The Albanian tourist town that welcomed Afghan refugees | Refugees

Shengjin, Albania – It was a typical August morning in the popular Albanian tourist town of Shengjin. Nestled in the country’s north close to the border with Montenegro, the town’s bland-looking apartment blocks and kitsch hotels were heaving with families scrambling to make their way to the 6km (4 miles) golden beach perched on their doorstep.

The flurry of activity – parents in bathing suits stuffing towels into beach bags, children holding decorative inflatable toys screaming for attention – caught Ziagul Hzimi by surprise. The 27-year-old had just stepped off a plane from Afghanistan, the land of her birth, after the Taliban entered the capital Kabul and took control of the country and its 40 million inhabitants.

There she was, still in shock after fleeing her homeland, standing in the middle of crowds of people whose main concern was securing the best sun lounger. “Seeing all these Albanians picking up their belongings and rushing to the beach reminded me of the Kabul evacuation,” she recalled with a nervous laugh. “I’d never heard of Albania before I got here in August so it was all a bit of a shock.”

Ziagul Hzimi fled Afghanistan with the help of an American NGO and is waiting in Albania until she gets a visa for the US [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

A petite woman with striking features, Ziagul is a journalist who worked for years in the western Afghan city of Herat. Although she received no direct threat from the Taliban, she believed there was no way her safety could be ensured once they were in control of the country. So, with the help of an American NGO that supported her work, she boarded an early evacuation flight from Kabul and ended up in Shengjin to wait for her visa to the United States.

She is staying at the Rafaelo Resort in the centre of town with about 1,000 other Afghans who also left Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Known as “The Rafaelo”, the austere hotel is centred around three small swimming pools and an odd replica of the Statue of Liberty. It is a peculiar place with a textbook definition of “luxury”. The apartments and communal dining area are immaculate but uninspired and cold. The hedges are delicately cut but stiff. It is a world away from the warmth that pours from every Afghan home.

Normally booked by well-to-do Albanians during the summer high season and by businesspeople for conferences during the rest of the year, the hotel has been taken over by Western NGOs which needed safe shelter for their Afghan colleagues and their families.

Afghan women and girls on the beach in Shengjin [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

Although the people staying in Shengjin have been referred to as “luxury refugees”, the sense of loss here is palpable. The young children scurry around but nearly all the adults look a little lost. Their bodies may be in The Rafaelo but their hearts are in Afghanistan.

When Al Jazeera visited Shengjin in early autumn, the tourists had gone and the town was eerily quiet. Most restaurants along the one main road had closed their doors until next summer. The sun loungers had been put into storage and the beach was empty.

At The Rafaelo the refugees’ days are filled with endless waiting. Waiting for news from Afghanistan. Waiting for news about the next step in their visa application process. The people in this place have gone from feeling in control of their lives to being at the mercy of others.

The Rafaelo Resort in Shengjin has become a temporary home to around 1,000 Afghan refugees [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

Simple things, like making the decision about when to eat, have been taken away from them – a source of deep sadness for many. Food and its preparation hold a special place for Afghans, so when the three daily meals first served by chefs at The Rafaelo fell well below their high standards, the hotel management was quickly informed. The cuisine has now been adjusted to better suit Afghan tastes, but the flavours of home, or at least something close to them, have been kept out of reach.

Twelve Afghan members of parliament are residing in the hotel, having used their international contacts to flee Afghanistan after the sudden departure of former President Ashraf Ghani in mid-August. Tensions have flared as this old political guard has jostled for influence over the refugee community in Shengjin.

“We had problems with MPs in Afghanistan, now we have the same problem here as well,” Mustafa Madzidiar, a former government adviser, explained from a table in the hotel’s shiny grey restaurant, The Valmont. The 30-year-old has taken on the role of community coordinator on behalf of the non-profit organisation National Endowment for Democracy, which has helped more than 300 people get to Shengjin. “When you see them you would think they are an MP of Albania. When they arrived here they went to hotel management and introduced themselves as parliament members,” he said, shaking his head. “They didn’t want to stay in the same facility as normal people … They thought they still had influence.”

