From: Alice Taylor
Visiting the Fundjave Ndryshe Restaurant and Centre

A short drive to the outskirts of Tirana, under the shadow of the Dajti Mountain Range, sites the Qendra e Solidaritetit Fundjave Ndryshe, stretching over some 43,000 square metres. The NGO behind the project, headed by energetic and bright-eyed Arber Hajdari, has been working tirelessly for some six years to bring much-needed aid, support, and on-the-ground assistance to vulnerable families and communities across the country.

Shortly after the 2019 earthquake that killed 51 and left thousands homeless, Hajdari sprang into action and started providing food, shelter, and clothing to those in need. He also headed up a massive fundraising drive which raised enough to construct more than 60 new homes for those who had lost everything. In total, the NGO has built more than 650. During the COVID-19 pandemic, his team did valuable work from north to south, and they were even on hand to help when thousands of Afghan refugees arrived in August 2021.

But the centre aims to provide free-of-charge, long-term, sustainable assistance to those in need, rather than just emergency assistance.

“The greatest desire and need of Fundjave Ndryshe was to build a multifunctional centre for people in need, which would focus not only on emergency assistance but also on education, training, vocational training, employment, legal support and health care. We wrote all these thoughts in 2016”, said Arbër Hajdari.

Construction of the centre, funded by more than 500 donors and pledges to the US-registered NGO, started two years ago amid earthquake recovery and at the start of the pandemic. There is still work to be completed today as several communist-era warehouses still need to be repurposed, but an impressive amount of work has been done.

Sprawling over several thousand hectares of land once home to communist-era warehouses, the centre provides a large warehouse for storing everything from furniture to baby formula, a learning and education centre, library, and health centre, and will soon be home to hospital wards and an old people’s home.

“It is part of the first phase and the construction of the professional school, which would serve free of charge to all who need and desire to learn in professional education. Part of our future projects is the construction of an orphanage and a home for the elderly, where all services will be free,” Hajdari added.

But one of the most interesting parts of the development is the restaurant. Finished to an impeccable standard, featuring smiling and smart waiters, and offering a fine selection of traditional food and higher-end dishes such as foie gras and multiple options garnished with truffles, the eatery serves as another source of revenue for the NGO.

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“All of the profits from the restaurant go back into the foundation. It is important that we become as sustainable as possible, not just dependent on donations,” he said, tucking into a piping hot bowl of soup.

During our visit, I gleefully tucked into a mushroom soup with “dua” the Albanian word for love, drizzled across it in olive oil. Then between us, we shared piping hot, light and fluffy byrek with an assortment of fillings, and octopus carpaccio which was fresh, plentiful and seasoned to perfection.

The menu itself is comprehensive, offering up seasonal foods of the highest quality, cooked with painstaking attention to detail both in terms of flavour and presentation. The portions were incredibly generous, to the point we could not finish even thought, due to the wonderful flavours, we very much wanted to.

Amongst the staff are vocational students, who are also involved in creating and distributing some 2000 meals to those in need, every. single weekend. The restaurant and centre is available for use for events, for free, for any social activity.

Aside from the restaurant, which is perfect for events and regular dining, there is a manicured garden and a children’s play area, positioning it as an excellent location for families and those looking to escape the city for a few hours. But there is something even more satisfying about knowing that the money paid at the end of the meal goes to support a much-needed cause.

Hajdari’s foundation has also become known for the help provided to people, especially children that require medical treatment abroad. He explains in detail the story of a young girl who is suffering complications from an appendix removal and was given no chance of living by Albanian doctors. But thanks to his perseverance, pressure, insistence, and the money he managed to raise, her condition was stabilised through dialogue between local and Italian doctors, so she could be airlifted to get treatment abroad.

He shows me a picture on his phone with pride of the young girl who is expected to make a full recovery.

But he quickly explains that his aim is not just to assist a platter for those in need. Instead, those receiving homes and other assistance must commit to working to better their own circumstances. For example, sending their children to school, attending courses, entering the workforce, and more. He talks of a point system where once a certain number of points have been gained; they receive the documents to their property.

“We cannot just give them the fish; we have to teach them to catch the fish,” he said, echoing the famous saying.

After our lunch, I received a tour of the facilities. The warehouse is expansive, with furniture, food, clothing, toys, and even a fully kitted-out ambulance. Having worked with the NGO when the Afghan refugees came to Albania, I was impressed with their high level of organisation and accountability; they provided me with inventories and photos of all items I gathered and gave them to distribute.

Beyond the warehouse is a fully kitted out educational centre with over 15,000 books in English and Albanian, a classroom for lessons including English, and a fully functioning computer suite with modern equipment.

The health centre behind it includes sections for children with speech and learning delays, an ultrasound suite, a dental clinic, and a GP. All that is missing is mental health services, which we all agree are much in need but hard to acquire. Albania currently only has around 25 psychiatrists, just over one for every 100,000 people.

Over the coming months and years, other parts of the centre will come to life, providing comprehensive care for citizens from all around the country. He explains he also wants to work with local women, harnessing their talents and teaching them skills in creating artisanal products to make them more financially independent.

In terms of running the centre, he explains that it is not without its challenges. While they will likely mitigate much of the impending energy crisis due to installing solar panels for all power needs, taxes and customs fees are a significant drain on funds. Hajdari explains that every shipment of aid donations that come to the country is taxed into double figures, despite them being for charity.

“It makes our job harder; it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

But he doesn’t let it deter him. Hajdari has enough energy and determination not to let simple matters like customs fees set him back. He is absolute in his desire to help people and create a sustainable community for people in need and a better future for the Albanian people.