I have a friend living in what are possibly the most difficult conditions for an expat to be in here in Albania. Her and her husband live in the remote northern town of Kukes. There aren't many cars there, nor even bicycles. People walk in Kukes. It's a poor town, still affected by the influx of Kosovar refugees back in 1999. There are a couple of bars, exclusively filled with males. It's not an easy place to be a woman, let alone a foreign woman from America.
My friend and her husband have been there almost a year now, with two more to go. He's working on a big project and they've rented a large villa just outside town. There's a beautiful view of the lake and the mountains, and in the summer the grape vines are lush and heavy with ripe fruit.
Sounds idyllic, doesn't it?
Think again. Most of the year there's no electricity. Maybe an hour or two a day. And no water. The villa is large, but my friends live in one small room. The room with the tiny wood stove. They sleep with their coats, mitts, and boots on. She told me that most days it is too cold to go into any other room, even the kitchen. It's so cold, it's painful.
But my friend has found a purpose, a reason for getting up every day. You see, in this isolated town not far from the Kosovo border, many people still suffer from the atrocities of the last war. The problem is landmines. They were scattered everywhere. Thousands of acres were covered with mines and explosive remnants of war. Of course, many people died from these mines, but many more are living with the after effects of exploded mines.
Imagine living in a country where there is little or no support available for the physically handicapped. Hospitals in rural areas have no electricity, no medication, no running water. Your wounds fester, become infested, grow mouldy, and painful. And it's not just a problem for people with old wounds- no- there are still acres and acres of land not cleared and certified safe. Children and animals continue to be victims of these old landmines.
Here's where my friend becomes an angel. A year ago she knew she would have to find a way to fill her days so far away from all the other expat ladies in Tirana. And so she courageously walked into town one day and knocked on the door of an NGO that works with victims of landmines, and made herself available as a volunteer. The two Albanian men who worked there took up her offer and started taking her with them as they made their rounds to visit the often lonely and isolated victims in the area. She's not a doctor, but a nurse from Los Angeles, where she worked in dermatology, caring for movie stars and wealthy clients. Now she cleans wounds, teaches good hygiene, and wraps stumps where hands and legs should be.
I spent a couple of hours with her yesterday, drinking coffee and listening to her stories. In less than a year, she already has enough material to write a book- and I hope she does. She told me softly that an Albanian newspaper recently ran an article about her, calling her "The Angel From America". I couldn't agree more. And I couldn't be prouder to know her.
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