By David Macaulay
(The Currents section of the Virginian-Pilot, October 2012)
By the winter of 1978, Klementina Shahini had lost hope. She was 19, and every day she was forced to report to a “special place” at 6 a.m. and trudge through bleak, snow-covered hills to work alone with a shovel and a pick until sundown, digging holes for trees to be planted.
The work was punishment by Communist authorities in her homeland of Albania, Shahini said. The idea she would eventually escape to a new life in America was inconceivable. Now, at age 53, the former Portsmouth teacher has returned to Albania where she has set up a Christian school.
Klementina Shahini at her new school
The scenario had been so different when she fled. Although Shahini grew up in an impoverished nation closed to the west, in which she said an “apple was a privilege,” she got accepted to a top language school in the capital Tirana. But her sister upset the Communist Party when she reported an official who was abusing government money, and the state moved against the whole family. Shahini was removed from the school and forced into a life of hard labor.
God played a pivotal part in her resolve, Shahini said. But religion was outlawed under the regime of Marxist leader Enver Hoxha who led Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985. In 1967 Hoxha had proclaimed Albania the world’s first “atheist state” and sanctioned the destruction of mosques and churches.
The Communist state fell apart in 1990 when the People’s Republic was dissolved.
In 1991 Shahini discovered Christianity when a group of Mennonites showed up in her town.
“The summer of 1991 was the turning point of my life,” she said in an interview by email. “For the first time in my life I heard the words Bible, God, belief.”
By then she was married to Dini Shahini and had two children, Ardian and Kledia. They started to dream about America and moved in 1999 with all their belongings in one suitcase per person.
Growing up in Albania, kids aspired to be teachers, and Shahini was no different. She took a job at Cedar Road Christian Academy in Chesapeake a week after she arrived in the United States. Within two months she was teaching kindergarten and started classes at Regent University in Virginia Beach in 2000, graduating with a master’s in leadership in education.
In 2002 she started teaching English and American History at Cradock Middle School. She described the school as a “challenge.” She found many of the students did not believe in themselves.
Three years later she transferred to Churchland High, where she became chairwoman of the English Department in 2009.
But the idea of setting up a Christian school in Albania burned inside her. Shahini had been involved with the Virginia Mennonite Missions for more than a decade, and with its support was able to make her dream come true.
In 2011 she became the principal and executive director of the Lezha Academic Center in Albania.
“It is an American school, where teaching is completely in English, based on American curriculum,” she said. “All the teachers are Americans and have a heart for teaching and mission.”
But she faces a raft of new challenges in Albania. Although free of Communism, Albania remains mired in poverty.
“What I am doing now is a mission. The education system in Albania is going through a lot of tough times. There is a lack of school buildings, quality teachers, materials, quality education. There are 50 students per class,” she said.
There are also inherent challenges in running a Christian school in a Muslim country.
“Teaching is a mission itself but teaching in Albania is a big mission. You are operating a Christian school in a country where 75 percent of the population is Muslim,” she said. The Albanian school system remains riddled with corruption. “You pay the money and you get the grade,” she said.
She said students and parents in Portsmouth and beyond often fail to appreciate what they have in the American school system.
“Students in America have an excellent public school education and it’s essentially free. There are school buses, libraries and extracurricular activities … It’s so easy to forget these blessings, all of which are simply bestowed upon children because they are born in the U.S.”
Families in Albania are often forced to choose between putting food on the table and sending their children to school, she said.
“They want to be nurses, accountants, and writers and they all want to go to university but only a small percentage of them will find the financial means to do so or the opportunity to do so.”
Shahini hopes the school will become self-supporting within five years. If anyone can make it happen, she can, said Don Steiner, the chairman of the school and director of the master’s in education program at Eastern Mennonite University.
“Klementina Shahini has a heart for making the world a better place through education,” Steiner said. She is committed to providing a high-quality academic and Christian education to Albanian students enabling them to become tomorrow’s leaders.”