Limbo, Luxury And The Long Road To A New Home

Published 20 days ago
By Contributor | Andrew Robinson, co-founder, TradingHouse Global
Tirana’s downtown area with the tallest building in the city – The Plaza Tirana at sunset (85m), Albania, 2018
Source: Getty Images

How the forgotten Afghans of Albania have made their way to a new home.

For a group of Afghan evacuees forced to flee their home country in the fall of 2021, a tourist village on the Albanian coast became more than just a temporary stopover on their way to the United States (U.S.).

Nestled in a large bay on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Shëngjin is a sleepy little fishing port and the northernmost naval entry point into Albania – less than 12 miles from the Montenegro border. At least, it was a sleepy little fishing port, once upon a time. The town has become a popular vacation spot in recent years, with a string of hotels sprouting along the strip of land between the golden sands of Shëngjin Beach and the scrubby, mountainous ridge that separates the town from the farmlands of Balldren. In the summer, flooded by local day-trippers and scores of visitors from nearby Kosovo, the population of fewer than 10,000 swells almost tenfold. Some locals and visitors feel that tourism has changed Shëngjin; that it’s not the town it once was. 

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Sitting in the Rafaelo Resort, a luxurious Albanian sprawl of hotel buildings, pools and gardens perched on the water’s edge, Nawid could relate to the feeling of his home changing. Except instead of high-rise hotels and loud music, his home of Afghanistan has seen economic freefall, increasing food insecurity, the almost total erosion of women’s rights, and a rise in torture, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings. 

Nawid is one of around 78,000 Afghan citizens – among more than 122,000 in total – who were evacuated from Kabul, in 2021. The joint government evacuations took place over two weeks in August, involving 38 countries, hundreds of flights and at least 195 casualties, including 13 U.S. service men and women. As Taliban forces overran the city and began closing in, thousands upon thousands of people flocked to the airport, desperate to escape. These included those who had worked with NATO and U.S. forces or other international organizations, women and vulnerable minorities, along with chancers who simply fought their way through the crowds to make a break for it. Despite the extraordinary efforts of those on the ground, the Biden administration has faced criticism for handling the operation and its failure to evacuate all of its Afghan allies. 

Even for some of those who safely boarded flights out of the country, the path to a new life has been far from smooth. Most of the Afghanis flown out by the U.S. government boarded military aircraft, landed at military bases and began the process of relocation in the U.S. — an effort led by the Department of Homeland Security and dubbed Operation Allies Welcome. 

However, thousands also boarded civilian aircraft, commercial or chartered, in the weeks leading up to and after August 31 2021, which marked the deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. These evacuees landed in destinations such as Greece, Uzbekistan, Iraq and Mexico. Around 2,400 landed in Albania. 

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Acting in good faith

It might seem surprising that one of Europe’s poorest countries – certainly one of the poorest in NATO – would welcome so many people fleeing a conflict more than 2,500 miles away. Albania is a remarkably pro-US nation, both diplomatically and publicly. The US was instrumental in granting NATO membership to Albania in 2009, which has been a steadfast ally in international affairs, and the general public has long held an overwhelmingly positive view of America. They’re also overwhelmingly in favor of acceding to the European Union, for which Albania has been a candidate since 2014, and Prime Minister Edi Rama is eager to position his nation as a cooperative, beneficial ally to Western causes. 

But the welcome given to Afghan evacuees stems from something much deeper than mere diplomacy. Albania has been welcoming displaced peoples for decades, guided by the cultural precept of besa. The concept, which translates to “faith”, emphasizes honoring one’s word and providing protection and sanctuary to those who need it. The country has sheltered Jews during World War II, members of the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq and Uyghur Muslims, among others. 

Displacement is part of the history of the country, and the memories of older Albanians. In the early 1990s, tens of thousands of people fled worsening economic conditions, food shortages, and social and political tensions in the wake of the fall of communism in the country. Some found refuge in neighboring states, while others — notably most of the tens of thousands who crowded aboard the cargo ship Vlora bound for Italy —were turned away or deported. The experience lingers in the national psyche, making for a largely positive and welcoming response to thousands of Afghans from locals who wanted to spare them what they had suffered decades before. 

