Merita Kraya showing the symbol of the double-headed eagle across her heart
If you pay attention to details in restaurants, you may have noticed a red flag with a black double-headed eagle on the wall at Euro Pizza Café. It’s the flag of Albania, the home country of owner Merita Kraya. When November 28 rolls around each year, Merita has two reasons to celebrate. It’s Albania’s Independence Day, but it’s also the day she escaped from her homeland.
Albania is a tiny, Eastern European country about the size of Maryland, but its location between Greece and Italy made it a strategic land for empires and dictators throughout history. The Ottoman Empire invaded the country in the 1300s and remained in power until November 28, 1912, when Albania declared independence.
Over the next three decades, the country bounced between different forms of government and various leaders. World War II placed it at the center of struggles from fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and neighboring Greece. When the dust settled, Albania found itself under the rule of the Soviet Union as a satellite state. They were thrust into the deepest throes of Communism that is only rivaled by what we see in North Korea today. Many attempted to flee, and some of those who were unsuccessful were executed.
This was the world of Merita Kraya’s upbringing.
Merita wore a red and black dress, symbolic of the Albanian flag, as she talked about the history and culture of her homeland.
“The double-headed eagle on our flag means that we’ve been there forever, and we continue to survive,” Merita says. “We don’t call ourselves Albanian. We call ourselves Shqiptar, which means ‘sons of the eagle.’ Our legend tells of an eagle carrying a man on his back to the mountains where the man continued his tribe away from occupiers.”
Merita explained that throughout history, someone has always wanted to eradicate them. It was an accessible, strategic corridor between Europe and Asia, and the Mediterranean weather was a lure for many. Yet, after all these cultures passed through the area and flexed their political and military muscles, what remains is still an authentic Albania.
After six hundred years under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Albania declared its independence on November 28, 1912, a day that is still affectionately celebrated.
When the London Congress convened in 1913, there was a discussion about separating Albania into different countries to appease other regional political powers. It was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson who stood up for Albania. His research about the country revealed its deep history and culture, and he even discovered that George Washington’s mother was Albanian. He was the only one who stood up for this small country, and his arguments were successful.
“The United States has been our beacon ever since,” Merita says. “If it weren’t for President Wilson, Albania wouldn’t exist today, so we’ve been grateful to the U.S. ever since.”
Albania’s troubles weren’t behind them yet, though. After World War II, Albania fell under the rule of the Soviet Union, and Communism was ushered into their government. Enver Hoxha emerged as the leader and ramped up industrialization and urbanization. Agriculture became a cooperative, and the government banned antisocialist propaganda.
The Communist regime outlawed all forms of religion. Many Islamic ulema and Christian priests were arrested and executed, and property owned by religious groups was nationalized. Preaching religion carried a prison sentence of three to ten years.
After Stalin’s death, Albania broke up with the Soviet Union because they weren’t Communist enough. Instead, they aligned with China which was far worse than the Soviet Union. But when President Richard Nixon visited China, Enver Hoxha decided China was no longer Communist enough and broke away from them.
Hoxha completely isolated Albania from the rest of the world, allowing no contact with outside countries or travel. People caught fleeing were often executed, and their bodies were dragged through the streets as an example to others. Hoxha died in 1985, and the tide began to shift in Albania.
When Communism began to crumble around the world, Albania was poised to make a change. Many people became politically active, especially students, and campaigned against their government. The country held its first multi-party elections in 1991, but Communist leaders maintained a foothold. But the general elections of 1992 led to a departure from Communism and the establishment of a republic.
Albanians still faced conflict in places where they lived outside the modern-day borders of the country, especially in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanians who fled from their homes during the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo credit President Bill Clinton for bringing an end to the conflict in 1999.
In 2007, President George W. Bush called on the United Nations to quickly grant Kosovo independence amidst their struggles with Russia and Serbia. As a result, Kosovo became independent from Serbia in February 2008. Since Kosovo is ethnically 88% Albanian, this was felt as a win for all Albanians.
Both presidents have been honored with statues in Kosovo and Albania for standing with these countries. “Americans should be proud,” Merita says.
GROWING UP UNDER COMMUNISM
Merita was born during the worst part of the Communist regime in the 1960s.
“When people start talking about North Korea and ask me what Communism was like,” Merita says, “I tell them that I lived that nightmare. It was as extreme as what we’re seeing in North Korea today. My brother ended up in jail because he thought about leaving the country, which was considered treason. Every family had someone in jail or internment camps. My grandfather owned a lot of land, so our family was marked because private property wasn’t allowed. So, they took everything.
“We were completely cut off from outside communication. There was only one TV channel that played propaganda all day long. So, my brother and I built this antenna, and I made it look like the branches of a fig tree. We received a signal from Italian TV, and that’s how I learned to speak Italian. It was the only way we could know what was happening in the rest of the world. If we’d gotten caught, we would have gone to jail. But we were young and thought we were going to change the world. We were just so hungry to know what was happening.”
The strictness and control of the government reached deep into the people’s personal lives.
“The school called my parents one day to say curled hair wasn’t allowed,” Merita continued. “My hair is naturally wavy, but it wasn’t allowed. We had to wear a ponytail, straight hair, no makeup, and no high heels. Everyone was required to dress the same. We weren’t even allowed to listen to music. It was so strict.”
