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Albanian family finds dream of democracy

Nicole Tsong/Anchorage Daily News. Copyright 7/4/2004. Reprinted with permission.

A death threat tied to Hider Turja’s outspoken political aspirations drove him, his wife and their two sons to quietly flee their home in Albania in 2001. He now lives an ocean and a continent away from his native country, but he hasn’t abandoned politics entirely. From his new home in Spenard, Turja reads the news about Albania online, consults with fellow party members through the Internet and talks to them over the telephone.

"It’s my desire to see Albania as a democratic country, be changed forever," he said.

But long-distance politics are about all that remain of Turja’s former activism in Albania, an Eastern European country that shares a border with Greece and lies across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Here he leads a quiet life with his wife, Natasha, and sons Todilian, 10, and Ertian, 5, in a small, neatly appointed Spenard apartment. After nearly three years in Anchorage, Todilian and Ertian are fluent in English, though they still speak Albanian with their parents. Turja, who is trained as a geological engineer, drives a taxi to support his family.

But his troubles back home are what enabled Turja and his family to stay in the United States. The Turjas were granted political asylum by an immigration judge in February based on the death threat and Hider Turja’s political activity in Albania.

Political asylum was meant for people like the Turjas. Asylum is granted to people who have arrived in the United States and can demonstrate that they suffered persecution or had a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They are similar to refugees, who also suffer from persecution but are given permission to come to the United States before they arrive.

Known as political asylees, the people who have endured torture, threats and kidnapping are a hidden portion of Anchorage’s population. There are perhaps hundreds of asylees who come to the city from places like Gambia, Myanmar, Ethiopia and Colombia.

It’s impossible to say exactly how many, since no one tracks their numbers, but Robin Bronen, director of Catholic Social Services’ immigration program, said 38 people were granted asylum in Alaska over the past three years through a San Francisco office that reviews asylum applications. Others, like the Turjas, received the status through the immigration court system.

Attorney Nicholas Kittleson, who represented the family, said Turja provided the court with Albanian newspaper and magazine articles to demonstrate he had been an outspoken member of a persecuted political party. He also gave the judge an article about a burglary at his house that police would not investigate. To demonstrate he had a well-founded fear of persecution, Turja told the judge about the death threat that accompanied his bid for an elected office.

Turja, 39, got involved in the nascent political movement in Albania that evolved as a multiparty system replaced the Communist government after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Before the democratic reforms, Turja said, there was only one state-run television station; people were prohibited from listening to foreign music and learning foreign languages.

But by 1991, the world was changing and so was Albania. "It was the air of freedom we never had before," Turja said.

He joined a small political party called the Republicans in his hometown of Bulqize, recruited other people to join and encouraged people to vote. It was difficult getting people to understand the new multiparty system, he said. By 1996, he had switched to another party, the Union Liberals, and became chairman of the Bulqize chapter.

But because the Union Liberals opposed the Socialists, who had supplanted the Communists as the dominant political force in Albania, it was difficult for Turja to get jobs, he said. He became the director of a heating plant but was fired after four years in 1998. He thinks it was because management didn’t like his political views.

He and Natasha decided to move to the capital, Tirana, where he thought their politics would be more accepted in a larger, more diverse population. By then, Natasha Turja, trained in metallurgy, was involved in the Union Liberal party’s women’s forum. In Tirana, Turja worked as a translator and as a private English tutor. Eventually, he found a job managing a shoe factory. The jobs gave him more time to work on politics.

Turja was a candidate for Tirana’s version of a city council when he was nearly struck by a white Audi with no license plates while riding a bicycle through a part of town with a heavy military population, he said. The car stopped, and Turja rode up to the window to ask the driver why he had sideswiped him.

The man in the car rolled down the window, pointed a gun at him and said he was talking too much. Some women nearby saw the gun and screamed. The driver told Turja he would see him again and drove off. The next day, Turja said, he spoke to the chairman of the Union Liberals, who told him other members had received death threats over the phone. The Turjas decided to leave Albania for their own safety. They ruled out Greece and Italy because those countries were too close to Albania. Instead, they picked the United States, specifically Alaska because they had read of the state’s mineral wealth and thought they might be able to find jobs in their fields. They borrowed money from Turja’s brothers and sold their house and property. In total, the move cost them between $15,000 and $20,000 in a country where the average annual salary is $1,000, according to the U.S. State Department.

Most of the money went to purchase plane tickets and to acquire Italian passports they bought on the black market. People entering the United States from Albania must have preapproved visitor visas. The Turjas entered under Italian passports and needed no clearance at the time under a visa waiver program, Bronen said. Because they used the waiver program, their case was moved from the asylum office to immigration court, she said. Turja went ahead, flying first to Brazil on his Albanian passport in March 2001, then using the Italian document to fly to Miami, where he entered on a tourist visa.

"It was a stressful journey," he said.

Natasha Turja and the boys followed in July, flying from Germany to Miami, then to Houston and finally to Anchorage. It took two weeks.

"It wasn’t easy, but it got us here," she said. At the time, Todilian was 7 and Ertian was 2. They were told to keep quiet and keep close to their mother as she navigated the journey.

In Anchorage, Turja took jobs as a dishwasher, a cook, a pizza deliverer and as a convenience store clerk before he settled on driving a taxi, where he can make more money. Since he and his family were granted asylum in February and no longer have to fear being ordered out of the country, Turja hopes to begin looking for more permanent work as a geological engineer. Hider Turja doesn’t like the risks he takes driving a cab in Anchorage, but life is still better here, he said. He speaks in glowing terms of democracy in America: Compared to Albania, government workers in Anchorage are polite, educated, and free with information.

"Things here are totally different," he said. "We were dreaming about democracy. We thought it would be this way."


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