Members of the Albanian group, Vatra, with President Woodrow Wilson in 1918.
For the last 100 years, the group Vatra has served as a home away from home for many Albanian Americans.
“Vatra is a place of historic value, with a big and important inheritance,” boasted Vatra president Dr. Gjon Buçaj, at the group’s modest three-story walk up on Southern Blvd.
The non-profit commemorated its centennial last Sunday with a gala celebration at Pier 60 in Manhattan. More than 1,100 dignitaries, politicians and Albanian community members attended.
“We made it for 100 years. That means something,” said Buçaj, who joined the group 50 years ago. “We hope to live another 100 years.”
Vatra’s beginnings date to a pivotal meeting on April 28, 1912 in Boston.
At the time, an estimated 5,000 Albanians were living throughout the Northeast, mainly in Boston. Their numbers spawned several small grassroots cultural groups.
After a series of meetings, a small delegation decided to unite their efforts and create Vatra: The Pan-Albanian Federation of America.
“’Vatra’ means ‘The Hearth,’” explained Danny Blloshmi, the group’s current treasurer. “The idea was to say that we are all here in a foreign country but we are all home together.”
In the early years, Vatra members said, the organization played a key role in Albanian politics.
“We did a lot more for Albania than the government there, which was pretty weak,” Blloshmi said.
When European powers gatheredfor the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and threatened to carve up Albania, Vatra members lobbied then Pres. Woodrow Wilson to quash the attempts.
“To this day,” Blloshmi said, “President Wilson is known as the one who saved Albania from being chopped up.”
During the 1943-44 German occupation of Albania, Vatra recruited intelligence officers to work alongside the U.S.
In the late 1940s, the organization was criticized for its initial support of Albanian Prime Minister Enver Hoxha.
“We later denounced him when it was clear he was a communist dictator,” Blloshimi said.
In the years that followed, Vatra became more of a social organization.
Its Boston headquarters found a new home in the Bronx in the 1980s, when Albanians flocked here..
Vatra is now staffed by volunteers, and sustains itself on membership dues, advertising in the monthly newspaper, Diell e, and donations.
The group works mostly to help Albanian immigrants navigate their new lives in the U.S., and organizes special events and celebrations of Albanian holidays.
“There’s a need to help, especially the younger generation, with the culture so they don’t lose that identity” said Dalip Greca, editor of Dielli .
The organization supports Albanian students with scholarships, and raises monies for causes such as
when floods devastated two cities in Albania last year.
“We want to move into the next century of Vatra,” Blloshmi said. “We need to move on, get a new direction and be relevant again.”