At one point, Merita was interrogated and nearly arrested for something she muttered under her breath. She was getting ready to take a Physics exam as she worked toward her civil engineering degree. The pressure to pass was intense because only students with straight A’s could remain in university.
“I’m about to start this exam, and I was saying under my breath, ‘Oh my gosh! God, help me. God, help me. I have to pass.’ Somebody heard me and reported me, and I knew the only hope I had was to play dumb.
“The guy interviewing me said, ‘You said such-and-such. Why did you say that?’ I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I grew up with my grandma, she says this thing, and I just repeated it.’ He asked, ‘What is your grandma’s name.’ I reluctantly told him her name. He stopped the recording tape and pulled all of the tape out of it. He said, ‘You’re going to go home to your parent’s house for a couple of weeks, stay away, and then you can return to school. Your grandmother saved your life today because my friends and I played in her backyard when we were kids, and she always gave us fruit and was so nice. You were on the path to going to prison today.'”
MERITA’S INDEPENDENCE DAY
Merita planned her escape from Albania for a year and a half. It was a slow, painstaking process, and she couldn’t tell anyone she knew what she was doing.
“We didn’t have an American embassy, so I had to travel to another city to meet with an Italian woman who helped me put my plan together. I sat in a phone booth and pretended to be on a phone call. She told me how to get a visa and what to say on my application. I only had one shot at this.”
The Italian woman was finally able to secure a visa for Merita to travel to Italy but also got an additional thirteen visas so Merita could help others escape. The woman advised them to leave the country two at a time rather than as a group not to stir up suspicion. Merita left in the last group since she was organizing the escape plan and wanted to ensure everyone else got out. They left under the guise of a ten-day trip to Italy.
“I only had $50,” Merita says. “I had to wear a jacket with inside pockets where I hid my diploma and other important paperwork. I couldn’t let anyone suspect that I was leaving for good. I would be executed and dragged through the streets if I got caught.
“It took me a year and a half to plan my escape, and when I did leave, I couldn’t tell anyone, including my mother. It was as if I had disappeared from the face of the Earth. Nobody knew if I was dead or alive, or if I had left the country, or where I was. I vanished. It was five months before I had contact with my family.
“I left on Independence Day, November 28, 1990. I made it symbolic because this was my Independence Day.”
STARTING A NEW LIFE
Merita succeeded. She worked as a nanny in Italy because it gave her a place to live. She also found a job at the American embassy as a translator because she knew English and Italian.
“There was a priest who helped me get the nanny job, and I went with him every Saturday to help refugees. The IRC (International Rescue Mission) got me to Italy. I also worked with IRC after I came to Arizona to help with the Kosovar refugees. Kosovars are ethnic Albanians.”
Eventually, Merita could move to Chicago to stay with an aunt until she got her feet on the ground. She married her Albanian boyfriend, who had also escaped, and they moved to New York for a year and a half. The Chicago and New York weather kept making her sick, so her doctor recommended she move to Arizona.
“I was pregnant and didn’t even know how to drive. We weren’t allowed to own cars in Albania. So, we learned how to drive so we could go to Arizona. We had $2,000 and didn’t know anyone. My husband couldn’t even speak English. When you have nothing to lose, and you only look forward, you’re a survivor. Albanians have always been survivors.
“We met some Albanians from Macedonia when we got to Phoenix, and they owned a restaurant, and my husband started working for them. I had a remote job working as a translator for the State Department, and I went through the certification process to transfer my engineering degree to the United States.”
Today, Merita has been the proud owner of Euro Pizza Café in Fountain Hills for over twenty years. She uses her success to help others. She is quick to give back to the community in many ways, and she continues to support the Albanian community in Arizona, which numbers nearly 5,000 people.
Merita still holds great pride and connection with her homeland. All four of her children were born in Arizona. Still, she made sure they grew up speaking the Albanian language, including taking Albanian language classes at ASU, which is part of their Rare Languages program.
Every Christmas, she throws a holiday party for her employees. She plays Albanian music for the first half hour and teaches them traditional dances.
She also owns her grandfather’s house in Sarande, Albania. The home is 400 years old, and she plans to restore it. She’s also having a new home built in Sarande to have a place to stay when she visits. She returns to Albania every year because her oldest daughter lives there.
“The thing about America,” says Merita, “is that it’s not like any other country in the world. It was founded because there were people who had the desire to have freedom. I sacrificed everything to come here, and no one will ever take my freedom away again.”
Merita has applied to be the Albanian consul representative for the State of Arizona. Arizona has approved her application and is waiting for approval from the Albanian Ambassador in Washington, D.C.
Merita encourages people to visit Albania. After years of struggle following the fall of Communism, the country is beginning to thrive. Tirana, the capital city, is as modern and exciting as any European city. The smaller cities are also making great strides in improving their infrastructure and the quality of living for their citizens.
Visitors love the ancient castles dotting the country from top to bottom, the soaring mountains and turquoise lakes in the north, the beautiful coastal waters of the Adriatic Sea to the west, the pristine night skies to the east, and the short ferry ride to Corfu, Greece to the south.
Through six hundred years of Turkish occupation and forty years of Communism, they preserved the language and have proven to be survivors. They open their arms to share their beautiful country and rich culture with tourists who discover this hidden European gem.