From: Aneta Mihail Xhiku
Roots And Soul: Return To Albania

After 20 years of being an immigrant I might have learned a thing or two about the soul pains caused by uprooting and loneliness.

Albanians dream of moving to America but they don’t have the slightest idea of the emotional, health, family, professional, and social toll to be paid in exchange for economic comfort. Within a few years, most Albanian immigrants find steady jobs, purchase cars and houses; their kids attend fine schools and make it to the top due to ambition inherited from parents who fled a country with scarce opportunities.

If you leave Albania as a professional your goal in the U.S. is to reach at least at the same level, but this requires titanic endeavours that quickly translate into stress. Endless opportunities entice the immigrant to work harder and harder; she gets into debt to buy the best there is but the best never ends. Soon enough she’s caught up in a “rat race” and neglects to nourish the soul. Originating from a country where neighbours, cousins, colleagues or friends serve as therapists, she finds herself in a void – no one to pour the soul out to, no one to fill it up. The pangs of the soul convert to stress that inevitably paralyzes the muscles and destroys the body. The afflicted immigrant starts using medications that fix one thing and break two, but she continues to run until she stumbles and life gets tattered and torn.

My parental family, roots and branches, were all in the US, but I missed my friends, longed for my beloved Albanian language and for the landscape. Deep down in my subconsciousness I had the need to see the mountains, the hills, the lake and the river, but the fatal one was my yearning for the sea.

Have you ever experienced a recurring nightmare? Here is mine: I would go to Saranda for two weeks full of anticipation of enjoying the sea, but the last day would befall and I hadn’t had a single chance of jumping into the water. From my sister’s balcony, I could see a slice of blue, bluuue, bluuuuue… “Aaaaah, tomorrow I’m gone!” – I would wake up in distress, cheeks all wet as I was crying in my dream.

I’d made up my mind to stay in America, but perhaps, perhaps someday I would return to Albania after retirement. Our daughters had gone out on their own and it was prime time for us to take it easy and enjoy the fruits of toil in that prosperous country. But, of course, we don’t choose the cards we are dealt and it was my husband who made the decision to return to Albania.

I followed reluctantly but was nicely surprised by the energy, business opportunities and peoples’ warmth. “Welcome, welcome home, how long are you gonna stay?” “Forever!” Faces display sheer disbelief, then lighten up with pleasure “since she’s staying, she must know something we don’t.”

Once enthusiasm dies out the prying questions start, then the endless complaints, and I feel the deep desperation of Albanian society. “It’s over, no more hope” – the refrain I hear every day.

Opportunities abound in Saranda but my idle fellows have no eyes for them and keep repeating “this country is going down the hole!” No one stops them to go ahead and clean the alley in front of their house, plant flowers and trees between the ugly buildings, paint a wall or stairs, manage neighbours’ empty apartments, help farmers bring produce to the city, set up a choir or an excursion with the neighbourhood kids, lend a hand to someone in trouble – but no, no, they’re too busy watching Turkish soap operas, posting selfies in Facebook or savouring coffee under heavy clouds of smoking.

Meanwhile, foreigners arrive in Saranda in droves. After liquidating in their own countries, boom! They buy or rent apartments, and open up businesses – we, instead, are set to go, to get the hell out of here, presto! In the runaway families crumble, parents are left behind, children will never get to be spoiled by sweet grandparents, professional dreams go down the drain, and the fabric of soul wears out, thread after thread.=

A recent study on the factors determining longevity shows that the community is number one; number two is family and close friends; number seven is smoking. The probability for an immigrant to die because of loneliness is seven times higher than dying from smoking. Have you ever heard of any campaign against immigration? Watch the “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” documentary after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and residents were evacuated to Kyiv.

The radioactive death zone was surrounded by barbed wire, but about 100 elderly women secretly returned to their homes, trying to survive on lethal land. The word got out and a team of incredulous scientists and journalists arrived, risking their lives to witness and study the unthinkable. They concluded that the mortality rate of the elderly displaced in Kyiv was way higher than that of the Babushkas who returned to the death zone. Pure soul magic.

It’s been 20 months since my return and I am keenly aware of the Albanian society’s deep wounds. I realize how hard it is to raise children and take up a profession in a country where the government’s sole business is to line its own pockets, with politicians who systematically destroy opportunities for people who need the job and love to work. But the world has changed: the immigrants are no longer welcomed in the coveted west, the westerners themselves are not in peace at home (Shawn and Kyle sold all they had in California and are building a farm in Finiq; on Saturday I’ll wait for Lucy to arrive at the harbour with just two suitcases after she sold her apartment in Washington DC; Natasha is saying farewell to home in Long Island, while an apartment is ready for her in my neighbourhood.)

We are very fortunate to live in a country with a fantastic climate, natural resources, food, history, emotional intelligence, that make foreigners jump ship in the blink of an eye. Albania has moved forward in some ways, backwards in some others, but technology and social media have left no excuses for us to waste any time.

If we do the best we can, if we appreciate the excellent ones among us and appoint them to lead, if we support the civic courage to keep our leaders accountable, I feel the hopes are real. I spend my days with people who say “we can do something” and, as someone who has seen both sides, I say, “I was content there, but here I am happy here.”

P.S. (I personally know many immigrants who don’t share my opinion and are happy in immigration, but this is written for fellows who feel like me.)

This article was originally published on The Balkanista. You can follow the author’s blog here at