Elbasan, Albania — Maybe I should have picked another city or a different group of students.
I was teaching English to a classroom of Kosovar refugees at a refugee camp in Albania a couple of weeks ago. Introductory stuff. “Hello.” “My name is …” “How are you?”
For one’s day unit — a pretentious description for a seat-of-the-pants curriculum — I had my score of students perform drills asking and answering “Where are you from?”
They sat at 10 simple wooden desks in a small but brightly lit classroom, on the second floor of a concrete building that housed a military officers’ club during communist days. It looked, in American terms, like an old-fashioned high school.
I went around the room, asking the students, rhetorically, if they were from various cities: London? Paris? Berlin?
“Are you from Belgrade?” I asked one student, a girl in her early 20s. The whole class responded as one. “No!!!!”
Driven from their homes in Kosovo by armed Serbs, their relatives killed by Serb soldiers and police, they felt no affinity with the capital of Yugoslavia’s Serbian Republic. But they were amused by my geopolitical faux pas. A few quietly booed.
I chose non-Serbian cities for the rest of the linguistic exercise.
What was I doing in this sleepy, closed-factory town in the center of the country where goats and donkey-drawn carts ply the same potholed roads as flatbed trucks bearing army tanks?
Serving as a volunteer for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which established the refugee camp — one of two in Elbasan — as part of its “nonsectarian” mandate to the non-Jewish world.
I was trying to help some refugees and making a statement that we Jews take seriously our ethical responsibility. At the Passover seder each year we remember our days in slavery, and we don’t forget the world’s indifference to our plight six decades ago.
How much could I accomplish in a fortnight, in a single camp where about 200 Kosovars — a fraction of the half-million ethnic Albanians who crossed the border into their spiritual homeland — were housed?
Probably not very much. I could teach some basic grammar and phrases. But my guide was a statement in Ethics of the Fathers that “You do not have to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from it.”
You don’t have to save the world. You just have to do your share.
My share, I felt, was to teach English. The refugees requested the classes; when they return home to Kosovo — all were sure they would — they would be dealing with English-speaking journalists and human rights officials.
With no background as a teacher or expertise in ESL (English as a Second Language), I drew up some lesson plans, interviewed a few English-speaking Albanians who would share the teaching load, and faced a room of students. Mine were the adults, college-aged to middle-aged.
To teach counting and shopping, I made my own currency: singles, fives, tens, twenties and fifties. The dollar bill, featuring a portrait of “President Lipman,” is certain to become a collector’s item.
In this first visit to Albania, a land closed to outsiders until the start of the decade — certainly to Western journalists — I observed how little of doctrinaire communism remained. For example, though Albania once declared itself the world’s first officially atheistic state, post-communist Albanians have embraced religion with a vengeance. I met young citizens who were fervently born-again Christians, I stood outside a packed mosque during Friday afternoon services, and I saw billboards for evangelical rallies near the main square of the Albanian capital, Tirana.
Free enterprise was banned under communism but today the land is replete with small businesses, kiosks, billiard halls and car washes. Sadush Hyseni, the owner of the small inn where I stayed, is an entrepreneur non pariel. Once a mechanic, he opened his popular inn and restaurant a few years ago. He also started a brewery down the street that turns out 1,000 bottles of his Hyseni label beer each day.
And there’s freedom of the press. Albanians in the old days risked their liberty to listen to Voice of America or BBC radio broadcasts. Today, nearly every apartment is graced by a satellite dish. CNN rules.
When not teaching, I hung around the grounds of the camp, which all the workers called the military camp. Surrounded by a fence, the site has a small front lawn, where the refugees spent long hours smoking cigarettes (the men) and doing laundry (the women) and playing volleyball (the kids). All huddled around transistor radios for news updates.
Food deliveries, rice, bread and other staples, drew eager crowds when they were brought by other humanitarian organizations at the front steps.
Inside the dark halls of the once-crumbling three-story building — where the JDC was adding a kitchen, laundry room and latrines, and where Kosovar doctors met patients in a makeshift clinic — women prepared meals over small propane heaters. The smell of food filled the halls where laundry was hung out to dry.
During breaks I visited the large British- and Turkish-run refugee camps near Elbasan, and in all the camps the morale was good. In a people who had just suffered a national tragedy, I saw no open sorrow, no tears. When I talked to the refugees — and I tried to respect their privacy — they talked about their return home, not about what they had lost, not about their former Serbian neighbors who had driven them out.
All Muslims, they expressed little interest in my Jewish identity or motivation, despite the knit kipa on my head. No curiosity, no hostility.
The last day, I distributed my newly minted bills. My students made fictional purchases. At the end of the class, some thanked me as they filed out of the room. Most left their “money” on the front desk.
One man, in his 50s, approached me with an impish smile and a fistful of dollars. He held them out to me.
“I want to pay you,” he said, “because you learned me English.”