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Zamira Islami Edwards: She Swam To Freedom - 2002-10-29


Zamira Islami Edwards, broadcaster, editor, reporter and program host in VOA’s Albanian Service fled the bleak confines of communist Albania in 1984 with her brother and sister by wading into the the Adriatic Sea and swimming for twelve hours to freedom in Greece.

“We waited, and then they turned on the searchlight, they searched the area, and the moment they turned off the light we jumped into the water, both my sister and I. My brother said, ‘You go, just keep going’, and we left. The first two hours we made real good progress. We got away from the city, we could see the lights, very small. We did real good. And they indeed turned the searchlight on again, but we went on our back, you know, where you could only see the face in the water, and because of the distance, they didn’t spot us. So then of course the light came off again, and we continued, overnight. In the early hours in the morning we started getting a little cold, but not that bad. And then the dawn, it began to get light and we were kind of hopeful. But then that’s when we really got exhausted. We were together until nine o’clock in the morning, then the last hour, at ten o’clock, we were picked up by this Italian yacht.”

Nine years before, In 1975, only hours after her teen-aged brother was arrested for making anti-government remarks to a friend, Zamira, then 17, her sister Isabela, 22, their parents and aged grandmother were banished to a remote village in southern Albania. The family was given a two-room hut to live in. For the next nine years they worked at hard labor, tilling rocky soil, with no hope of continuing their education, or even marrying.

After his release from prison, Klement Islami gradually convinced his sisters that their only chance at a future lay in escape. Their parents agreed, and urged their three children to go, knowing that they would never see them again.

“I remember we said goodbye to Mom at home, and then my father walked with us. A truck came, and we just raised our hand, he stopped and he picked us up, and my father just waved. It was so hard for them to let their children go, but they were hoping for us that we could lead a decent life.”

Their brother perished in that last hour in the sea, but Zamira and Isabela were picked up by an Italian yacht off the coast of Corfu. Their escape and rescue became a sensational international news story. The sisters were granted asylum in Greece, but set their sights on America. Later that year they were granted refugee status and came to the United States, to be greeted as heroines by the Albanian-American community in Detroit, in the mid-western state of Michigan.

"They looked at us, like, let’s see, how do they look, they did this – swimming across the sea for twelve hours, makes you wonder, for a second, you know, I want to see them. That’s what it was. They wanted to see us, and make us welcome. We were received very nicely by the Albanian community, there were parties thrown for us. You know, where people would contribute a little bit financially, because, keep in mind, we came to this country – well, to the West – just with our bathing suits.”

Soon after arriving in the United States Isabela got a job at the Voice of America, and as few months later, in October 1985, Zamira followed in her footsteps. She says that listening clandestinely to Voice of America broadcasts in their remote village in Albania, they had never imagined that one day they themselves would be the "voice of truth" to their countrymen.

“It was like having the greatest opportunity that a person could have, to work for an information agency that was looked upon back in Albania as the voice of truth. That’s what we called it, ‘Voice of America, voice of truth’.”

The satisfaction of bringing information to Albania continued for Zamira through the turbulent events in the Balkans in the 1990s, and culminated with the "hot-line" that VOA's Albanian Service established for Albanians looking for lost loved ones during the Kosovo crisis in 1998.

“Again, people turned to VOA as a helper, as a credible source, to find their loved ones. And then we started advertising to call this particular number, and we had a tape machine running to record their particular messages. That was the most extraordinary thing that I had experienced in my life, including perhaps the escape from Albania, where people would call here, our office, the tape was rolling non-stop, and they were asking – husbands were asking for their wives and their children, the brother… I mean all kinds of calls. And we aired them.”

Today, Zamira Islami Edwards continues to broadcast news about America and the world in Albanian to her native country. She then goes home to her American-born husband and their children, Mary and Mason. She says she considers herself fortunate to be able to be a part of both worlds.

English Feature #7-36831 Broadcast October 21, 2002