Warren Harding was president on July 28, 1922, the day the United States and Albania—an impoverished Balkan backwater—formally established diplomatic ties following strong support by Harding’s predecessor, Woodrow Wilson.
Ulysses Grant-Smith was the first American diplomat to serve in Tirana, and in 1926, Faik Konica was sent to Washington as Albania’s first ambassador, a post he kept for 13 years.
Yet the honeymoon was not to last. In 1946, following Italian and then Nazi German occupation during World War II, Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha broke relations with Washington. Hoxha, an isolationist who despised the United States, ruled his nation with brutality until his death in 1985, and only with the collapse of communism in 1991 were bilateral ties re-established.
The first American ambassador in Tirana in the post-Hoxha era was William J. Ryerson, who was interviewed by this reporter in March 1992 at his temporary headquarters in Room 215 of the Dajti Hotel until a proper US Embassy could be set up.
In the three decades since then, Albania has gone from a fanatically Marxist, North Korea-style international hermit to one of the most pro-American countries on Earth.
“We have a very particular relationship with the United States,” said Floreta Luli-Faber, Albania’s ambassador in Washington since 2015. “The Albanian diaspora here in the US was very organized around their churches and mosques. They have their own activities and festivals, and very good relations with politicians. They also played a big role in establishing bilateral relations in 1922.”
Following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the United States under President Wilson recognized Albania as an independent country, thereby ending territorial ambitions by Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. Yet economic hardship endured, prompting a large-scale exodus of Albanians to the United States.
To mark the centennial of bilateral ties, the embassy is planning a July 27 conference with the 24-member Congressional Albanian Issues Caucus, which is led by Rep. Jim Himes (D-Connecticut), Rep. Richie Torres (D-New York), Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Michigan and Rep. Robert Aderhold (R-Alabama).
Tapping into the Albanian-American diaspora
The caucus, headed for 30 years by former Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), focuses on issues important to ethnic Albanians not only in Albania itself but also in Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
“We are trying to bring together all members who have Albanians in their district,” said Faber, adding that she’s planning a major event at the Capitol itself to mark the 110th anniversary of Albanian independence this November.
Particularly large Albanian-American communities flourish in Boston, Detroit and New York. The oldest such community exists in Worcester, Mass., which attracted thousands of people from Korçë and other predominantly Christian Orthodox towns throughout southeastern Albania.
No surprise, then, that the Worcester Historical Museum this month is hosting an exhibition on 100 years of the Albanian diaspora. Other events are planned in Cleveland, Detroit, New York and New Jersey, said Faber.
“We have a special relationship with the New Jersey National Guard, and we are pushing for a number of relationships in other fields,” said Faber. “We already have an agreement on dental education between Rutgers and the University of Tirana, and we would like to expand economic relations through the Office of the Governor.”
Faber, speaking recently with The Washington Diplomat at her embassy just off Connecticut Avenue, was born in 1968 in the northern city of Shkoder. She graduated from Tirana University’s Faculty of Economics in 1990, then completed a two-year course in international marketing and strategy at the Norwegian School of Management in Oslo (1993-95).
From 1995 to 2000, Faber worked with Deloitte & Touche, helping the accounting firm open its new branch in Tirana; that period included a secondment program with Deloitte’s Czech office in Prague. She was executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce of Albania from 2000—when it opened—until her current appointment.
Albania becomes temporary haven for Afghan refugees
Long considered Europe’s poorest country, Albania (population 2.9 million) has made substantial economic progress, reaching annual per-capita income of $4,832 in 2021. Bilateral trade last year between US and Albania was $163.4 million, and major US investors in the country include construction conglomerate Bechtel and energy giant ExxonMobil.
Albania, one of 10 non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, has also been an outspoken supporter of Ukraine in its current struggle.
“We never thought we’d talk about a war in Europe, but we have been one of the strongest voices on the Security Council [against Russia],” Faber said, adding that Albania has taken in 6,000 Ukrainian refugees to date. That’s on top of the 2,800 Afghan refugees who were resettled in Shengjin, Albania, in the wake of the Taliban’s chaotic takeover of that country last year.
“We shared as much as we could with them. The majority were put in five-star hotels along our northern Adriatic coast,” said the ambassador. “Many have expressed interest in going to the US or Canada. And we have offered them opportunities if they want to stay.”
Besides the embassy itself, Faber oversees two consulates —one in Washington and one in New York—as well as three honorary consulates in Atlanta, Dallas and Detroit.
“I believe that for a small country like Albania, there’s a strong benefit to being here for a long time,” said Faber, who’s managed to visit every US state except Alaska. “So much of what the embassy here does in the United States is based on personal relationships—and it takes time to build up these relationships. We have put Albania on the map here in Washington.”