by TED News

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) branch in Albania has set up a center for literacy and health education among the largely marginalized Roma population. Opening ceremonies included two officials from the government of Albania, Filloreta Kodra from the labor ministry and Ardian Came from the education ministry. Later in the day, the ADRA country director, Beatrice Kastrati, and church administrators from the Adriatic Union Conference (AUC) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the denomination’s Albanian Mission (ALM), met with the nation’s prime minister, Sali Berisha, who expressed his deep appreciation for what ADRA has done on behalf of the Albanian people.
 
ADRA was the first international nonprofit organization to start projects in post-communist Albania. The ADRA leader who coordinated this initiative was Pastor John Arthur, who was decorated in 1994 with the country's highest medal, The Mother Teresa Order.
 
Funding for the center located in Fushe-Kruje, 25 km from the capital city of Tirana, has been provided by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) and ADRA Austria. Florian Raunig, the ambassador of Austria, was present for the opening ceremonies, as was Erik Tintrup, deputy ambassador of Germany. Kastrati also welcomed other important stakeholders in the project such as the United Nations Development Program, Amarodrom, Terre des Hommes, and Save the Children.
 
In her welcoming remarks, Kastrati expressed her deep appreciation on behalf of Roma women, men and youth who desperately need literacy and social integration into the wider society. She shared the story birth of the project in 2009 when an elderly Roma woman asked ADRA to teach her reading and writing so she could sign a contract.
 
Ambassador Raunig expressed appreciation for ADRA. He stressed that European Union (EU) integration commences inside the country from the bottom up, building peace within the community before integrating into society, and then society integrating into the world.
 
Deputy Minister Came pointed out in his remarks that the integration of Roma children into the public schools is a goal the Albanian government has been working towards for many years. He emphasized the key role of women, especially mothers in child rearing. He assured ADRA of continuing support and cooperation in part of the Ministry of Education.
 
"ADRA Albania is well-known to the Ministry of Labor through many years of service to the vulnerable communities and we look forward to many years of cooperation in the future," said Deputy Minster Kodra. She commended ADRA’s efforts to prepare Roma adults for vocational training courses offered by the government and promised cooperation in the creation of needs assessments of the Roma communities.
 
Erinda Toska, the project director, listed the problems Roma people face, such as poverty, disease, confinement of women, unemployment and presented the results of the pilot project and the action steps towards the new center. In this center, Roma women, men, and teenagers will have the opportunity to receive training as well as participate in groups on healthy lifestyle, early marriage, family planning, sexually-transmitting diseases, employment and education.
 
On behalf of the Adventist Church and ADRA's board, Pastor Bistrovic expressed the Church's appreciation and support for such humanitarian initiatives. "Our mission is to serve others in the community, especially catering to those who are underprivileged and discriminated against," said Pastor Bistrovic.
 
When the church leaders met with Prime Minister Berisha later that day, Pastor Bistrovic gave him greetings from Pastor Bertil Wiklander, president of the Trans-European Division, who visited Albania earlier this year to mark 20 years of an official Adventist Church organization in the country. He stated "the Church does not exist to serve itself, but rather to serve and address the needs of the local community."
 
Prime Minister Berisha expressed his gratitude to the Adventist Church for its contribution towards religious liberty, and pointed out that "respect towards others' religion is one of the most fundamental values of the Albanian civilization." Furthermore, Dr Berisha emphasised that "religious tolerance and co-existence has been passed on from one generation to the next, despite various attempts from occupiers to use Albania's religious diversity as a tool of discordance, or from the former communist regime which tried to wipe religious faith of fron the national consciousness."
 
Pastor Leo España, president of the Albania mission, mentioned that the Adventist Church has roots in Albania that go back to the 1930s when Daniel Lewis, a pharmacist from Boston returned to his native land to share the Advent message. Following World War II, Lewis was imprisoned by the communist regime and died there. One of Lewis' Bible students, Meropi Gjika, waited four decades to be baptized. He said that Meropi's last wish was to have a church near central Tirana, he presented a letter of request to the Prime Minister, appealing for assistance in securing permission to build a multi-purpose community center that would also house the Central Tirana Adventist congregation.
 
The Prime Minister pledged his full support for this project and affirmed that a church that caters to the spiritual, social and health needs of the community would be most welcome. Berisha also expressed the support of the Albanian government on initiatives of the Adventist Church and ADRA in areas such as inter-faith dialogue, culture and social solidarity.
 
The Adriatic Union Conference includes the nations of Croatia and Slovenia as well as Albania. There are about 4,000 Adventists among a total population of 9.7 million. The Albanian Mission has three local churches and 350 members among a population of 3.2 million. There an estimated 120,000 to 150,000 of the Roma people, sometimes disrespectfully called “gypsies,” in Albania, according to the journal Politeia published in Europe.
 
This story is based on reporting from tedNews and Julian Kastrati.