Albanian-American brothers, Bekim and Burim Rexhaj, two unsung heroes of our time, who brave the circumstances to donate food for the needy and for the frontline essential workers through their Outta Hand Pizza restaurant in Westfield, New Jersey
By Ruben Avxhiu
One persistent bright spot amid the eerie and deadly crisis caused by the spread of coronavirus has been the generosity and the humanity of a number of members of our Albanian-American community.
Two of them who have truly distinguished themselves from the very beginning, are Bekim and Burim Rexhaj, brothers, friends, and business partners.
As most of us either retreated to our homes or had to keep working because of the essential status, under the new lockdown rules, they threw themselves into a new mission; they reached out to the needy and the most endangered.
The two brothers run a restaurant known as Outta Hand Pizza in Westfield, New Jersey. A popular spot for the town and the surrounding area.
Through Outta Hand Pizza they handed out food to residents in disadvantaged communities and to everyone in the frontline against the COVID-19 disease and in charge of public safety and order.
Boxes of pizza have flown to residential buildings, local police and fire departments, and to a number of hospitals and health centers, to doctors, nurses, and healthcare employees.
“They are our first and last line of defense”, Bekim Rexhaj says.
The older of the two brothers, he came from the region of Peja, in Kosova, a long 32 years ago, leaving behind a worsening political persecution and economic devastation. The United States became home to him and his family.
They struggled initially as many newcomers do, however no job was too hard or too tiring for them. The hard work paid off and Bekim found success as an entrepreneur in the booming construction business in New York.
With his brother Burim, they gave it all and as their economic situation changed, so did their determination to give back to the community, whether it was for the cause of freedom and democracy in their old homeland or for the betterment of their fellow Americans here in New York.
More than two years ago, they saw a new business opportunity and Outta Hand Pizza became a reality. They employed locals, some of them Albanian immigrants who remind them of their own early days and the business grew fast. Bekim and Burim love everything about this place. The success of their food, the satisfaction of dealing directly with people, the way Westfield has welcomed them, and pleasure of giving back to the community.
As the crisis shut down movements and businesses everywhere, Outta Hand Pizza turned to a new mission. No one deserved to go hungry because of the situation. “We decided to step in, because authorities are always late to intervene,” Bekim said. “Yes, it is a restaurant, but not everything is about money. This came from our heart.”
They knew Westfield very well by now. They knew where people were struggling, and they visited a number of buildings of disadvantaged communities and left distributed boxes of pizzas for anyone interested.
In the following days and weeks, they made a point by stopping to the firefighters’ station, to the police department, and to local hospitals and clinics to distribute food and drinks for the frontline heroes of our days.
How appreciated this help has been, is illustrated in a sweet and grateful comment, I found, on Yelp for the restaurant, by Sue L, an “urgent care worker”: “Hey outta hand! Just wanted to say thank you for your food drop today! I am from the urgent care you came to that some kind customers sent pizzas to. I just a wanted to say thank you to everyone for all of their donations. The driver told me today that they have delivered over 450 pizzas to over look and I could not be more thrilled to hear such a thing. The hospitals are in great need of many things but food is always necessary and as health care providers sometimes food or hydration is simply forgotten about. So thank you and thank you kind residents of Westfield for your support.”
The two brothers are outgoing and opinionated, but they are also modest and publicity-shy. Yet, the local media has taken notice of their good deeds and a number of TV channels, including ABC have already featured them in their chronicles.
“What we have done was never about publicity,” Bekim tells me, during a phone interview. “We see it as a duty to help the less fortunate and to show solidarity with those who brave the circumstances to keep us safe and alive.”
He had been a number of times to the hospital in Summit, NJ to help the employees with food and drinks. Unbeknownst to him, a close friend, another Albanian-American, Kujtim Zherka was hospitalized there and lost his life to COVID-19. “The news hit me hard, but I found the explanation for the strange feeling that I had experienced when my trip there coincided with his hospitalization.”
These humanitarian initiatives are nothing new to those who know the Rexhaj family. Long before this COVID-19 crisis arrived, about a year and a half ago, they set up a fundraiser program to take care of local US veterans. The program is ongoing has earned them a lot of praise and support. Almost every local official has stopped by to congratulate them.
“The only thing that matters however is how I feel about it in my heart,” Bekim says. “I have been blessed with the opportunity to help and that in itself is the best reward.”