Fier and Cleveland 

– Written by Ezra Ellenbogen

Fier, Albania is a beautiful city of nature and history, with a population of 56,297.[1] The city is a well known travel destination, its most attractive landmark being the ruins of the ancient Illyrian city of Apollonia.[2] In 2006, under the Honorable Mayor Frank G. Jackson, Fier was partnered as a sister city with Cleveland.[3]

The first large arrival of Albanian immigrants to Cleveland was in the 1890s, as a part of the larger influx of Italian immigration.[4] This group was known as the Arbëreshë; they were descendants of Albanians who had fled to Southern Italy to escape the Ottoman Empire. The second significant arrival of Albanian peoples into Cleveland mostly originated from Korçë, an educational and cultural center in Southern Albania. The vast majority of this second wave were seeking new labor opportunities in Cleveland. Most had little to no former education or resources. Most were planning to immigrate temporarily, and most were men. They were seeking a better financial future. Eventually, many settled their families with them in Cleveland. These groups primarily concentrated on the West Side near Detroit Avenue and Linndale, though some did settle on the East Side around E. 30th and St. Clair.

Statewide, fewer than two thousand Albanians had settled by 1914. Most Albanian immigrants settled near Lake Erie. Most found work in factories or as day laborers. Albanian institutions followed suit; businesses sold traditional Albanian foods and products, and a total of three Albanian newspapers were created: Dielli, Liria, and Shqiptari i Lire.[5]By the start of the 1940s, approximately 1,000 Albanians resided in Cleveland.

The next major wave of Albanian immigration occurred Post-WWII. Numerous groups of Albanians had been displaced and had ended up in refugee camps in Italy, Germany, and Austria. From there, many immigrated to Cleveland. However, in 1946, when Enver Hoxha’s government took control of Albania, no Albanians were allowed to leave their home. New immigrants to Cleveland founded social clubs and religious institutions; in 1938, the Society of St. E. Premte was established by Orthodox Christain Albanians, which is still in use today.

During and post WWII, the major incentives for Albanian immigration were: escaping conflict back home, economic motives, and seeking to build a new life, as countless Albanian homes and businesses were destroyed in WWII and following conflicts. The highest concentrations in Cleveland remained on the West Side and its suburbs, particularly Lakewood.

The most significant influx of Albanian immigration to Cleveland came after 1992, when Albania’s political regime fell. Immigration from Albanian areas exploded, especially from Fier and Kosovo. Two major factors made Cleveland a well-sought home for this new wave of immigration. First: Albanian American Cleveland Councilwoman Dona Brady made significant and constant efforts to help Albanian refugees resettle. Second: during the 1999 war in Kosovo, the then American President Bill Clinton selected Cleveland as one of five cities to resettle refugees and displaced persons from the conflict. In 2006, The Honorable Mayor Frank G. Jackson founded a sister city relationship with the Albanian city of Fier in recognition of the flourishing community.

The Albanian American Association of Cleveland was founded in 1998. The organization went on to become one of the most prominent sources of organization and longevity for Cleveland’s Albanian community through cultural engagement, educational assistance, humanitarian aid, and supporting the community.[6] The most critical, long lasting, and well known engagement of the association and its partners was the creation of the Albanian Cultural Garden.

Spearheaded by immigration attorney and author Richard Herman, City Councilwoman Dona Brady, and Federation Of India Community Associations of NE Ohio (FICA) president Asim Datta, the process of creating an Albanian addition to the Cultural Gardens started on May 30th, 2012.[7] Cleveland architect Jim McKnight designed the Garden; its most prominent feature, a statue of Mother Teresa, was made by renowned Albanian artist Kreshnik Xhiku. The dedication ceremony was attended by important figures, including Mayor Frank G. Jackson and former Albanian President Bujar Nishani. The dedication was also a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Albanian independence.[8]

The “Second Phase” of the Albanian Gardens was developed in 2013. It included a fountain from the 1920s rediscovered by Councilwoman Brady, walkways, and lights, making the area perfect for community events. The dedication of the new additions was attended by the then mayor of Fier, Baftjar Zeqaj, as well as a representative of the Albanian Prime Minister. In recent years, community events from operas to parades have been held at the Albanian Cultural Gardens. Most recently, during the Cultural Gardens’ 2019 One World Day Parade of Flags, Albanian Clevelanders wore traditional and cultural garb to celebrate their heritage, marching with Albanian flags (pictured at the start of the article).[9]

In 2014, Cleveland hosted highly acclaimed Albanian artist Fate Velaj and his exhibit, “Albania – Seen Differently.” Many of his works were on display in the Cleveland City Hall Rotunda. He hoped to reflect not only a new perspective of Albanian natural and architectural beauty, but also showcase the connection between Albanians and Cleveland.[10]

Albanian Clevelanders today make up a prominent and thriving community of the region. With numerous cultural and community-driven connections to Fier and Albania as a whole, Albanian Clevelanders have contributed to and embellished the city’s diversity and culture. Historic efforts of the sister city movement, from cultural showcases at fairs to operas, have connected the Albanian population of Greater Cleveland not only to Albania, but also establishing itself as a center for community and relationship building. Cleveland’s historic ties to Albania and Albanaian immigrants have made the community one of prominence and camaraderie.

– by Ezra Ellenbogen

Ezra’s blog: One Page Stories