The Sky Is The Limit

Twenty years ago, under the pretense of celebrating their children’s birthdays, Albanian women began gathering in Shqipe Biba’s home to talk. They shared their problems, fears, hopes and dreams never thinking that they could have a voice and make a difference in their community.

Times changed. Kosova, their homeland, was wracked politically and economically. Many families chose to go into exile by becoming refugees.

Many others, without any status at all, crossed the borders regardless of the consequences. Living under oppression was hard, and it was excruciating to let go of the dream of living free in their own land, but they had to protect and support their families. So they had to leave to start a new life in a new place. This process threatened their sense of their identity, tradition and culture was and instilled tremendous pressure and fear.

It was during this time that the Albanian American Women’s Organization (AAWO) “Motrat Qiriazi” was founded and came to life. The foundation of the organization was the women’s friendship with one another and with other members of the community. Despite few resources and daily uncertainties, they forged ahead, and AAWO grew, becoming a pioneer in giving Albanian women a voice and representation, from the doctor’s office to the White House.

Present at AAWO’s first meeting were more than one hundred men who could not fathom that Albanian women would have something to say. Hundreds of women visited AAWO’s offices on a regular basis. They volunteered their time to build and nurture this place they have come to call home.

AAWO members participated in demonstrations while Kosova was breaking under the weight of oppression and the threat of war. They raised their voices in public outcry over what was happening to women and children and advocated for their needs. Many other women’s organizations came forward to work with them to help them meet those needs.

AAWO held its first “Historic Night for Women” in 1993, gathering more than 350 women who came out in support. That same night they awarded men who supported them, like the newspaper “Illyria,” “Radio LKD,” “Television Victoria” and many other community activists. During 1994 they created “Diaspora, The Cradle of Memory,” uniting many activists from Massachusetts, Michigan, and Illinois to come and share their stories of those who had served the Albanian community but were not recognized. They learned of so many people who had selflessly sacrificed their lives for their homeland. It was that year when they also began to celebrate “Mother’s Day” and selected the first Woman and Mother of the Year, which is now an annual AAWO tradition.

AAWO members were undaunted by the obstacles of war and suffering, and they persevered from their kitchens and offices using everything they had to help untold numbers in need. They became publicly recognized advocates of Albanian women and children, writing over 100 news articles, appearing on many national television stations, and representing the Albanian community in many public speaking events and political debates. Tirelessly, AAWO members raised funds and sent them to feed the hungry in Kosova and Albania.
They also held many events.

Among the memorable events are “Unity and Hope,” a cultural event that featured Bianca Jagger and brought to light the suffering of women in Kosova. “The Joy of Classical Music” at St. John the Divine, where the Albanian Diaspora, for the first time, gathered together internationally renowned classical musicians for a three-day event in New York. A concert with Vanessa Redgrave brought together many famous actors, performers and members of the Albanian community. A Broadway event with Eve Ensler highlighted the importance of communication and of exchanging information via the Internet during the war. The efforts of AAWO’s members did not go unnoticed, and they were invited to the White House to receive recognition for their cultural contributions.

For the past ten years AAWO has worked without pause to serve the Albanian community. In collaboration with many multi-ethnic organizations and individuals AAWO was able to raise and distribute over $100,000 to refugees. AAWO initiated a new group of women journalists who advocated on behalf of the rights of refugees and printed stories that otherwise would not have been heard. In 1998 alone AAWO held 22 events to raise awareness about the war in Kosova.

AAWO’s work continues. Since July 2001 AAWO has received federal funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for its project “Helping Sisters in Need.” ORR funding supports AAWO’s organizational development, including needs assessment, information and referral data base and services, newcomer’s meetings, workshops on women’s legal, social, and cultural issues, as well as cultural events aimed at bringing the Albanian American community together. The goal is to firmly establish AAWO as an integrated, effective and sustainable organization in service to the Albanian American community.

After only one year of ORR funding, AAWO grew beyond anyone’s expectations. By 2002 the organization had expanded from two staff members to ten, from one small office to three, from two telephone lines to seven, from two computers to seven, from 10 calls a day to 90 telephone calls a week, and from one funding grant to four. Along the way AAWO became an anchor for many Albanian women who were in a desperate need of help. In one year AAWO served over 1,500 members of the Albanian community in the tri-state area through regular monthly newcomers meetings, many workshops and seminars, and cultural events. AAWO supports many families during times of need and tragedy, providing access to resources, guidance and information. Also, AAWO’s networks across cultures and borders help Albanian women integrate and establish supportive friendships with others outside of the Albanian community through a mutual sharing of their culture and traditions.

AAWO looks forward to fulfilling its mission: to work to lift the spirit, status and voice of Albanian women and girls so they can fully participate in all aspects of life, by becoming stronger, and more resilient, in overcoming the years of war, government oppression and tradition that have pushed them down and to the margins of society. AAWO hopes to strengthen the bonds between Albanian American women and their sisters all over the world.