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Bronx Albanians cheer Kosovo independence

Albanian culture is alive and well, from Belmont to the Balkans. On Wednesday, February 11, ethnic Albanians crowded into the Belmont’s Library for a night of folk poetry, dance and song, and a salute to Kosovo.

Kosovo is a landlocked republic in southern Europe. Most Kosovars are ethnic Albanians. The United Nations helped Kosovo break from Serbia in 1999, following a bloody war. On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared independence.

“Tonight was fun,” Mirlinda Dakaj, a Kosovar-American who attends M.S. 135 on Wallace Avenue, said. “We celebrated our culture. We celebrated our freedom.”

Several countries, including the United States, Turkey, Albania, Germany, Ital, France and the United Kingdom recognize Kosovo as independent. Other countries, including Russia and China, don’t.

Sander Cotaj, an ethnic Albanian from Montenegro – another Balkan country – immigrated to Pelham Parkway in 1985 and secured a job at Arthur Avenue’s Calabria Pork Store. Cotaj is proud of his adopted country.

“I’m lucky to live in this century, to see what Albanians have achieved,” he said. “God bless America, our savior.”

A year ago, the Cotaj family gathered at a café on E. 187th Street to watch Kosovo declare independence. Two Star Coffee Shop picked up the tab.

“We ate all we could eat and drank all we could drink,” Cotaj said. “We spent the entire time on our feet, feeling peace.”

In Belmont last week, Cotaj applauded dancers decked out in hand sewn pants, vests and booties. Esad Rizai, president of the Bronx-based Albanian American Society Foundation, called the costumes 2,800 years old.

“We’re here to keep our culture alive,” Rizai said. “With so many Albanian kids born here in the Bronx, we want them to understand.”

On Tuesday, February 17, City Councilmen James Vacca and Joel Rivera hosted a Kosovo independence party at City Hall. The Bronx is the heart of the Albanian diaspora. Allerton, Morris Park and Mosholu boast significant Albanian populations.

“This is where we first settled,” Rizai said of Belmont. “We have 1,000 families in Pelham Parkway alone.”

According to Kosovo-born Monroe College professor Haxhi Berisha, ethnic Albanians run 20 stores and restaurants in Belmont. “We have Italian, Jewish, Albanian, Latino and Jamaican neighbors,” Berisha said. “We get along. We work together. People in the Bronx know Albania.”

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