By Elda Dakli
Lessons from History
On World Refugee Day this June, social media was bustling with images and calls to turn global public attention to the historic and ongoing horrors of displacement and mistreatment and hardships faced by refugee populations around the world. Going through social media and news outlets provoked memories, images and related thoughts that I felt the urge to share here. The three images included in my story portray fragments from Albanian mass exoduses at the start and after the fall of communism. These are images and stories quite familiar to the Albanian community but less known to audiences of a wider geography like the Western hemisphere. My journey as an immigrant in Canada, home to thousands of displaced Albanians, within a multicultural land that hosts the unique experiences of stories untold, is what you will read about here.
The picture above depicts a crowd of Albanians storming the premises of the German embassy on July 1990, trying to flee the country in the last days of its communist regime.
The second picture is about 20,000 Albanian refugees fleeing to neighbouring Italy’s coast on March 1991 where they arrived “in precarious and rotten boats” and faced extreme physical and social hardships in the early days of arrival and several years to follow.
The third image is of a river of mud flowing between rows of tents housing refugees at an Italian government-operated camp for Kosovar Albanians. Over 350,000 Kosovar Albanians fled to neighbouring countries in 1998 from the outbreak of an armed conflict between the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) following long-lasting ethnic tensions.
When Albanians Fled to Other Parts of Europe and Beyond
The historic events in the images above led to Albanians flooding different destinations of Europe and landing in environments that were xenophobic and unwelcoming of immigrants. The first image exposes how our movers faced extreme hardships, prejudice and overt racism after landing and for many years to come. Plagued by unrelenting economic and political instability, Albania, the country of the poorest people of Europe has a long history of producing large-scale involuntary immigration and landing its displaced people lives filled with discrimination and racism.
Over the decades, immigration policies and culture in Europe have changed. Albanians being granted the right to travel and work freely in the old continent, in large part as a result of this shift in immigration policy, has come with changes in policies in expanding the geography of outbound immigration for Albanians. The country has all the while continued to produce population outflows around the world.
Lately other European countries, such as Germany, England, Switzerland, and over the past decades, the US and Canada have become recipients of Albanian immigrants. Roughly 1.4 million Albanians currently live and work abroad. The majority, between 70-75 percent, are in the two neighbouring countries of Greece and Italy. Immigration to the Western hemisphere, in particular Canada – this blog’s focus – although marked by different geopolitics than the exoduses I mentioned earlier, has offered Albanian immigrants their own mixed platter of opportunity, struggle, and culture shocks.
Albanians in Canada
Official data trace the routes of the current Albanian community in Canada back to the early 20th century, their immigration triggered by political events and internal uprisings at home. After World War II and until the early 90s, outbound movement from Albania almost came to a halt due to cross-border mobility restrictions imposed by the communist regime. Of the few Albanians who emigrated to Canada during that time, most settled in Montreal or Toronto (and other parts of Ontario) and Calgary. Economic and political upheavals in the region in the 90s led to waves of Albanian immigration to the US and Canada. The Albanian community in Canada at the time exceeded 2,500 people, many arriving from Albania’s neighbouring countries or elsewhere in Europe, fleeing wars to resettle.
In 1999, Canada hosted 7,000 Albanians from Kosovo who had fled their country to seek refuge from the outbreak of a long-lasting ethnic conflict, following an appeal of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the international community to provide these refugees with temporary protection until they could return home. In the early 2000s, Canada opened its doors to thousands more Albanian immigrants through its skilled immigration policies.
Over the decades, Canada has hosted waves of Albanian immigrants from both regions of ethnic Albania – more than 36,000 by 2016, of these about two-thirds during the past two decades arrived via the skilled immigration route. Most of them have settled in large urban areas of Toronto and Montreal and Calgary, and other Albanian communities have also established themselves in the rest of Canada.
Visible Minority or Invisible Albanian?
Official data offer only a snapshot of the group’s immigrant influx to Canada over the years and nothing beyond. Largely made up of mid-to-high level professionals, the Albanian community’s journey of settling and integration in Canada, is generally unfamiliar or, as I came to realize during my job search, misperceived, although, as I know it, far from smooth-sailing. Accounts of challenges to adapt, non-recognition of past accomplishments, and persisting insecurities are some of the stories common and unique in abundance to members of this community, though few get to be heard or seen beyond the immigrant stereotype. Based on general immigration data and trends from the country during different periods, at least 70 percent of Albanians in Canada are economic immigrants who arrived after 2000.
This became clear during my job-search, as I scrolled through application forms, ads about immigrant support programs, articles, studies, surveys, and uncountable dropdown lists that are designed to capture and support ethnocultural diversity. Struggling to find a category in all those lists that catered to me or a member of my community, I realized how the Albanian immigrants’ journey remains hidden and unfairly clumped in ethnic stereotypes that identify them with other groups of immigrants that are vast and homogenous. I did not identify as a visible minority in Canada, and as a member of an immigrant community with its own share of immigration challenges, identifiers such as “European,” “south Caucasian,” or “white,” (all implying high degree of privilege in this context), were not relevant to me but were labels I got constantly classed under, inadvertently or inevitably, without an option for “other” or a comment box!
As I dug deeper through data, articles, stories, I realized that the current immigration discourse hides much of the mix of ethnicities, cultures, settlement experiences and barriers faced by immigrants and found myself immersed in changing this discourse at different levels. I connected with fellow-researchers and Albanians on related platforms, gathering evidence to shatter stereotypes about us. Triggered by grim realizations of an appearance-driven society that can often seem un-interested to roll out of its hasty assumptions about distinct cultural identities or struggles, I decided to embark on a study tracing the professional settlement experiences of Albanians in Canada. This research will tap into the experiences, sentiments and needs of Albanian immigrant professionals in Canada. I hope that for audiences within and outside my community, these insights will unveil our dreams and journeys, but most importantly, uncover a piece of the multicultural, multiethnic immigrant and spark an interest to dismantle misperceptions and better understand us today.
Elda Dakli is an Albanian immigrant in Canada with a degree in sociology, a mixed background in social research and consumer insights and currently dedicated to settlement and immigration research.