They underline his long record of supporting the Albanian community, but above all they see in him the very qualities America desperately needs in its president
By Ruben Avxhiu
A diverse group of Albanian American leaders came together this weekend to endorse Joseph R. Biden, Jr. for President of the United States.
The statement, which was published in Illyria, the New York-based, Albanian-American newspaper, praises Biden’s lifelong support for the Albanian people and underlines his deep belief in American democracy and in international institutions.
His work across party lines, his inclination to seek wide consensus on major challenges that face our nation, combined with a demonstrated integrity and honesty, are the qualities that the group says are needed in our next president.
An early and strong Albanian connection
Our immigrant community has always prided itself for its bipartisanism, but the Albanian-Americans who are endorsing Biden argue that the current president has moved away from the best traditions of American democracy and has weakened our support for international institutions and policies which have enjoyed bipartisan support since the end of WWII.
On the other hand, many have pointed out Biden’s long record of supporting the Albanian people in the Balkans, especially during his years in the US Senate. He was a strong voice for peace, freedom, and democracy. When Kosova was facing a humanitarian catastrophe and genocide, he showed leadership by advocating for a joint-NATO military intervention. When Albania’s fledgling democracy was making its first steps he was there to help.
“Leadership and Unity when it mattered most. Joe Biden supported and championed the Albanian Cause in the Senate and as Vice-President. He will continue to do so as President. Ask yourself, where would Kosova be if this current administration was in office during the war, witness to genocide and the refugees crisis?” says Aferdita Rakipi, one of the leaders who joined the group. She is a former Executive Director of IPKO and used to serve as Communications Director of the National Albanian American Council.
Small community, crucial votes
As America heads towards an unusual presidential election campaign with a pandemic raging and the country still reeling from lingering economic vows and widespread protests over racism and police abuse, the Albanian-American community is also debating the choices we face this November.
While a relatively small community, Albanian-Americans can play a decisive role in states like Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona etc.
For example, Trump carried Michigan in 2016 with a difference of only 10,000 votes. Albanian-Americans have almost 40,000 registered voters in that state and could become kingmakers if the result is that close again. No wonder, the Trump reelection campaign has embraced a group of Albanian-American Republicans, who offered their support and organized back in March of this year. At least, one leader of our community there, Gjevalin Gegaj, met with Vice-President Mike Pence, during a stop-over in Michigan.
The group of Albanian-Americans for Biden-Harris however believes that their community will be on the right side of history and hopes that they will vote massively for the Democratic ticket.
“Vice President Joe Biden is the leader we need in this time of crisis. The United States will be a country that welcomes newcomers again. I trust Joe Biden,” says Dona Brady, Chairwoman of the Albanian American Association of Greater Cleveland and a 20-year veteran of the Cleveland City Council, in Ohio.
They are taking the initiative in the upcoming weeks. Today’s statement is simply a start. Many are already part of the larger Biden campaign operation. Others have their own networks of influence. The group also launched a Facebook page and is planning an array of activities.
The focus, however, will be on getting members of the Albanian American community in the swing states of Florida, Michigan, and Ohio to vote for Biden. By doing that, the organizers hope Albanians can contribute to the margin of victory for the Biden-Harris ticket.
Led by Ilir Zherka (Washington DC), Avni Mustafaj (New York), and Anila Nicklos (Florida), respectively, this group includes both elected officials and former elected officials and candidates.
“I’m for Joe Biden. I embrace his policy of protecting and empowering women around the world,” says Anila Nicklos, of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council.
Besides Dona Brady, from Ohio, a veteran organizer of political races, the group includes Mark Gjonaj, the first Albanian-American in history to be elected in the New York State Assembly and then in the New York City Council.
Vedat Gashi was elected last year to the Westchester legislature in New York. Ken Biberaj, who now lives in Virginia, worked on the Clinton Global Initiative, ran for New York City Council, and is on the Finance Committee for the Biden campaign. This group of community organizers is working closely with the Biden campaign.
An impressively diverse group of leaders
If diversity is an asset, this group certainly has it. They span generations, geography, and ancestral lands in the Balkans. Sami Repishti, 95, a retired college professor from Connecticut, is a survivor of political prisons in communist Albania and has spent his life advocating for human rights. Suzanna Shkreli is an excellent Assistant Prosecutor from Michigan, who at 29, became one of the youngest candidates to have ever run for US Congress in her state.
