By Ruben Avxhiu
Pashko Gojçaj is one of the first Albanians I met in America, when I arrived in The Bronx, on that extremely hot summer of 1999.
With his brother Lekë, they offered us a place to stay for a few days until an apartment became vacant in one of the buildings that they owned in Pelham Parkway.
It was a delight to meet the two inseparable brothers in their business office in Lydig Avenue, filled with patriotic and symbolic memorabilia from the Albanian lands. They were fierce patriots and devoted Catholics.
I moved early from their place in order to be closer to Illyria newspaper’s offices, in Belmont and later in Manhattan, but the friendship continued. I got to know them much better, years later, when I translated in English, Lekë’s autobiography which mapped their unbelievable life jouney, which took them, from little orphans in a faraway mountain village in Montenegro to successful landlords and esteemed community leaders in New York. The two brothers were living examples of the American Dream.
I truly struggle to imagine them apart and I have no doubt this loss has been heavy on Lekë.
They never met their father who died in suspicious circumstances and were raised by the mother Kaltrina, who served as a major inspiration to both of them throughout their lives. Their family was well-to-do, but they grew up under communism, a regime which took away their wealth and limited their chances for education and professional growth.
The ideology in power compounded with the ethnic discrimination. Despite their business success in their teens, Lekë and Pashko opted to move to the United States like many of their compatriots did in the late 1960s. They lived and worked in Detroit and New York and were among that genial, hard-working group of Albanian-Americans who dared to move in and invest in The Bronx, when everyone else was leaving. Their success helped the revival of the poorest neighborhood of the City. Their buildings became homes to thousands of Albanian families over the years.
The two brothers used the hard-earned wealth to sponsor Albanian patriotic events and the development of a strong catholic community, first in The Bronx and then in Hartsdale, where the Catholic Church Our Lady of Shkodra was eventually built.
Their signature initiative became that of erecting statues of Mother Teresa here in the United States and in the Albanian lands.
They were in awe of the diminutive Albanian-born nun, with her global appeal and inspiring humanism. They saw her work as a major example to follow and imitate. When she passed away, they were among the few Albanians who traveled to Calcutta for her last farewell.
Pashko and Lekë would soon sponsor three Albanian sculptors from different religious backgrounds to work on a statue of Mother Teresa. It was placed with great ceremonies in their birthplace, in Tuz, Montenegro.
Other versions of the statue would later be placed in Prishtina, Struga etc, as well as near the Albanian churches in Hartsdale New York and Rochester Hill, Michigan.
Smaller size versions of the first statue were used as awards to Albanian and non-Albanian personalities who had helped for the patriotic cause of the Albanian nation.
In that dynamic duo, Lekë was an intensive driving force, while Pashko seemed like the easy going, cheerful component with an eye for detail. One couldn’t manage it without the other. I had the chance to meet them only in the later part of their lives, but Pashko was always well-dressed and well-mannered, a gentleman in his own right. They made for quite an interesting experience for me. Two old-school traditionalists from High Albania with knowledge and reverence for the teaching and the practices of Kanun meeting a young skeptic from the uber-liberal downtown Tirana. Believe it or not it worked just fine.
As they retired and left the business to their sons, my only contacts were the rare phone conversations with Lekë. It was from him that I learned about the death of Pashko’s wife. I had thought that among the two, Lekë was the one with health problems, but fate can be unpredictable.
Pashko will be sorely missed, to family and friends, but his was a life worth living. And besides their work and personal memories, with his brother they left a few statues behind as well, as historic marks in the life of their community and their nation.