Similar stories

Like Mustafa, Ziagul, the journalist, is happy to be safe and thankful for the security of The Rafaelo. But she is a person haunted by grief. At night her parents and eight siblings, who are still in Herat, come to her in her dreams. She does not think she will ever see them again. “My parents have lost me,” she said quietly.

Until August, Ziagul had rarely left her home city. Instead, she was focused on working her way up the career ladder at the Afghan Women’s News Agency’s Herat bureau. “I was the first in my family to go to university, so my father wanted me to study law,” she recalled. “Without his permission, I put down journalism as my major after I sat my entrance exam. When I passed and got in all my family had to convince my father, who was in Iran at the time [for work], to allow me to continue my education.”

Ziagul Hzimi’s family urged her to flee Herat just before the Taliban took control of the city [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

But, despite her steely determination to carve out an independent life for herself, it did not come easy. Her father was never quite comfortable with Ziagul working with male colleagues and worried about her reputation. But he loved his daughter and was proud of her achievements. After graduating from Herat University in 2017, Ziagul quickly went from news intern to chief editor, a role she loved and one that allowed her to cover all aspects of Herati society – from politics to culture. Journalism gave her freedom and an opportunity to see onto the horizon and picture a better future for Afghan women, one where they could actively participate in all aspects of society.

Then, in early August, everything changed. Just before the Taliban took Herat, her family told her to get to Kabul. As a female journalist, they felt, her life was in danger. She quickly packed her belongings and rushed to the capital alone.

At The Rafaelo, Ziagul’s story is not unique. Almost everyone is a close family member of someone who worked with a Western organisation or held a job that might have drawn the Taliban’s unfavourable attention. Some managed to get to Shengjin because they were in the right place at the right time and were able to get onto an evacuation flight. Others knew the right NGO to call to get them on the flight list. Not everyone could bring their family with them.

Ziagul refers to The Rafaelo as a mini Afghanistan where everyone comes together and shares what little they have. She stays in a two-bedroom apartment with another female colleague and spends much of her day WhatsApp messaging family back home. “It is a very diverse community here and everyone is kind but everyone does stick to their own ethnic groups a little,” she said referring to Afghanistan’s complex social fabric. “None of us ever thought we would end up in Albania.”

The ‘natural order of things’

Albania was one of the first nations to throw open its doors to Afghans when the Taliban took over on August 15. Within hours, Prime Minister Edi Rama had announced to the world that the Balkan nation would serve as a “transit country” and host refugees. Rama’s government was first approached by two big NGOs from the US looking for safe shelter for their colleagues and their families and then by the Biden administration. Within 10 days two locations were confirmed in Shengjin and Durrës, another seaside town further down the coast.

Albania’s President Edi Rama says taking in refugees is about ‘who we are’ [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

The idea that Albania agreed to take up to 4,000 refugees to curry favour with the longtime ally – the US – is a source of continuing annoyance for Rama. “Everyone likes to see this as a favour to the United States, but this is about us. It’s about who we are and what we have always been and it’s about the importance of the human side of it,” the prime minister told Al Jazeera from his decorative office in central Tirana, the capital. “This comes naturally to us and it’s so sad that it looks so special when it should be the natural order of things.”

A member of NATO since 2009, Albania has a population of approximately 2.8 million and is among the poorest countries in Europe. It has a long tradition of taking people in. About 3,000 members of Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, a controversial Iranian opposition group, reside 30km (19 miles) west of Tirana after being taken in from Iraq in 2013 at the behest of the Americans. Five Uighurs who had been held in Guantanamo were transferred to Albania in 2006, a move that sparked controversy with China. The country famously had more Jewish residents after the second world war than before.

Between 1944 and 1985, Albania was completely cut off from the world under the brutal communist regime of Enver Hoxha. Under Hoxha’s rule, religion was banned, mosques and churches closed down, religious leaders imprisoned or killed, and any opposition swiftly crushed. When the regime fell in 1991, thousands of Albanians fled to neighbouring Italy to escape the grinding poverty as a result of economic collapse.

Most famously, in August 1991, some 20,000 refugees stormed the Vlora, a cargo ship, that was due to set sail to Italy. When it arrived in Bari after 26 hours at sea with no food or water on board, those who had not managed to slip into the city were locked into the Stadio della Vittoria stadium while arrangements were made to send them back across the Strait of Otranto to Albania.