Ramazan Bekteshi, of the Kosova Democratic League and Ilaz Kadriu are veteran community leaders based in the wide Chicago-area, with an activity that spans three decades. Business leaders like Richard Lukaj and Ilirjan Rusi have funded several great cultural, educational, and humanitarian initiatives in our community.
James Biberi is a well-known Albanian-American actor, who played in the internationally successful movie Ocean’s 8. Drilon Gashi is a leader of great potential who represents the young generation of activists in our community.
A history of contribution in the Democratic Party
Albanian Americans have organized in support of Democratic candidates for over 30 years. Ilir Zherka has served as the lead organizer for the community at the national level. He is one of the original members of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council (NDECC), which is a part of the Democratic National Committee. Zherka has served as the Albanian representative on the NDECC since 1994 and was a superdelegate in 2008 when he cast a historic vote for Barack Obama. He also served as the National Director for Ethnic Outreach for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign in 1996.
Since then, Zherka and other Albanian American leaders, such as Dona Brady, Avni Mustafaj, Anila Nicklos, and Ken Biberaj, have organized community groups to support Democratic presidential candidates.
With Biden there is however a particularly special connection.
“’A friend in need is a friend indeed’” and Vice President Biden has been a strong advocate of Albanian issues, both the US and in the Balkans. He has earned our support, and I strongly endorse we vote for him,” says Avni Mustafaj, former Executive Director, National Albanian American Council.
Richard Lukaj, a banker and philanthropist, Trustee of Lukaj Foundation, shares the same opinion: “Biden was instrumental in his outspoken support during Albanian crises throughout the recent decades. We owe it to him and his family to support his candidacy for President. He has been a proven leader on issues near and dear to our hearts.”
For all of them however, Biden is first and foremost the best choice for America.
“We need a President who fights for working families, recognizes diversity as our strength, and upholds our institutions instead of undermines them. We need a President who will restore dignity in the White House and one Americans can be proud of — that’s why I’m voting for Joe Biden,” says Suzanna Shkreli.
They were inspired also by Vice-President’s Biden decision to choose Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants, as his running mate. This is a ticket they believe will be the best choice for America.
“I endorse Joe Biden because of his consistent leadership in supporting the Albanian people and his unique ability to work across party lines to achieve results for the American people,” says Ilir Zherka.
Indeed, for a community that has worked with leaders of both parties for several decades now, there is nothing more important than a president who can bring the nation together. For this group of Albanian-American leaders there is no doubt on who deserves our vote in November.
Full text of the statement:
Albanian Americans Endorse Biden-Harris
We, the undersigned, endorse Joseph R. Biden, Jr. for President and Kamala D. Harris for Vice President of the United States.
Vice President Joe Biden has demonstrated throughout his career outspoken support for the Albanian people, a commitment to helping all Americans succeed, and a devotion to our democratic institutions. The United States needs all those things in their next president. Biden’s life-long support for Albanians has been singularly impressive. As a leader in Congress, he embraced Albania’s transition to democracy and called on the United States to support its development since then. When the people of Kosova fought for their freedom and independence, Joe Biden stood by their side. When the Serbian government responded to that demand with a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign, Joe Biden supported American military intervention and eventually Kosova’s independence. He has also supported democracy and human rights for Albanians throughout the Balkans during his tenure in the Senate and as Vice-President.
Here in the United States, Joe Biden has worked to make real the economic opportunity and security Americans need to keep our country prosperous. The Vice President has led the way in demanding health care coverage and quality education for all. He has also embraced the need for the United States to lead on combating climate change and developing the technology for that purpose. On the pandemic, Biden has promised Federal leadership based on the recommendations of public health officials, as well as broad economic relief. The Vice President has also led the fight for equality for women, minorities, LGBTQ Americans, and others. Most importantly for a community of immigrants, Joe Biden believes deeply in American democracy and international institutions. He has worked across party lines on behalf of the American people, sought consensus on some of the most difficult issues facing this country, and has demonstrated integrity and honesty. We need these qualities in our next president. Joe Biden has also worked diligently to support and strengthen international institutions. Those institutions are as important now as they were when the United States helped form them in the aftermath of World War II.
We also support Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris for Vice President. Senator Harris’ experience and compassion will make her a strong advisor. Moreover, her personal story as a first generation American is inspiring, as is her love for this country.
For all these reasons and more, we endorse Joe Biden for President and Kamala Harris for Vice President at this critical moment for our nation and the world.