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What was meant to be a temporary stopover for U.S. allies gradually revealed itself to be a gilded cage. Once the initial confusion of landing in Albania had passed, many could not believe their good fortune at being accommodated in a five-star resort rather than a camp, while trauma and suffering swept across Afghanistan as the Taliban claimed power. 

But, for Nawid and others, living in a resort was not real life. Normal family functions, like preparing meals, were not available to them. While it would seem to most that this life is not so bad, in reality, ongoing resort living takes a psychological toll. It fractures normal life patterns in ways incomprehensible to those who have not endured this kind of situation. They lived in serviced rooms, not homes they could make their own, and meals were prepared by chefs and served at designated times. Anxiety and restlessness grew as time wore on, and no news was forthcoming about processing for relocation to the U.S. The evacuees spent their days waiting, adrift in uncertainty about their future. 

In December 2021, the U.S. State Department announced that those who had boarded civilian or chartered flights out of Kabul before August 31 were eligible for resettlement in the U.S. Many of the Afghans staying at the resort, however, had left after this deadline. Private organizations that had evacuated them from Kabul ran out of funds to pay for their room and board, making an already fraught situation even more stressful. These organizations appealed to the U.S. government to assist, but the State Department responded that privately evacuated Afghans were not its responsibility. For the Afghan evacuees, their limbo seemed indefinite. 

Rescuing hope

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In September 2022, a collective of U.S.-based NGOs, civilians and veterans working together as the American Rescue Project (ARP) — who operate under the mandate that every life matters — stepped in and took it upon themselves to make good on the promise of a better life for the evacuees. They had a very short window to solve the housing crisis before the evacuees were evicted, but also had to urgently start processing the group of just under 400 for their final relocation ‘home’ to the U.S.

With limited resources, its first move was to find a group of trustworthy partners who could act quickly and in the best interest of those they intended to serve. ARP was already working with TradingHouse Global in other conflict zones globally, so turned to them for help. The South Africa-based commodities and goods trader — with vast experience and varied expertise in operating in the most challenging situations in the most out-of-reach places — recognized the need for freedom and autonomy for these people who had lost everything and immediately mobilized a team on the ground.

What followed was a monumental humanitarian mission. It required the sourcing and securing of accommodation, the provisioning of food for three meals a day, specialized medical care, stipends to be paid, and education to be provided, all within a 30-day window. 

A friend of TradingHouse Global, the Uruçi Foundation, provided on-the-ground knowledge and support, and the partnership mobilized at lightning speed. They sourced and leased apartments to rent. They financed stipends for basic expenses and worked with suppliers of goods for cooking, knowing that the freedom this provided would offer improved mental health and the beginning of a transition into a ‘normal’ life.

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Beyond the logistics, the endeavor required several meetings with Albanian and U.S. officials. There also had to be political and social lobbying in the U.S. to arrange for — and make the final resettlement of — the group a priority at the Department of State. 

The results were almost immediate. The U.S. Department of State began processing the group for relocation, arranging interviews, medical examinations, and necessary vaccinations.

In early 2023, the U.S. government stated that its goal was for all the Afghan refugees in Albania eligible for relocation to the U.S. would be moved by June of that year. It took a little longer than anticipated, but within three years of fleeing in panic from their home country, the evacuees who found refuge in a little tourist town on the Albanian coast are now all U.S. citizens with a new life in a new home country. Seventeen of the 400 people under TradingHouse’s care have chosen to stay in the country and have been welcomed by their new kin.  

This is a notable success story in its ability to assist people caught in a global crisis, restoring a sense of security and — perhaps most importantly — a place to call home.

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Andrew Robinson, a South African-born entrepreneur, is passionate about making a difference in people’s lives and firmly believes in servant leadership. Over the past 20 years, his tenacious business reputation has grown globally; tradinghouse.co.za