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Albania
Albania is known for its quirks and major differences if, indeed, it is mentioned at all. It is a smaller country that can be found in the Balkan Peninsula with a population of approximately three million. One of the first things to remember about this country is that a nod means “no” and shaking the head in the other direction means “yes.” The second thing to remember is if there is a stuffed toy hanging from a building, it ought not to be removed.

Yes, in this country, weather-beaten rabbits are hung by their ears, scarecrow-looking objects are posted by balconies and they are very important in keeping the peace of mind of Albanian cities. Like many Middle Eastern countries, these inhabitants seek to protect themselves against the Evil Eye.

The instrument that is used to provide this kind of protection is called the dordolec and the soft toys are also called kukull. Elizabeth Gowing, a reporter for the BBC, interviewed an owner of a furniture store: “‘It stops the evil eye from seeing our money,’… He explains that at first, he hadn’t hung a monkey up when he was building this place. ‘And then the police came. My son went out and bought a monkey and we’ve not had any trouble since.’”

The idea behind this practice is that the passer-by fixates on the dordolec and thus does not covet the property of the house it belongs to. There’s no direct correlation between these objects and a religious belief per se.

Michael Harrison from the U.K. says, “In Albania, such beliefs can be found in all religious communities, Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic – in fact, I encountered less examples of the dordolec in the north, in the area around Skhodër, where the Catholic Church is particularly strong.”

Religion doesn’t always relate directly to the customs of a country. A writer from the travel blog, A Dangerous Business, says, “In fact, most of Albania’s current reality can be traced back to that paranoid leader, Enver Hoxha, who ruled with increasing suspicion of the wider world until his death in 1985.” In driving through Albania, one might see numerous bunkers because Enver Hoxha generally isolated himself and had a strong fear of the outside world.

Now, visitors of Albania can expect to be welcomed with open arms with the natural expectation that national customs will be learned and respected.

Anna Brailow

Sources: BBC, Dangerous Business, Michael Harrison
Photo: Flickr

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Since the fall of socialism in 1991, Albania has made great strides in establishing itself as an economic and political power in Europe. The country has joined the United Nations, NATO, World Trade Organization and the Council of Europe. It is poised to join the European Union.

One of the factors holding the country back has been the exclusion of its minorities, primarily the Roma and Egyptians. This exclusion has left 75 percent of Roma and 70 percent of Egyptians categorized as very poor, compared to the 28.8 percent of Albanians with the same rating.

This socioeconomic status is due largely to of a lack of education, employment and basic infrastructure.  This has led many members of these groups to seek wages in the informal labor market, which includes prostitution, women and child trafficking and drug trafficking.

While the government has claimed to include these minority groups in Albania, Egyptians have not been given minority status. The government claims they have not met the criteria necessary. Egyptians must share the same language (other than Albanian), have documentation to prove its distinct ethnic origin or national identity and have distinct customs and traditions or a link to a kinship state outside of the country.

However, the Roma have met these criteria, and, as of 2005, the Albanian government has signed up for the Decade of Roma, a World Bank initiative designed to help in four key areas: education, employment, health and housing and gender and non-discrimination. To date however, the results are not very encouraging, as the number of Roma still labeled as very poor continues to rise.

Against this very bleak picture, several rays of hope have begun to shine on the Roma and Egyptian communities from several organizations. One of these organizations is the United Nations Development Plan, implemented by the Ministry of Social Welfare and funded by the European Union.

These organizations have constructed a project designed to promote social inclusion of Roma and Egyptians through vocational training to increase their employability and strengthen artisan and entrepreneurship skills, especially for women and girls.

The training entailed learning how to cultivate medicinal plants. It was a week-long program where participants were trained how to cultivate, collect and dry medicinal plants. They also learned how to start a business. Additionally, women who owned pieces of land were given sage seeds to help get them started.

Within six months, several of the women who took the course were entrepreneurs employing up to three other women in their businesses. The UNDP recruited sage specialists to assist farmers throughout the process and help them in timing their sales and marketing their product.

Luan Ahmetaj, Director of the Medicinal Plant Institute in Tirana, Albania said, “What makes this intervention unique is the involvement of women in business dominated and run by men. This contributes in empowering those communities.”

There is a huge potential for Albanian medicinal plants. According to the U.S. Agricultural Department, 57 percent of sage imports into the U.S. come from Albania. There are close to 300 members of Roma and Egyptian communities in the regions of Berat, Korca and Vlora that are now benefiting from the initiative, almost half of them women.

