.
KD: Do you think your work has had an impact on the target group and community?
AH: The aim of the initiative was to raise voice for this issue and to raise awareness that early marriage is a problem. So, for as much as we saw the comments from the community, media coverage and the engagement of the local people, we think that we had an impact.
KD: Do you think that these kinds of initiatives should continue in the future?
AH: I think that social issues should be a specific field amongst areas that DSK, or any kind of future organizations, should aim to find solutions for or to help the youngsters to improve their livelihoods in the community.
Check out The Bus in action at their march this past March in this piece by RTK.
Arta Ramadani is an award-winning German TV journalist and author of Kosovar descent. Ramadani spent her childhood in Prishtina and later grew up in Germany. She has now found herself in Mainz, currently working at Europe’s largest TV station ZDF. It doesn’t stop there. Ramadani is also the author of the young adult book, “The journey to the first kiss: a Kosovar in Kreuzberg.”
The following is an exclusive interview with Ms. Ramadani for KosovoDiaspora:
KD: Tell us a bit about your background and the work you do.
AR: I grew up in Mannheim, a city with a large immigrant population. This means that you live with Italians, Portuguese, Turks, Greeks, and Germans. My childhood friends are from countries all over the world. I’ve always loved that. This way I learned to respect other religions and cultures from a young age. My family is open minded and loving.
Education was always important to my parents. Being independent. Getting ahead. Having dreams and fighting for them in an honest way. This is what my parents taught me at home. I’m very grateful for this, as it can’t be taken for granted. I love my parents, my brother, and sister. I owe them so much.
I always wanted to tell stories. When I was a teenager, I acted in a lot of plays because I was thinking of becoming an actress. But when I was 17 I became interested in radio journalism. I had my own radio shows for two years. In that way, I have improved my pocket money. When I was a student, I became more and more interested in serious journalism. I wanted to tell true stories about the people we live with. I did a lot of internships in television and independent production companies to gain experience. I moved often and lived in different cities. With all this and my academic degree under my belt, I applied to the ZDF, where I am still working today.
I’ve worked at ZDF for 9 years now. I mainly am a reporter for our morning-show “Volle Kanne.” I love our TV-Show. We are a creative band, very close to the spectators. We report on everything, our show is very popular in Germany. I love my job. It is exciting every day.
I get to meet many interesting and important people when I film my pieces, from whom I learn a lot. The topics vary quite a bit. Sometimes it will be on discrimination, sometimes mental illness or sometimes I’ll meet girls from traditional patriarchal societies, controlled and oppressed by their parents. Unfortunately, the topics can be tough to deal with. Some topics affect me deeply — make me sad, but objective and honest coverage is always my job. That’s what they pay me to do.
Photo provided by Arta Ramadani.
KD: What has been your favorite experience as a journalist?
AR: I interview many interesting and important people. But I have to say, my meeting with Dua Lipa was a very special one for me. I immediately took her into my heart.
She had a concert in Frankfort in 2016, at the very beginning of her career. I had heard her song “Be The One” on the radio and was absolutely taken by her voice. So I arranged to meet her for our morning show.
I knew nothing about her until I started researching. I found that she has Albanian parents and that she lived in Prishtina for a few years. I was so surprised and happy, that I greeted her in Albanian during the interview. She was my first interview partner in Germany to have Albanian parents. For me, that was something special because I rarely meet people with Albanian background in my job.
Now, Dua Lipa is a star. When I hear her songs on the radio today, I smile every time because I know how cute, smart, funny, charming and warm Dua is. I wish her the absolute best.
KD: What projects are you working on now?
AR: At the moment I am preparing the shooting on the topic: “Double Life.” It’s about a girl from Kosovo who was born and raised in Germany. She is 22 years old and must lie to her parents to live the life as she wants. For example, she cannot have a German boyfriend or sex before marriage, nor can she move out without being married. So many girls in Germany have a life exactly like hers. Girls from Iran, Iraq, Greece, and Russia have parents that come from traditional patriarchal societies.
It is very sad that there are still many girls from Kosovo who are not allowed to lead a self-determined life. Only clarification helps. We need to talk about it. Taboos need to be broken not only in Kosovo but also in the diaspora communities around the world.
KD: You made the leap into a new media genre! In March 2018 you released your first young adult novel. The book is called “The journey to the first kiss. A Kosovar in Kreuzberg.” What is this book about? How did you come to the decision to process this story as a novel and not as a television report or documentary?
Credit: Drava Verlag
AR: I have already made reports about Kosovo. I kept an eye on it from a journalistic perspective and as a Kosovar, I am interested in the social and political developments there. But as much as I love my work in television, I wanted to create something very special with the novel. Writing, inventing stories… that’s something that is easy for me. I don’t need much for that… there is only me, my PC, my thoughts and a cup of tea. No cameras, no long train rides, no hotel rooms, no time pressure. There are no borders. I can give free rein to my imagination. I think that’s great because I have a lot of ideas in my head.
So I started writing about Era, a girl who lives in Prishtina in the 90s who really wants to go to a Madonna concert. The 90s were a difficult time for the Albanians in Kosovo. They were discriminated against and oppressed everywhere. They lost their jobs and were even persecuted and killed. Era’s parents are political activists who campaign for the freedom of the Albanians. They love their daughter very much, so they protect her by only telling her half-truths.
Era is awake, so to speak. She suspects a lot but does not really know what’s going on. So she flees her world with Madonna’s songs. Madonna’s music saves her. One day the family has to flee to Berlin. There, a Madonna concert is not so far away…
My book is a declaration of love to my parents, but also to Madonna and Germany. This is a book for all Albanian parents who raised their daughters freely and lovingly.
KD: Do you process your own story in the novel?
AR: “The journey to the first kiss” is a novel – a fictitious story. But of course, it also has a lot of my own experiences. I spent my childhood in Prishtina too. My father was also in political detention for campaigning for democracy and human rights in Kosovo. In my youth Madonna, Michael Jackson, Take That, New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls played a big role. Music shaped my life as a teen very much. So, my protagonist Era and I already have some basic data in common. Nonetheless, the book is not an autobiography.
KD: Germany is considered a rich country in Kosovo. Your protagonist is learning in Kosovo that there were also wars in Germany and that people were persecuted there as well. Why did you make life so difficult for Era?
AR: Eras’s family, who are Sunni Muslim, saved Jews during the Second World War. This is historically proven, which many in Germany don’t know. Many Albanians in Kosovo, but also in Albania –Christians and Muslims– have saved Jews. This has nothing to do with Islam, but with the code of honor of Albanians.
Era learns about it from her grandmother. So Era develops an idea of Germany as a country that does not welcome all people. She flees Kosovo with many prejudices in her mind about Berlin. Her mother had to laboriously convince her to flee in the first place.
I did not want to make Era’s life difficult but I wanted to show her that people in Kosovo are not the only ones that have experienced suffering, misfortune, and death. Many others have experienced much worse things. What happens in Kosovo is not an isolated case and Era learns that relatively early.
KD: What would advise would you like to give young women, especially those from Kosovo?
AR: I can only advise every young woman to have a solid education and to be financially independent. Financial independence, for me, is the key to a self-determined and free life. So girls, stay faithful, earn your own money, believe in yourself, never let yourself down, don’t spend time with idiots, go through life curiously and openly and meet all people on equal terms. This is something that really matters in a woman’s life.