As Youth Flee Albania, an American Calls It Home
Children on a school outing to the National Museum of Independence in this coastal city form a ring around me.
“What is your name?” asks a self-assured girl, who seems to be the captain of a team of girlfriends, all around age 10. I reply, “Linda.”
A rascally boy steals the question ball from the girls, asking, “How old are you?” But before I could answer, his pal cut in, “You are beautiful.” He scores with me.
The questions in good English kept coming. Some were the same ones I have answered from children who have approached me on trips all over the world. A few children asked, “Do you like Albania?” For that question, just substitute Albania for France, Egypt or Argentina.
But these children had a few questions that reflected one of Albania’s urgent problems: youth migration.
One boy repeatedly asked me in German if I spoke German. Another asked me in English, “Which is the best country? Albania or Germany? My brother lives in Germany.”
My husband and I were visiting Albania with the Association of European Journalists, who were holding their annual congress in Vlore in late October.
Simone Rapple, a member of the AEJ’s Irish section, told me that one girl in the group asked her, “Can you help Albania?”
Help is coming to Albania from foreign investment, a boom in seasonal tourism and support from the World Bank for agriculture, which employs 36 percent of the population. Also, a gusher of funds for public coffers may come from the government’s contract with Shell, which has been conducting oil and gas exploration in the Shpirag region for several years.
But the country — especially in the northern highlands — continues to empty out, according to The Borgen Project, a Tacoma, Washington-based nonprofit group addressing poverty and hunger worldwide.
In a 2022 report titled, “Why Are Albanian Migrants Leaving Albania?”, the group found that about 70 percent of Albanian asylum seekers chose the United Kingdom or France. Men go first, followed by women and children.
Eighty-three percent of asylum seekers cited the high cost of living, unemployment (the unemployment rate for 18 to 34 year olds is 60 percent), exacerbated by the earthquake of 2019, the Covid pandemic, political instability and corruption, according to the report.
On May 8, 2023, The Tirana Times, citing a the latest data published by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, reported that Albanians led the list of people who were found to have broken EU member states’ migration rules and were consequently deported in 2022, and they ranked second among those denied entry to the EU.
Lack of opportunities has also bred crime. The Borgen Group’s report said, “Boys are being groomed by criminal gangs. Albanian-originated crime networks aim to recruit males mainly to work illegally on UK cannabis farms. Some men fled to escape from local blood feuds still common in Albania.”
On my brief trip to Albania, I saw that coastal tourism is providing employment to youth, and transforming economies in Vlore and Durres, two port cities on the so-called Albanian Riviera.
In Durres, I watched young men and women park their Mercedes-Benzes in front of the venerable Hotel Epidam & Spa and while away afternoons at its sidewalk cafe. Other cafes and restaurants along Epidam Boulevard were also doing brisk, post-tourist season business.
On a midweek evening, my husband and I dined at Meison Bistro & Market, a gleaming and excellent restaurant on the town’s sea-facing main road. It was packed and Alessia Demiri, one of the owners, told me, “We are a family of fishermen, and we are blessed.”
The port of Durres — prized over the centuries by its Roman, Ottoman, Venetian and Soviet occupiers — is getting increased cruise ship and Italian ferry traffic. Vlore, is set to get a city-center marina with 24,000 square meters (25,833 square feet) of residential and retail space. The Vlora Marina will have lots of yacht berths — golden for year-round tourism.
Albania is still slogging through the EU membership process. That — as I have seen in the neighboring member state of Croatia — is sure to lift multiple sectors of its economy, providing jobs that will keep the kids on the farm and elsewhere.
As my husband and I were standing on line, waiting to board our flight from Tirana to Frankfurt, I heard a slim blonde mother talking to her child, seated in a travel stroller, in an unmistakable Alabama accent.
“Are you traveling home?” I asked. She replied that she was visiting her parents in Alabama, but she lives in Albania.
“I miss home, but Albania is a safe place to raise children,” she said.
Sweet home Albania.