Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Other Immigrant



My Father’s Prayers
A Refugee’s Continuing Search or Freedom
by Peter Lumaj, ESQ
Page Publishing, Inc. New York, New York
Price: $25.95/softcover, 208 pages

Ben Johnson once said that the prospect of execution in the morning “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” So did communism in Albania, and elsewhere among captive nations, during Peter Lumaj’s formative years.

My Father’s Prayers is subtitled A Refugee’s Continuing Search for Freedom. Peter Lumaj is precisely the storm tossed refugee that the Statue of Liberty in upper New York bay welcomes with her lifted torch: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Lady Liberty boasts, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Albania, located in the Baltic region, bordered by Montinegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece, is washed by the Adriatic and lies opposite Italy’s boot heel. Following World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Albania was forced into the Soviet orbit, as was Poland, Ukraine and other of the Baltic States. Stalin smiled on Enver Hoxha, who emerged as the leader of the newly established People's Republic of Albania. It was not until Stalin’s death in 1953 that the country began its painful march towards liberty. Albania’s convalescence was long and wearying.

In 1945, the country initiated an Agrarian Reform Law which allowed the state to nationalize (read: expropriate) all property owned by religious groups. Resistance was futile; many believers were arrested and executed. In 1949, a new Decree on Religious Communities required that all religious activities be sanctioned by the state alone, and in 1967 Hoxha proudly boasted that Albania had become the world’s first atheist state. Churches were converted into cultural centers for young people. That same year, a law banned all fascist, warmongerish, antisocialist groups.  In 1990, Hoxha’s statute was toppled by students in Tirana, the capital city of Albania.

Soviet Stalinism was the crucible within which the Lumaj family – Catholic and, before Albania was throttled by Stalinist stooges, one of the largest family groups in northern Albania – was constantly tested.

The orbit of Lumaj’s father, a strong-willed but cautious anti-communist, was more powerful than that of the communist ruling class in Albania. It was under his father’s influence that Lumaj and two of his brothers decided to escape and strike a path to America. In such cases, there are always casualties. Lumaj’s father and others in his family disappeared in an Albanian concentration camp, and it seemed that the last remains of the once proud and independent Lumaj clan had been decimated.

In so many ways, Lumaj’s love of America parallels that of filmmaker Elia Kazan, an Anatolian Greek born in Constantinople who fled to America and was able to impress the pain endured by his family upon a film, highly autobiographical, titled “America, America.” One of the refugees says to another that America, seen from the hungry hearts of immigrants searching for liberty, is “an emotive idea” or, in Lumaj’s formulation, the prayers of his father.

Crossing the border into the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, Lumaj was sentenced to 30 days in jail for having illegally crossed the Yugoslav border. Transported later to a refugee camp in Belgrade that had been penetrated by CIA agents, Lumaj met John, who invited him to take a meal at a restaurant when Lumaj was on work furlough. It was John who told him that Lumaj’s family had been taken to a concentration camp in Albania soon after his escape.  Under his father’s guiding star, he told John the endpoint of his journey would be America.

On the way back to the camp, he was apprehended by two Yugoslav UDB agents and beaten so badly he ended up in the hospital. Later, at the American Embassy in Belgrade, where Lumaj and his brothers were filling out immigration forms, he once again encountered John, who was in charge of the refugee screening process.

“As he came to the end of my application, he asked me only one simple question. Why did I choose the United States three times in the section where it asked me to rank my relocation choices? Why hadn’t I chosen a second or third choice? I told him firmly that we had left Albania with the intent of becoming Americans, and that we didn’t want to go anywhere else.

“John smiled, knowing the misery we had suffered thus far to get to this point, and said simply, ‘Welcome to America.’”

Owing to his father’s prayers, Peter Lumaj began his process of assimilation to the United States in the old country, a route traveled by many other immigrants. A few years after having landed in New York, he became a lawyer, and in 2014 he ran on the Republican ticket for Secretary of State in Connecticut, losing by a slim margin.


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