A sunny Sunday in March 1997: a first-hand account of the Albanian exodus
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A sunny Sunday in March 1997: a first-hand account of the Albanian exodus

On a sunny Sunday morning in March 1997, in the seaside town of Durres, Albania, a middle-aged schoolteacher and her 11-year-old son embarked on a seemingly normal beach outing. What they didn’t know was that their lives were about to take an unexpected turn.

Just as they are enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of the beach, a sudden explosion shatters the tranquility. The sound of gunfire echoes through the air, marking the beginning of a chaotic period in Albanian history. The collapse of a fraudulent financial scheme sparked widespread protests and riots, plunging the country into anarchy.

In the midst of the chaos, the woman and her son found themselves caught in the middle of the fighting. They instinctively fled the beach, running barefoot along the shoreline, their hearts pounding. Their flight was fraught with uncertainty and their future hung in the balance.

A sunny Sunday in March 1997: a first-hand account of the Albanian exodus

Days passed and Albania showed no signs of improvement. Violence had escalated and the threat of harm was becoming increasingly apparent. With a heavy heart, the woman made the agonizing decision to leave her country and seek asylum.

Seizing the opportunity, she and her son secretly boarded a commandeered ferry to the southern Italian city of Fasano. They found themselves, like countless others, fleeing the chaos and despair sweeping the country.

Upon arrival in Italy, they sought refuge in a refugee center, one of many established by the Church to provide assistance to those displaced by conflict and suffering. These centers are harbors of hope in an uncertain situation.

However, the harsh reality of their situation is gradually becoming apparent. Held in cramped and often degrading conditions, they struggle to cope with the trauma of displacement and the constant fear of the future.

The concept of “administrative detention” – a term used to describe the detention of migrants without charge or trial – has become a harsh reality. The mental health of many detainees had deteriorated and some had begun to self-harm and even had suicidal thoughts.

The agreement between Italy and Albania to establish two migrant processing centers in Albania further underscores the trend of wealthy countries outsourcing their immigration responsibilities. Similar agreements have been reached between Australia and Nauru, and Britain and Rwanda, raising concerns about the erosion of basic human rights.

The willingness of the Albanian Government to cede territorial sovereignty to Italy in order to allow Italian personnel to work within the centers has raised concerns. Although the Albanian Government has agreed to provide assistance to dead migrants, living migrants continue to face an uncertain fate.

The story of my mother and brother who fled Albania exemplifies the struggles faced by countless migrants who embark on dangerous journeys in search of a better life. Their experience highlights the importance of empathy, compassion and collective commitment to addressing the root causes of displacement.

In the face of adversity, my mother and brother found comfort in the kindness of strangers, especially Ms. Katrina, an elderly woman who opened her home to them despite the anti-Albanian sentiment prevalent in her affluent community.

Despite the odds, my mother and brother eventually gained a foothold in Italy, integrating into and contributing to their new community. Their story is a testament to the resilience and determination of the human spirit.

Filled with tragedy and triumph, the story of Albanian flight is a stark reminder of the cost of displacement. It called for a more humane approach to migration, prioritizing compassion, understanding and shared responsibility to address the root causes of people seeking asylum.

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