Lidra Meidani, activist First Lady, is elegant, yet strong.
By Susan E. Pritchett Post
Just a year ago, pictures of ethnic Albanian refugees streaming into Albania from nearby Kosova filled our media, and Albania was brought into the international spotlight for a brief moment. During that time we witnessed atrocities and the ravages of war, and we were torn in our longing to help and our horror at the events as they unfolded.
Now Albania is quiet. Most Kosovar refugees have returned home, and Albanians have turned their focus back to their own country. Foreign and domestic investment has increased as evidenced by vast numbers of new buildings, hotels, and restaurants in Tirana, the new Millennium Movie Theater in the heart of the capital as well as movie theaters in other major cities, a Hyundai car dealership, a Mercedes Benz service center on the road to the airport, and a juice processing and packaging joint venture. Where once kiosks and amusement park rides stood in the center of Tirana, small parks are being reclaimed. Cybernet cafes, business centers and private companies of all sorts have sprung up throughout the city.
Despite the positive economic changes, the optimism that characterized the early post-communist period has been replaced with what some call 'pessimism,' but others identify as 'realism.' In addition to increased support from the United States and other countries, many Albanians are committed to building something real and enduring in their country, something they can be proud of. As one businessman observed recently, 'Before 1997, (when the pyramid schemes that had been operating since the fall of communism in 1992 collapsed), our projects were built on fantasies. Now we are more realistic and are building our plans on a firmer foundation.'
In homes, however, there is a pervasive sadness, as the society is torn apart through emigration. In a culture where the core value is the strength of the family, this is a national tragedy. Until 1997, there was a belief that the emigres would work for a time outside the country and then return, but that hope no longer exists as increasing numbers of young people have made the decision to make new lives for themselves in other countries. While older people struggle to find opportunities as they mourn the loss of their children, the young people feel lost in foreign cultures that do not support them in ways they have been raised to expect.
Lidra Meidani, activist First Lady, is elegant, yet strong, direct, and totally involved in the issues that are paramount to her. Her activities are more than sheer idealism. Her objectives are to make Albania a desirable country that her children and others will want to return to. She would like to see them plant themselves firmly in their culture and society while taking their place in the international community.
'I was brought up to love my country, to be proud of it. One grandmother taught me to recite the patriotic verses of Naim Frasheri, and my other grandmother taught me the history of my family and how it was interwoven with the history of our country. This has taught me always to look for the best in Albania.'
As an experienced teacher of Mathematics at Ismail Qemali School, a public high school in Tirana, she has a historical perspective on the issues that have faced families from the time of communist dictator Enver Hoxha through the post-communist period in which the country has struggled toward democracy.
The struggle which began in the early 1990's led to free elections in 1992 and the establishment of a democratic government under the Albanian Democratic Party of Dr. Sali Berisha. That party's control ended in 1997 when rioting and chaos broke out throughout the country following the collapse of the notorious pyramid schemes. When elections were held later that year, the Socialist Party and a number of smaller moderate parties were able to form a coalition government and Rexhep Meidani became President of Albania. Mrs. Meidani then added the job of First Lady to her roles as teacher, wife, and mother, and found a platform to realize her goals for improving the lives of women, children and families in Albania.
In a recent interview, First Lady Meidani spoke of her public work, as well as of her own experience as a mother, in facing the challenges of emigration and its impact on Albanian society. Focusing on issues pertaining to the most vulnerable children, Mrs. Meidani noted,
'In the past few years public awareness has been heightened in Albania regarding the needs of children, especially the orphans and abandoned babies. Although the positive results of programs in this area have not been adequately recognized by the media, nevertheless, good work has been done. Public and private centers have been established. These 'homes' are designed so that the children live in multi-age groups with a consistent core of caretakers, many of whom are young people who volunteer their time to these children. In addition, we have started programs that allow families to take these children into their homes over weekends and holidays to give them a place to experience family life. (The beginnings of a foster care system.) A next step would be to establish a school that would provide specialized training for the caretakers.'
Mrs. Meidani's interest in and activities on behalf of the development and welfare of children ultimately led her to become a member of the Board of Directors of the Albanian Children's Foundation. This Albanian charity is supported by the Albanian Children's Fund, established in 1996 by Domenick G. Scaglione, Chairman of the Albanian-American Enterprise Fund. It assists abandoned, orphaned, poor and destitute children in Albania, with a focus on assisting children affected by various diseases, particularly Thalassemia-Beta, a common genetic blood disease in Mediterranean countries. Without regular and frequent blood transfusions, children with this disease have a life expectancy of less than eight years and experience bone deformities and growth retardation, as well as a condition in which the over-production of blood cells in the bone marrow leads to paralysis.
First Lady Meidani explained why she so whole-heartedly supports the activities of the Albanian Children's Foundation.
'Much needs to be done now for handicapped children in this country. They suffer from the attitudes of parents who have tended to shut them away in shame. It is the goal of the fund to heighten public awareness, to improve the treatment of these children, and to help reduce the incidence of the disease through pre-marital screening. For this reason, one of the first objectives of the foundation is to establish a laboratory in Albania where blood analyses can be done. Longer term, our hope is to be able to save children's lives by supporting a bone marrow transplant program.'
As First Lady and an activist on behalf of women, Mrs. Meidani has also participated in women's organizations and conferences in both Albania and the region, seeking to support the role of women in society and the economy, as well as in politics. She explained her position:
'The central issue is that women should occupy important positions in society and be decision-makers in organizations. This is especially true in government where more women need to be in high positions, such as Minister and Mayor. In the upcoming elections, some effort will be made by the different parties to promote women through quota systems. This is a start.'
Looking to the future and her country's needs, Mrs. Meidani makes the education of young women a top priority.
'Young women must be well educated since so much depends upon them. A recent survey showed that in 80% of Albanian families financial matters are decided by the woman and, of course, mothers have a strong voice in the education of their children. Unfortunately, there are still areas of the country where families interfere, brutally denying the civil rights of their daughters to attend school. However, our responsibility and our challenge as a society is to provide high quality education and access to schools to overcome the objections of the parents and to encourage the intellectual development of young women. This problem is most difficult in the villages where there are so few children and such long distances for them to go to school. A good idea would be to build a school that would serve three or five villages and bring the children to school on buses. For now, this continues to be a problem due to lack of infrastructure, however.'
Mrs. Meidani also noted the need to raise public awareness of the educational system and of involving businesses, foundations, and non-profit organizations in funding and supporting education and individual students through grants and donations of time and other resources. 'This,' she said, 'is critical to the development of our country.'
The First Lady turned at this point to a critical issue for the current generation of young people - what education means to them today. She told a story of a young woman who was interviewed on television recently. She said that while she continues to pursue her studies, she becomes pessimistic about her future, especially about her job prospects when she sees her father, who is an engineer, being out of work for so long. Mrs. Meidani discussed this interview with her students, asking them what they thought of the young woman's pessimism. They concluded that, instead of becoming pessimistic, it might be better for this young woman to study the situation to see how she might prepare herself for the new economy so that she would be ready to take advantage of opportunities in a way that her father cannot. She added with emotion, perhaps thinking of her own son who is studying in Boston and her daughter who is studying in France,
'Many young people who subscribe to the pessimism expressed by this young woman think only to emigrate, to have educational and work opportunities elsewhere. Of course it is a wonderful thing that our children can go outside of our country for their education, but it is the duty of our society to work to make them return to Albania - to make this country a place of opportunity for them as well.'