Afghan families on the beach in Shengjin [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

In some respects the scenes from the Vlora’s voyage and Kabul airport in August are similar. In others, worlds apart. But that sense of being discarded by the West in their hour of need still haunts many Albanians. So when the announcement was made that Afghans would be housed in Shengjin and Durrës, most people were welcoming of the decision. “In some respects we have been in the position of Afghanistan today, passing the Adriatic [Sea] in Biblical scenes only three decades ago,” Remzi Lami, director of the Albanian Media Institute, told Al Jazeera from Tirana. “In this context refusal was not an option and it’s seen as fair by the Albanian public.”

A new generation

Every Afghan refugee at The Rafaelo believes they will be in Albania for well over a year as their papers are processed. For the 21 women who, like Sweeta Amani, are pregnant, that means a new generation of Afghans will be born in Shengjin.

Sitting in her sparse brown apartment on the second floor, the 29-year-old mother of two is relieved her baby will be born in a safe place. After arriving in Albania on October 10 and due in December, her pregnancy has not been easy. In the days that followed the fall of Kabul, her husband got her to gather the family’s essential belongings and rush to the airport. He worked in an NGO that promoted democracy, something which could have earned him a place on any Taliban retaliation list.

Sweeta Amani in her apartment at The Rafaelo [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

“I was five months pregnant at the time and for two nights we were crushed with 10,000 other people trying to get into the airport,” she recalls. “I was in so much pain, but I didn’t want to panic the children. I don’t know where I got the strength over those few hours.”

The family of four did not have access to water during that time and eventually, Sweeta’s husband pulled the family out fearing the swelling crowds would lure Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), suicide bombers. He was right. A few hours after the family left, more than 150 people were killed when a man detonated a suicide vest in the middle of the crowd.

Originally from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Sweeta is a shy woman with a penchant for fashion. Dressed in an immaculate black blazer with a gold and red trim, there is nothing about The Rafaelo she does not like. Her two sons aged five and nine can run around without her having to worry about their safety. She has received expert medical advice from volunteers like Dr Farida Yakubi, an Afghan paediatrician from London, who has rented an apartment in town so she can be on call 24/7 for people in need.

Sweeta Amani appreciates having the sea on her doorstep in Albania [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

But most of all, there is the sea on her doorstep, a sight she has still not gotten used to. “I had always wanted my husband to get us a home near some water, so it’s nice he fulfilled that promise,” she said with a wry smile.

She is not alone in her love for the sea. For many of the refugees at The Rafaelo, their arrival marked the first time they had seen open water. Children have learned how to swim. The cool sand has become fertile ground for evening football matches. The warmth and lull of the waves have helped to calm the worry many feel about the future.

“We thought we would be put in a camp in Albania,” said Sweeta. “Some days I feel like I’m dreaming when I wake up here. It still doesn’t feel real. My sons are here. My husband is here. My mother-in-law is here. I think my baby girl has brought us luck,” she added after confirming a recent ultrasound revealed the baby’s sex.

Ghost stories

No one is in a rush at The Rafaelo. People come and go to walk the beach or attend one of the English classes that have started, but it is not a hive of activity. There is a sadness and a feeling that time is moving slowly with each day the same as the one before.

The hotel is filled with people who never imagined they would have to leave their homeland so abruptly to start a new life on the other side of the world in the US or Canada.

Walwala, Meena and Shabnam on Shengjin beach [Amanda Coakley/Al Jazeera]

At the end of every day in Shengjin, people gather on the beach to enjoy a cool glass of juice. Women hold on to children who try to venture into the waves as men construct goalposts for a sandy game of football.

There, Al Jazeera met Walwala, 23, and Meena, 22, who had arrived the day before from Kabul. Still trying to take in their surroundings, the two polite friends from Afghanistan’s capital left all their relatives behind so they could have a chance at a better future by attending university in the US.

“We grew up with stories about life under Taliban rule in the 90s. They were like ghost stories,” said Walwala.

Now the ghost stories have become reality. “My heart breaks when I think of all the girls left behind,” said Meena. “Here in Shengjin, we’re the lucky ones but we are all facing uncertainty. Before I left, my mother said I will have to survive here somehow. That I was to work for my future and continue my education. But at the end of the day we are alone.”


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