Today is the first of two Albanian public holidays (celebrating the country’s independence) – and even the sisters are taking a bit of a break after a very busy day yesterday. It is the day when the bishop comes to bless their newly re- opened ‘ambulatorio’. This is a good opportunity to share something more about my time in Albania.
Right from the start it has been an exercise in flexibility! The day I arrived, Aferdita, the Mary Ward Loreto key worker in Lezhe, where I was meant to be based for the whole of my stay, had to have an emergency operation on her spine. Fortunately, she is recovering well, but it meant that my program had to be adapted. And so, after 12 days in Lezhe and an overnight stay in Tirana, I travelled up to Tropoja, a district in the very north of Albania, high in the Albanian Alps and close to the border of Kosovo. Tropoja is stunningly beautiful and, in the summer, the Valbona Valley is a popular tourist destination, but the people are very poor- especially in the remote villages. In many ways, it is real mission territory. There is no priest in the entire district (on Saturday and Sunday afternoon a priest comes over from Kosovo to say mass in two of the villages) and the three Franciscan sisters I am staying with are the only religious here.
The past month has made me realise how many things I have always taken for granted: equal rights for women, access to (higher) education, a reliable public transport system… Life in Albania is very different. It is still, especially here in the north, a very patriarchal society. There is a high level of domestic violence. Many girls have to leave school, not only because the family can’t afford to pay for higher education, but because they are expected to get married, arranged by the family. Another experience that has stayed with me, was the day when the sisters in Lezhe invited me to talk to the final year students in the (private) high school. All of them wanted to leave Albania and even the English teacher told me afterwards that he could see no future for his family in Albania, as there is so much corruption – the political party that has been in power for the last six years and is the successor of the communist party. As for the Church, during communism, Albania was officially an atheist state and the (official) church was more or less destroyed. (38 Albanian martyrs were beatified in 2016). Due to their remoteness, the villages remained Catholic during the Ottoman Empire. Religious education here in the village mostly seems to consist in the weekly catechism classes held by the sisters. And yet, there is something in the way that people express their faith that is deeply moving! I have been constantly amazed by the friendliness and hospitality of the people I have met and have visited with the sisters and with Lulzime, the local Mary Ward Loreto key worker. It is very humbling to see the conditions in which people live (and the general hopelessness of the situation here in the villages) and yet to encounter people who work tirelessly to make even a small difference!
On Saturday I am returning to Tirana, and after three days with Imelda and working at the MWL Advice Centre with Arveda, I will travel to Sarandë in the very south of the country. MWL has another centre there and I will stay with one of the local women for 10 days, before going back to Tirana for the final two days of my time in Albania.