TIRANA, Albania -- For nearly a half-century, they kept their origins a secret. They hid their birth certificates, their passports and their Social Security cards deep in a drawer somewhere. Now they clamor for recognition at the gates of the new U.S. Embassy.
Much to the surprise of U.S. officials, it appears that as many as 400 Americans were trapped inside Albania during the Communists' 45-year-long isolationist reign. Only now, with the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Tirana, are they able to claim their birthright.
"We thought we would have 30 cases, tops," said Barbara Cummings, the U.S. consul in Tirana. "The State Department has been like, 'Whoa, how many cases are you sending us?' "
The embassy has received more than 400 citizenship claims since it ended a 50-year diplomatic hiatus in November, and new ones arrive every day. Many of the petitioners were born in the United States; others never set foot in America but may be entitled to citizenship anyway because their parents either were born in the United States or were naturalized.
Before Albania's repressive and xenophobic Communist Party was overthrown last year, any hint of a U.S. connection could have resulted in severe discrimination, even imprisonment. Emigration was a crime. Few people had access to an Albanian passport, never mind a U.S. one. To avoid detection, many destroyed their U.S. passports, saving only the photograph with its telltale U.S. seal. One woman even disguised a keepsake U.S. flag by sewing it inside a tablecloth.
But now a U.S. passport may be the most valuable commodity an Albanian can own. Since communism gave way, the nation has suffered a breakdown. Food is scarce, law and order non-existent. Thousands are desperate to leave the country, yet few foreign embassies are granting Albanians visas.
Most Albanians with U.S. citizenship are over 60 and unlikely to move to the United States in search of work. The main advantage is that their children and grandchildren are virtually guaranteed U.S. immigrant visas. Many are also able to claim Social Security benefits, entitling some to thousands of dollars in back payments.
The vast majority of Americans living in Albania hail from the TC southern city of Korcha, not far from the Greek border. Typically, it was their parents who immigrated to the United States around the turn of the century. They stayed long enough to become naturalized and eventually returned to Albania to retire.
Because so much time has passed, proving their citizenship is difficult, Ms. Cummings said. Some people arrive with little more than the name of the U.S. factory where their parents worked.
Unless U.S. citizens saved their original birth certificates, they usually have trouble requesting a copy from the United States. The Albanian banking system is so primitive that they cannot get a check or money order to submit the $6 fee. And U.S. registry offices do not take cash.
Gradually, the embassy's consular office has been helping petitioners sort out the problems. Two sisters, Sofia Naum, 75, and Stella Angejeli, 71, who were raised in Korcha, were among the first to have their citizenship verified.
Both sisters carefully preserved their birth certificates, issued in Boston. When Ms. Cummings saw the pristine documents, she said, "My eyes nearly popped."
The sisters left the United States in 1923 for a short stay in Albania. But during their visit, their father died and their mother decided not to return to the United States. But she did send her daughters to the American School in Kavaja. Ms. Naum became a nurse, Ms. Angejeli a teacher. They still speak fluent English.
Within days of seeing Ms. Cummings, the sisters were issued shiny blue U.S. passports. They carry them in their handbags wherever they go. Ms. Naum's son, Genci, 35, said he intends to request a visa to travel to his mother's country.
Like other U.S. citizens in Albania, the sisters are eligible to vote in November's presidential election. Ms. Cummings said she plans to travel to Korcha to hand out absentee ballots to U.S. citizens and explain the voting process.
"No one seems too interested yet," she said.
And whom do Ms. Naum and Ms. Angejeli like for president?
"Who's running?" Ms. Naum said, hesitating. "Bush? That's who I'm voting for. President Bush. He's the one who gave me my passport."