Illyria / June 5, 1995
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES -- Hidden in an old house on the edge of an obscure, working-class district of Argentina's capital city, a faded wall mural depicts the ancient Albanian warrior Skanderbeg leading his men into battle against the Turks.
Outside, a plaque identifies this house as the headquarters of Argentina's Shoqëria Patriotike Shqiptare Skenderbeu, or Albanian Patriotic Association. Yet few who see the plaque read Albanian or have any idea who Skanderbeg was.
"We rent the building out to other groups, and we only meet there two or three times a year," says the association's president, Nicolas Luca, a 62-year-old freelance architect and the son of Albanian immigrants from Gjirokaster.
Luca is one of 300 or so Albanians left in Argentina, a vast nation that stretches from the Bolivian highlands in the north to windswept Patagonia in the south. Looking at a globe, it seems the immigrants who settled in Latin America 80 years ago couldn't have picked a farther place in the world from their Illyrian homeland, or a country more unlike their own.
In fact, when the first Albanians -- including Luca's uncle -- arrived here in 1912, Argentina was already well on its way to becoming one of the world's 10 richest countries. A major exporter of meat and grains, Argentina made a fortune during World War I selling provisions to both sides of the conflict. By the mid-1920s, Buenos Aires was considered the Paris of South America, with its wide boulevards, gleaming new subway system and European fashions.
Albania, on the other hand, was still a feudal state, ruled by King Zog and wracked with poverty.
"During Zog's regime, there were no jobs, and Albanians continued to come to Argentina, induced by relatives who were already here," said Luca, interviewed in Spanish. "Most of the immigrants were from Korçë and Gjirokaster, and 80% of them were Orthodox Christians. After 1930, the immigration stopped, and Albanians intermarried with Argentines."
According to Luca, Albanians who arrived here without family contacts were often sent by the government to Río Negro province in Tierra del Fuego, while others were sent to the northern provinces of Misiones, Chaco or Corrientes to cut wood.
"Each one sought his fortune, though eventually, most of them came to Buenos Aires," he said. "The system we had here was tyrannical, but most of the Argentine people had democratic tendencies. In time, the community grew. Those who were born here learned the customs and traditions, but didn't learn Albanian."
Today, says Luca, fewer than 50 Albanians here can speak the language of their forefathers. His own wife, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, doesn't speak Albanian; nor do their two sons, Daniel and Silvan. And despite his Albanian heritage, Luca says he feels 100% Argentine.
"I was born here and I love my country," he said. "When I went to Albania last year, I brought a cassette tape of tango music and yerba mate (a traditional Argentine drink). The only thing I didn't have was a gaucho suit."
Today, except for a few families in Rosario and Córdoba, nearly all the Albanians here live in Buenos Aires, a bustling metropolis of 10 million.
Teri Pojani, Albania's newly appointed ambassador to Argentina, says he also knows of three or four Albanian families in Brazil, and a few more in Uruguay and Venezuela.
"We have this embassy for all of Latin America," Pojani told Illyria. "From a political point of view, it's very important to have representation here. Brazil and Chile are two other important countries. If economic conditions permit, we will open embassies there, too."
Interestingly, Albania has had an embassy in Buenos Aires since the 1970s, but for most of that time, Luca says, "they were here for propaganda reasons only. They went all over -- Chile, Peru, Mexico -- trying to spread Communism. In 16 years, they didn't make a single business transaction."
In the early 1980s, he recalls, three Albanian scientists came to inspect an atomic reactor near the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche. "They left after a week, and we never heard anything about it again," Luca said, adding that "during Communism, we went to the embassy as Albanians because they invited us, but we didn't discuss politics."
In 1991 and 1992, as the winds of democracy swept through Eastern Europe, Albania decided to cut costs by closing its embassies in Argentina, Mexico and Cuba. Last year, however, the government of Sali Berisha reopened its embassy in Buenos Aires, at a new location along Avenida Libertador, a few blocks from the imposing Park Hyatt Buenos Aires.
Interestingly, Albania's former ambassador in Havana, 50-year-old Christopher Ndreu, is now living rent-free in the Shoqëria Patriotike Shqiptare building -- along with his wife Clara and their two children -- while the ex-diplomat looks for a job. Also living in Buenos Aires is the well-known Albanian actor Minella Borova.
Pojani says that in addition to maintaining cultural ties with Argentina's tiny Albanian community, his main objective is to attract foreign investment to Albania.
"Argentine technology isn't the best, but it's not old like ours," said the diplomat, who served as chief of Albania's foreign investment agency before coming to Buenos Aires. "They've already invested in Bulgaria and Romania. Why shouldn't they invest in Albania too?"
Pojani, 34, is trying to get Argentina to sign a bilateral investment treaty with Albania, similar to the treaty signed earlier this year between Tiranë and Washington.
"We have one of the most liberal foreign investment laws in Eastern Europe," he said. "Three Albanian missions have already visited Argentina, including one organized by the World Bank so that our officials could study Argentina's privatizations and apply those experiences to Albania."
He added that later this year, Albanian Foreign Minister Alfred Serriqi will make an unprecedented visit to Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
In the meantime, one prominent Argentine businessman has already decided to invest in Albania. He is Jeremia Bonnano Nahmias, a 63-year-old Macedonian Jew whose life was saved by Albanian authorities during World War II. When Bulgarian authorities began the deportation of Macedonian Jews to concentration camps in 1943, Nahmias fled to Tiranë, using a fake Albanian passport, and lived there for two years.
Following the war, Nahmias settled in Israel, where he fought in both the 1948 War of Independence and the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He eventually settled in Argentina, where he and his Bulgarian-born wife and two daughters run an import-export business.
For the past five decades, Nahmiah has carried a laminated yellowed photo in his wallet showing himself and fellow prisoners -- some of them Albanian Muslims -- at a Nazi concentration camp in Austria.
Nahmias, who has been back to Albania several times in the last few years, hopes to enter into several joint ventures with Albanian entrepreneurs in the food-processing industry. He's friends with several members of the Argentine Albanian community -- including Luca and Pojani -- and says that if he invests anywhere overseas, it will definitely be Albania.
"They saved my life," he said. "I have many friends in Albania and this is my way of repaying their hospitality."