Story and Photographs By John Murray
Sisters have a unique and powerful bond, and in that spirit, the cities of Waterbury, Connecticut, and Struga, Macedonia, agreed to become sister cities yesterday during a meeting between their municipal leaders inside Waterbury City Hall.
Struga Mayor Ziadin Sela, left, accepted proclamations from local, state, and federal politicians, and was given the key to the city by Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, right, who acknowledged the powerful impact of ethnic Albanians from Struga on the fabric of city life.
Mayor Sela invited Mayor O’Leary to visit Struga in July to make the sister city agreement official, and O’Leary, who will pay for the trip out of his own pocket, accepted the invitation, and said, “It’s like a big hug between the two cities, but when I’m there, I want to explore how we can help each other out. What are the needs?”
Waterbury and Struga will soon be siblings.
City Hall was closed in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day, but O’Leary opened up his offices to greet Struga Mayor Ziadin Sela and an entourage of local Albanian community leaders.
During the meeting Mayor O’Leary and Mayor Ziadin compared notes about the pressures and joys of governingn their municipalities, and both acknowledged the difficulties in being pulled at by citizens wanted special favors. Mayor Ziadin, far left, is a former member of the Macedonian parliament, and said that job was easier than facing the dozens of friends and family that hope he can provide assistance now that he presides over Struga City Hall. Next to Mayor Ziadin, from left to right are Saranda Belica, aide to mayor O’Leary, Ismail Vinca, Zymer Kalici and Visar Tasimi.
Struga is a city of aproximately 20,000residents and sits on the north shore of Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe. Struga has two other sister cities – Mangalia, Romania and Famagusta, Cyprus. Waterbury makes three.
Struga, Macedonia, is a popular tourist town in the summer, and hosts one of the largest poetry festivals in the world every August, called Struga Poetry Evenings.
Mayor Neil O’Leary has forged a unique bond with the local Albanian community. He attends their festivals, he dances the valle (an Albanian folk dance), and he has fired them up to begin a political awakening in the city.
Waterbury is a city of nearly 110,000 residents with citizens from every corner of the world – Irish, Italian, French Canadian, Puerto Rican, Greek, Lebanese, Dominican, Portuguese and dozens of other nationalities have zeroed in on the city for work, opportunity and affordibility.
There are now 12,000 Albanians living in Waterbury, many from the city of Struga, Macedonia. They run bagel shops, pizzerias, restaurants and have become Waterbury police officers and one is a mayoral aide inside City Hall.
Struga Mayor Ziadin Sela was elected just nine months ago, and has the very difficult job of presiding over a city that is a split by ethnic tension between Albanians and Macedonians. Many Albanians in Struga are in favor of breaking away from Macedonia to join Albania and Kosovo to form a new state of Great Albania.
Before WWII a chunk of Macedonia was recognized as Albania, but when borders were drawn to create Yugoslavia, hundreds of thousands of Albanians were ripped from their homeland.
Saranda Belica, right, was born in Struga and moved to Waterbury with her family when she was 16. Her family has since returned to Struga, but Belica remained in Waterbury and now works in the O’Leary administration as an economic development aide. Her presence inside City Hall has helped to demystify politics to many in the Albanian community, just as Geraldo Reyes’ presence has helped the Hispanic community interact with the mayor’s office. She is pictured here presenting Mayor Ziadin with proclamations from U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty.
Macedonia declared it’s independence from the former country of Yugoslavia, and is still embroiled in a dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia. The Greeks have blocked Macedonia’s efforts to join the European Union (EU), and until the name dispute is resolved, the situation is unlikely to change.
The last two O’Leary campaigns have had a group of Albanians working the phones to try and register voters, and then on election day, get the vote out.
Albanian cuisine is Mediterranean and is influenced by Turkish ,Greek, and Italian cooking. Albanian cuisine is characterized by the use of Mediterranean herbs such as oregano, black pepper, mint, basil, rosemary in cooking meat and fish, but also chilli pepper and garlic. Olive oil and butter are a main ingredient in dishes.
The local Albanian community in Waterbury has two community clubs. The one on Raymond Street is primarily Albanians from Albania. The community club on Columbia Boulevard is mainly ethic Albanians from Struga. The two groups are working well together now. They each organize their own Albanian Festival each year, but the the two clubs have joined forces to celebrate Albanian culture each year at The Gathering, a massive ethic festival in Library Park, this year on May 17th.