Halil Metin, whose family has resided in İstanbul’s Bayrampaşa district for over 50 years, is the co-director of the Turkish-Albanian Brotherhood culture and Solidarity Association. Established 59 years ago, the organization is located in Bayrampaşa and has three branches located in the Küçükçekmece district of İstanbul and in the provinces of Ankara and Bursa. The association aims to preserve Albanian culture and traditions by hosting cultural nights and folklore festivals.
“We also provide Albanian language classes throughout the year and organize celebrations to commemorate the independence of Albania and Kosovo,” stated Metin. “We host welcome dinners for Albanian delegations visiting Turkey, and we fund scholarships for students from the Balkans to study in Turkey.”
A brief historical insight into the strong and supportive ties between Albanians and Turks can help to understand the social and cultural dynamics of their relationship in Turkey today. Dating back to Ottoman times, Albanians, or “Arnavutlar” in Turkish, were highly regarded by the Ottomans as upstanding people and granted prominent status within the government by the Turks. Ottoman sultans were highly selective of their 36 Albanian Sadr-ı Azam (or prime ministers) for their loyalty to the empire. After the start of the Balkan wars in 1912 and throughout the Yugoslavian regime in the 20th century, particularly following the end of World War II, Albanians, along with millions of other citizens of the Balkans, migrated to Turkey to escape oppression and ethnic cleansing. Former head of the TAKD in Bayrampaşa, Kamil Bitic, (Qamil Bytyci), whose family migrated from Kosovo to Turkey over 50 years ago after Serbs murdered his great grandfather and uncle said that “when Albanians and other Muslims of the Balkans were fleeing the oppressive Yugoslavian regime after World War II, Turkey and its people welcomed us warmly with open arms and hospitality, and in return, we Albanians feel a great sense of gratitude and respect for the Turkish people.”
“Turks have strong faith in us, and know that we are people of our word,” stated Diana Selenica, who grants visas at the Consulate General of Albania in İstanbul’s Taksim district. “Arnavut sözü” is a Turkish expression that means to “promise me like an Albanian.” A historic neighborhood located in the Beşiktaş district of İstanbul was named Arnavutköy, which means “Albanian village.” It is a lovely neighborhood that lies on the European side of the Bosporus, lined with wooden Ottoman mansions, upscale shops and fish restaurants.
Erdoan Shipoli, head of the academic platform of BalkanSiad, a nonprofit organization based in İstanbul that works to promote the Balkan presence in the United States and elsewhere, argued that Albanians have faced the common problems associated with immigrant life and that they “had to work hard to be able to survive, which has allowed them to be successful and become owners of big companies.”
Ali Şen, a former president of the Fenerbahçe Sports Club, is a very successful businessman and a very important personality. Hakan Şükür, who was one of the most outstanding Turkish soccer players, is of Kosovar origin and is now a member of Parliament from the ruling Justice and Development (AK Party), and there is also Özhan Canaydın, the late president of the Galatasaray Sports Club – all Turkish citizens of Albanian origin cited by Shipoli.
Murat Ay (Murat Lajci), head of the Küçükçekmece TAKD branch, said it is important to recognize Albanians who have made significant contributions to Turkey. The list of prominent individuals of Albanian origin include, Abedin Dino, a legislator of the first Ottoman constitution called the Kanun-I Esasi; Hoxha Hasan Tahsini, the first rector of İstanbul University; and Mehmet Âkif Ersoy, author of the Turkish national anthem.
Figures on the number of Turkish residents with an Albanian family history in Turkey vary. A 2008 report from the National Security Council (MGK) of Turkey says that approximately 1,300,000 people of Albanian ancestry live in Turkey, and more than 500,000 recognize their ancestry, language and culture. Other data estimates that 3-4 million Albanians live in Turkey, and close to 20 million people who have ancestral roots from the Balkans live in Turkey. 2012 will mark the 100th year anniversary since of migration started to Turkey.
Today, there are varying degrees of culture and language preservation. While Albanian language and customs continue in villages such as Bafra in Samsun and Kapiağzi in the city of Tokat, many second and third generation immigrants residing in İstanbul, particularly in the Zeytinburnu and Gaziosmanpaşa districts, have adapted to Turkish culture and life so much so that Albanian is rarely spoken among adults between 25-35 years of age, with the exception to those living in Bayrampaşa.
Burak Bilgiç, a second generation immigrant from the Balkans, states: “I feel that our generation has fully integrated into the Turkish way of life. We never feel that we are different from the average Turkish person. We contribute so much to Turkish society. … My wife is also the same as me. Her father was born in Kosovo but lived in Turkey. We visited Kosovo [Pristina and Mitrovica] last year for a wedding. We have some relatives still living in Kosovo. Consequently, Kosovo always is a special place for us.”
Balkan organizations and associations work actively to preserve culture and language, and there are approximately 400 of them that exist in İstanbul, according to Orhan Şimsek, the secretary-general of BalkanSiad.
“As much as we can, we communicate with other organizations to solve the problems of Balkan people, and we arrange some social and cultural activities to protect their self-identity and culture,” Şimşek said. “These people often have good relations with the government, and are careful not to make any mistakes and stay away from tension. Also, thanks to the organizations, they protect their culture and give importance to friendship and charity.”
In the city of Bursa and further east to Kahramanmaraş, Turkish-Albanian associations provide a space for people to celebrate their culture and speak their ancestral languages.
Cultural heritage is respected and appreciated in Turkey. Albanian communities face very few, if any, problems adapting to Turkish life and continue to advance their friendship with Turkish people in all levels of society.