Asylum Granted for Son of Righteous Gentile
U.S. Asylum for Albanian Muslim Family Whose Father Rescued Jews in World War II
by Raphael Kohan
The Jewish Advocate [Boston]
August 16, 2007
An immigration court in Boston granted asylum on Wednesday to an Albanian man, now living in Quincy [MA], whose father had been recognized by Yad Vashem as a "Righteous Among the Nations."
Bujar Veselaj, a Muslim, escaped to the U.S. with his wife and two children in 2005 after becoming the target of Muslim fundamentalists, who harassed him over his father's efforts to save Jews during World War II.
"It's often hard for a judge or immigration service to differentiate between cases," said Jeff Goldman of Mintz Levin, a Boston-based immigration attorney who has been working on this case since Veselaj came to the U.S. "But I think this was a particularly strong case."
The Albanian story of World War II is a remarkable one. No Jews were taken from the country during the war years, and it is the only state in Europe where the Jewish population grew during the war, according to experts. And from all the Righteous Gentiles in Albania, Refik Veselaj - Veselaj's father - was perhaps the most widely known. After the war, Refik maintained his relationship with the Jewish people, creating the Albania-Israel Friendship Association in 1992.
"I told [my kids] that they should be proud of their grandfather, honor him for life and if we could turn back time, we would have done the same thing," Veselaj wrote in an e-mail to the Advocate.
In more recent years, however, the political climate in Albania has deteriorated to the whim of whichever criminals have the deepest pockets, and Muslim fundamentalists have found audiences at Albanian mosques.
When Veselaj received media attention in 2005 during a Holocaust Remembrance Day celebration for his father's efforts during the Holocaust, his family fell under attack.
According to Veselaj's affidavit, his family received anonymous death threats, rocks were thrown through his photography shop's storefront window and a dead cat - whose head had been separated from its body - was left on his doorstep. Strangers even tried to abduct his son from school.
"I left Albania with the only reason of saving our lives," said Veselaj. "I don't think I can go back because I still am concerned how far their dreadful revenge can go."
Veselaj's request for asylum was originally denied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which relied on U.S. State Department reports for information. Because the report did not include any mention of Muslim fundamentalism in Albania, they decided Veselaj's story could not be true. Wednesday's trial, however, also included expert affidavits.
"The State Department reports tend to view internal developments in some countries - the ones with good relations to the U.S. - through rose-colored glasses," said Bernd Fischer, a professor at Indiana University and advisor to various U.S. intelligence agencies. Fischer testified Wednesday.
A second expert whose affidavit was presented Wednesday is Stephen Schwartz, executive-director for the Center of Islamic Pluralism, and a longtime supporter of the Albanian national cause. Schwartz said the radical Islamic infiltration into Albanian society has been brisk.
"I think [Veselaj's] concerns are real," he said. "The degree to which the family was threatened they have no recourse except to withdraw to their house and arm themselves. People don't go to the police. They stay as far away from them as possible."
And an additional affidavit was presented from Yosef Govrin, a former Israeli Ambassador, who has personal knowledge of Veselaj's story.
With Veselaj's testimony bolstered by the expert affidavits, Goldman said the court was able to make a more informed decision on whether to grant asylum.
"I was able to convince the judge that this series of events rose to the level of persecution," said Goldman. "This was not the general everyday misfortunes of victims of crime in Albania. They were targeted and they were targeted for purposes of intimidation to overcome their will."
In fact, added Goldman, the presiding judge, Immigration Judge Robin E. Feder, said that not only did this series of events rise to the level of persecution, but that it was also extreme "psychological torture."
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