Another aspect of this program has been the support of interventions into infrastructure identified by Roma and Egyptian Community Councils, such as kindergartens, road rehabilitations and other interventions. These programs also support the Government of Albania in its efforts to achieve the objectives set forth in the Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015. It also promotes respect for human rights and appreciation for cultural diversity, as prerequisites for the country’s EU accession.

Frederick Wood

Sources: Minority Rights 1, Minority Rights 2, UNDP, UN Albania, ERRC
Photo: Flickr

Albania Poverty Global Downturn Financial Crisis
Since 2008, Albania has seen an increase in the national poverty level and remains one of the poorest countries in Europe.

The Statistics Institute of Albania (INSTAT) recently reported that this increase has largely been due to the global economic crisis, especially now since that Albania is no longer the centralized, state-run economy it once was. Due to relatively low rates of growth from 2008, Albania has found itself struggling economically, with many people blaming the global economic crisis, especially economic crises in neighboring countries like Greece and Italy.

Despite the economic growth Albania, a country with a population of only 3 million, has undergone under its free market economy, nearly one-fourth of the population still lives in poverty.

Even though Albania saw a decrease in extreme poverty between 2002 and 2005, poverty has actually risen 1 percent from 2008 to 2012. While both urban and rural areas have seen similar percentage increases, a little over 2 percent, some highly populated regions have experienced vast increases.

For example, Tirana, the capital of Albania, has experienced a nearly 5 percent increase in poverty. After the end of communism in Albania, many state-owned industries closed, and many people found themselves struggling with unemployment.

As a relatively new free market, the Albanian economy is not apt to deal with macro-economic slowdowns. The worldwide economic crisis further exacerbates the troubles many smaller-scale farmers have in finding outlets to sell their products. In a globalized, hyper competitive world, there is little hope for products that struggle to pass international hygiene and safety standards.

Albanian productivity is also hindered by lapses in technical expertise and industrial innovation, having to compete with international corporate giants. The lack of markets, foreign investments, other vital financial services, make these poor economic conditions even more precarious.

In June, after a landslide election, Albania’s new prime minister, Edi Rama, promised to fight these economic troubles and pledged to create 300,000 jobs for Albanians. The socialist prime minister’s hope is to fight poverty, corruption, and unemployment to win Albanian membership into the European Union.

Rahul Shah

Sources: Global Times, Top ChannelRural Poverty Portal
Photo: PhotoPin

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The Balkans refers to a geographic region that lies on the Balkan peninsula. The modern day Balkan states are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro, and a small part of Turkey. Comparatively small as a region, Winston Churchill once remarked, “The Balkans generates more history than it can locally consume.” Though small and not as economically powerful as its giant neighbors, the countries of the historically volatile region have indeed been a source of conflict that has dramatically changed the world stage on more than one occasion.

The Balkan wars themselves were two wars spanning 1912- 1913; the first, between the allied Balkan League (Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro) and the Ottoman Empire then the second between Bulgaria and its former allies. The wars are seen as precursors to World War I, and have regained interest in a time when nationalist conflicts, fueled by the agendas of larger countries, have caused violence which has sparked more violence. Time writer Ishan Tharoor compared the Balkan wars to today’s Syria and Democratic Republic of the Congo, reiterating that an intensely violent national conflict can only lead to greater, bloodier violence in the long term, if left uncontrolled. Though comparatively short, the Balkan wars have been noted for their intensity and horror. Descriptions of the battles foreshadow the later unmatched horror of World War 1. One journalist compared scenes from the battles to Dante’s descriptions of hell.

In the first Balkan war, the Balkan League united against Turkey. Having previously been quite powerful, at the time, Turkey controlled significantly more land. Yet it had recently been defeated by Italy and was clearly waning in power. Turkish defences quickly crumbled against the combined forces of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro. This concluded the first Balkan war.

Afterwards, Bulgaria became dissatisfied with the division of the lands claimed from the first war. It subsequently attacked Greek and Serbian forces in an attempt to assert military power, which quickly escalated into the second Balkan war. Outnumbered, Bulgaria made peace with the neighboring states in 1913. Yet bitter wounds and rivalries remained, and a left a legacy of overzealous nationalist pride which would not easily be mended.

The Balkan wars were only a century ago, yet the lessons learned of the dangers of pure nationalist interest and the unforeseen consequences of greater powers using conflicts to spur their own agendas are going tragically unheeded.

– Farahnaz Mohammed

Source: Fast Coexist
Photo: Althistory