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Out & About in Cleveland

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Albania Seen Differently

On Monday, November 10th, we went to the Rotunda in Cleveland City Hall for a photographic exhibit by Albanian artist Mr. Fate Velaj called "Albania Seen Differently." Actually, a more accurate title for the exhibition might have been "Albania Seen as It Is" because Mr. Velaj did not do any touch up or enhancement at all; because he wanted the subjects that he photographed to appear as natural as possible or, as he told us, this was "Albania without make-up." Our friend Mr. Dan Hanson confirmed this when he asked Mr. Velaj if he used photo shop at all and Mr. Velaj replied that he did not; the philosophy behind this exhibition was "to portray the real colors of Albania." The result was a stunning collection of 60 photographs (3 other photographers contribed a few of them but the lion's share were all done by Mr. Velaj) all depicting some aspect of Albania. Along these lines there were pictures of adults, children, landscapes and architecture. Accompanying, Mr. Velaj was Mayor Baftjar Zeqaj and eight other elected officials from the city of Fier in Southwest Albania which is Cleveland's Albanian sister city as well as Ms. Anila Nicklos from the Cleveland Clinic who was acting as translator. The people responsible for this exhibition were our friends Cuyahoga County Councilman Dan Brady and Cleveland City Councilwoman Dona Brady who Mr. Velaj said were "two real Albanians making a difference." Prior to the start, we asked Mr. Velaj how long he had been an artist and, with Ms. Nicklos' help, he told us that he had been into art since he was a child but it wasn't until fifteen years ago that he became "really intense" about it.

Mr. Velaj addressed the fifty or so attendees for a few minutes as he discussed two of his photos and their significance. One of the photos was of the plaza in Fier where there was an artwork designed by Mr. Velaj, himself, featuring an American Flag. Mr. Velaj told us that the 4th of July is always celebrated in Albania and the "Star Spangled Banner" is played out of respect for the American people. What's more, there is great respect instead of resentment for the men and women who have immigrated to the United States from Albania. The second photo showed a religious gathering which was the Pope's visit to Albania in September, 2014. The message behind it is that there is religious freedom there so people of different faiths can "work together in harmony." Later, Mr. Velaj was scheduled to meet with Mayor Jackson and then go to the Cleveland City Council meeting where he would be given a special citation.

We talked to Councilwoman Brady for the moment and we recalled to her that we had met Mayor Zeqaj a couple of years ago when he came to Cleveland for the dedication of the Albanian Cultural Garden. All of us remembered what a cold wet day that was with everyone crowded into tents and the security people attempting to wand us all in order to protect the dignitaries. It was the kind of day that was uncomfortable, to put it mildly, at the time but one could look back on it and smile, if not laugh.

We visited with Ms. Rose A. Zitiello, Executive Director for Westown Community Development Corporation, who recalled taking part in a project along with Ms. Margaret W. Wong, Mr. Richard Herman, and Mr. Len Calabrese whose purpose was to explore how to bring more immigrants to Cleveland. This was five or six years ago before Ms. Joy Roller moved Global Cleveland to the forefront concerning this issue.

We also talked with two men who had immigrated to the United States from Albania. Mr. Peter Spirollari used to be a school teacher in Albania before he immigrated here in 1998 and became a citizen in 2005. He now specializes in real estate and insurance opportunities. Mr. Gezim Aliaj immigrated here in 2002 and loves it here. In fact, both men agreed that what they liked most about the United States is the opportunities that it has given them.

As for Mr. Velaj's work, it is worth a trip to his website which is www.velaj.com to view it. We cannot imagine anyone being disappointed.

Our next and stop and final stop was the Garfield Heights Library where we attend the monthly meeting of the Cleveland-Bratislava Sister Cities organization. The speaker of the evening was Father Michael Brunovsky and his topic was the historical movement for Slovak Autonomy from 1915 to 1919. It was a impressively detailed presentation about how Slovakia attempted to obtain an equitable arrangement with the Czechs after World War I but its efforts were pushed back by various historical power plays.

What really interested us was how the Slovaks and the Czechs in Europe were violently at odds but those who had immigrated to the United States worked together to draw up the Cleveland Agreement (1915) and the Pittsburgh Agreement (1918) which signified a joint approach to attain the independence of the Czech lands and Slovakia in a common state in which Slovakia would finally have self-determination. Unfortunately, nothing came of it and it wasn't until 1992 that Slovakia finally had freedom.

Father Brunovsky displayed great command of his subject. Since 1993 he has taught social studies and theology at Benedictine High School. In 2008 he has served as academic dean and assistant principal of that same school. He has addressed this group before and someone said that he "was our favorite principal from our favorite high school." Most the other members who were there knew quite a bit about Slovakian history also. Of all of the people there, we were probably the least informed but we talked with our friend Mr. George Terbrack and Mr. Joe Hornack of the Slovak Institute who were more than willing to answer our questions regarding the basics.

We told Father Brunovsky that we had talked to his father, Mr. Paul Brunovsky on Saturday night at "An Evening in the Heart of Europe" at the Holy Spirit Party Center in Parma. In fact several people at the Monday night meeting had also gone to the Saturday night event and liked it a lot. One person said that it was "very elegant" and "more high class" than the last two weddings that she attended. Mr. Tom Ivanec, Director of the Lucina Dance Troupe appreciated the compliments and said that plans were already being made for next year's event.

And we, ourselves, are planning to be at the annual Cleveland-Bratislava Sister Cities Christmas Party at St. Joseph's in Brecksville on December 6th which is the same day as the Holiday Celebration of Margaret W. Wong and Associates and the Jamaican Christmas Party at Tizzano's in Euclid. We are going to have quite a day of fun parties but in the interest of not wanting to be partied out we are glad that a day like this happens only once a year just like Christmas.

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