Jim Xhema speaks of his friendship with the former US Senator and presidential candidate, and of his tireless work on behalf of Kosova
By Ruben Avxhiu
30 years ago, a fact-checking delegation from the US Senate led by Bob Dole, traveled to Prishtina, Kosova, a place that was suffering under the yoke of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.
The visit internationalized the cause of the most forgotten people in Europe, the Albanians of Kosova and former Yugoslavia.
Jim Xhema, an Albanian-American leader, businessman, and philanthropist played a crucial role in educating Senator Dole on Kosova and in the preparation process that led to this visit.
It is one of those instances that illustrate the extraordinary work of the Albanian-American community in Washington on behalf of Kosova and the Albanian people.
Dole was a major figure in US politics and in international affairs. He had run for President and would do it again in 1996. A WWII veteran who had survived horrible wounds against all odds, he had become a leading conservative and Republican US Senator. He was Majority Leader and a powerful voice against communism and on behalf of freedom and democracy all over the world.
His visit opened a new chapter in the history of Kosova and for the Albanian-American historical friendship.
Dole left with a prophetic message for the Serbian authorities that resonated strongly throughout Kosova: “Freedom is coming! Democracy is coming!”
Indeed, 30 years later Kosova is liberated, an independent country recognized by 110 countries around the world, and the best functioning democracy in the region.
Today, the government of Kosova hosted an appropriate official recognition for the 30th anniversary of that historic visit. A plaque that gave credit also to the Albanian-American community and Jim Xhema was placed at the entrance of Grand Hotel where the meeting between the Senators and the leaders of Rugova took place.
In Dardania neighborhood of the capital, Prishtina, a statue of Bob Dole was unveiled and the former US presidential candidate, now 97-year old, spoke directly from US though a video message.
Dole was one of the first US officials to speak about Kosova, when he approached by then congressman Joseph DioGuardi, in mid-1980s. Through the congressman, he was introduced to a number of Albanian-American leaders, including Prof. Sami Repishti, many of whom would engage in the foundation of the Albanian American Civic League. Many of these people remained lifelong supporters of Dole and even campaigned for him when he ran for President. But it was with Jim Xhema that he connected the most and developed a strong friendship that continued to this day.
Xhema who also was invited to speak through a video message explained his connection to Dole: “33 years ago, when I met Senator Dole in person, the Majority Leader of the Senate I told him that I was Albanian and I grew up on a farm just like he did on the plains of Kansas. We both recognized that we grew up in a very similar way and that we had a lot of the same principles.”
This beautiful friendship continues to this day.
Jim Xhema immigrated to the United States in 1968, without money and with no understanding of the English language. Through hard work and determination, he became a successful businessman and used his fortune to give back to the community, to humanitarian causes, and to the Albanian nation suffering under Milosevic’s dictatorship.
He came from a Muslim background but offered 100,000 dollars for the construction of the Mother Teresa Cathedral in Prishtina.
Despite his many good deeds, Jim Xhema remains averse to publicity and has repeatedly refused interview requests and media exposure. His life story has been described for the first and probably only time in the voluminous book “Shqiptarët e Amerikës” (The Albanians of America) of Vehbi Bajrami, author and publisher of Illyria newspaper.
Dole remained interested and engaged in the Albanian affairs, especially on Kosova, for more than three decades. In 1998, he traveled to Kosova, when the war was raging and wrote an opinion piece in Washington Post that shocked the public opinion in the United States. Then chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ben Gilman, read the entire article on the floor of the House.
A resolution, written by representatives of both parties, led by Christopher Smith and Eliot Engel, which asked for the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and genocide was voted almost unanimously that day 369-1.
Dole warned of a humanitarian catastrophe going on in Kosova and played a role in convincing President Clinton to intervene militarily to end the violent actions of Serbian army and security forces. The intervention brought the liberation of Kosova.
Dole remained close to Kosova and was named Honorary Ambassador by President Rugova. His return to the liberated Kosova was especially emotional. Videos from the Associated Press show a clearly moved Dole surrounded by the people, who showed up in thousands to express their gratitude for his role in saving their people.
Elmi Berisha, another Albanian-American leader, became President Rugova’s special representative near the offices of Bob Dole and worked together to make the case for Kosova’s independence in Washington.
In 2005, they traveled together to Prishtina, where Dole received the Golden Medal of Freedom from President Rugova.
There is a Bob Dole boulevard in Kosova’s capital and from now on there will be a statue to immortalize his contribution to this young republic.
“I am so deeply humbled by this honor,” Dole wrote on Twitter. He went on to thank the American Chamber of Commerce, the US Embassy in Kosova, Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti,Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla, and Ramush Haradinaj former Prime Minister and leader of AAK party.
I am so deeply humbled by this honor. Thank you @AmChamKosovo, @USAmbKosovo, @MelizaHaradinaj, @haradinajramush, @Avdullah, all the other dignitaries and friends – most especially the people of Kosova – who made this possible. 🇽🇰 🇺🇸 🇽🇰 🇺🇸 https://t.co/TcdVYVvXGP
— Senator Bob Dole (@SenatorDole) August 30, 2020
Below it is the message that Jim Xhema sent via video on this occasion.
Good day ladies and gentlemen, all the distinguished guests, and members of our government. I am Jim Xhema.
I met senator Dole in 1987 when he was Majority Leader of the US Senate, Since that time long ago until now, we have remained close friends and he continues to work tirelessly on behalf of our young country.
As you all know Senator Dole and I worked very hard in supporting our cause together. On August 30, 1990, Senator Dole, leader of the US Senate along with 6 other senators came to Prishtina to meet with Dr Rugova and his team and witnessed firsthand the brutality that the Serbian forces imposed on the people of Kosovo under marshal law.
In 1990, few people had heard of Kosova. Milosevic insisted that this issue was Serbia’s internal affair. The attention of the world was on the other Yugoslav republics and even Bush Administration was hesitant to touch the issue. By traveling to Prishtina, 30 years ago, to talk directly to Rugova and his team, instead of through Belgrade, Senator Dole and his colleagues made Kosova instantly an international topic.
33 years ago, when I met Senator Dole in person, the Majority Leader of the Senate I told him that I was Albanian and I grew up on a farm just like he did on the plains of Kansas. We both recognized that we grew up in a very similar way and that we had a lot of the same principles. The Senator and I have remained very closely connected and very good friends.
From the time of our first meeting, Senator Dole has worked so very hard on behalf of Albanian people, especially the people of Kosova. Senator Dole was key in the initiation of the red line policy with President George Bush, the famous “Christmas Warning”. And he was the head leader of the US team including Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Al D’Amato to convince President Clinton to use military force to stop the genocide and go to war with Serbia, which directly led to the liberation and creation of our country, Kosova.
I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, especially the leaders who initiated this good work and made possible this deserved recognition of Senator Dole for all the work he has done for the Albanian people and our young country, Kosova. I hope and pray that we continue work hard together as a people to further develop our true democratic system which will fairly represent all the people of Kosova.
Thank you very much all – I wish you all the best and I hope to see you soon. Good bye. Ditën e mirë!