War Torn

"...Persons of humanitarian and reformist disposition often go...to the Balkan peninsula to see who was in fact ill-treating whom...all came back with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacre and never the massacrer."

--Rebecca West in "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (1938)

On April 23, 1999, Nazar "Nick" Mehmeti stood outside the White House and chanted at Bill Clinton. The Albanian-American was one of hundreds there in support of NATO intervention in the Balkans. More than 4,000 miles away, bombs were crashing into the soil of Kosovo and Serbia, marking the historic apex of the U.S.-ethnic Albanian relationship.

A reporter approached Mehmeti, operator of several strip clubs and sports bars in Dallas, and asked why he had flown hundreds of miles to attend the rally. "We support the NATO troops, but we want them to put in ground troops also," he told the reporter. "Better yet, arm the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] and we can take care of our own."

The campaign and vilification of Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbs was an explosive validation of ethnic Albanian beliefs, and Mehmeti wanted to bask in it. Finally the world was acknowledging that its Serbian arch-foes were a thuggish band of criminals. It was a once-in-a-millennium opportunity for ethnic Albanians hoping to create a "greater Albania" with their self-considered historical lands, lands first occupied by the Ottoman Turk empire, then sliced and distributed like a pizza by European powers after World War I after the Turks were driven out.

Mehmeti retains the attachment to his nationalistic roots that is so common among first-generation immigrants. For ethnic Albanians in the United States, that also means supporting their people's often violent struggles in the Balkans, and on this front Mehmeti has distinguished himself. The founder of a national fund-raiser for the KLA, the violent underground movement whose acts prompted the fierce Serbian crackdown that in turn sparked the Kosovo intervention, said that Mehmeti donated more than a million dollars to the rebels, making him the largest donor in Dallas' Albanian community.

Mehmeti wouldn't return calls to validate how much he donated, but it's clear that he isn't alone locally in his support for the KLA: One-tenth of the money gathered in the rebels' U.S. fund-raising effort was raised in Dallas.

Not surprising, since the almost 2,000 ethnic Albanians in Dallas are a tight and nationalistic bunch, even though the thousands living in other metropolitan areas like Brooklyn dwarf their numbers. Here they stick close together, not only with social and cultural bonds but also through a support network of Italian pizzerias, a market that ethnic Albanians have dominated here since the 1980s.

But like so many immigrant groups, ethnic Albanians have found their niche in Texas much easier than finding a niche in their ancestral homes in Europe. And despite the close ties that bind, the newer generation Albanians are becoming accustomed to their lives in the United States, and their Albanian fervor is noticeably lower. The traditional dilemma of immigrants that pits the American culture against their homelands takes a dramatic turn as the Balkans is again torn by violence. That strife drives the community in Dallas together, gathering in Albanian American Community Center in Carrollton, serving as couriers bearing money for humanitarian or military uses and reinforcing the networks that the Albanian population has maintained here for two decades.

Over time, the pleasures and immediacy of American life overwhelm Balkan miseries. While remaining proud and patriotic, the newer generation doesn't rise to the level of nationalism that marks its predecessors or committed figures like Mehmeti.

For some, this disassociation is as simple as taking a bride. "I am the next generation, but I went the wrong way. I married an American girl. They don't think too much of that," says Agron "Roni" Sulejmani, whose father was one of the first to bring his family to Dallas in the early 1980s. "We don't get treated like other couples do, but that's fine. They're not what makes my world go 'round."

This week, Roni Sulejmani is opening a pizzeria called Luigi's Italian Café on FM 3040, near Flower Mound. This rather routine event is the latest entry in a story that extends across a generation; the family history of this 30-year-old entrepreneur is emblematic of the story of dozens of ethnic Albanian families here.

In the early 1980s, Sulejmani's father opened a pizzeria and named it after himself; Luigi's Pizza opened on Park Lane in Dallas. They estimate that they were the second ethnic Albanian family in Dallas, the first family being their cousin, who owned a successful pizzeria in Redbird Mall.

"He called my dad and said, 'Move to Dallas; this is where it's at.' So we sold everything in Philadelphia and moved," Roni Sulejmani says. "So I guess we were the second family of Albanians in Dallas."

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo