Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/1020refugeepizza20.html

Kosovo refugee builds life, business in Mesa
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 20, 2003

By Chris Fiscus

Sitting in a bare northwest Phoenix apartment in the summer of 1999, a refugee fresh from Kosovo didn't focus on the fact that he knew little English, didn't have a job, had few friends and was basically starting from scratch in a strange land.

He looked eagerly to the future, saying he would stay in the States. "Better chances here."

Now, that refugee, Skender Bajrami, owns Calabreze Pizza in Mesa.

"It was good for me, my family," he said of staying in Arizona with his two children and wife Hidajete. "Everybody's happy.

"We love the people. We love the city. The summer's a little hot, but we enjoy it."

Thinking back on his comments of four years ago, he added, "I still feel the same," especially considering the opportunities his children, now ages 6 and 8, can enjoy.

These days he deals in huge pizza slices and calzones at the restaurant in a strip center at Extension Road and University Drive. The large Statue of Liberty on the front window is fitting; there's no hint inside the shop of his past. A lone map on a wall is of Italy, not Kosovo.

Owning a pizza restaurant wasn't his life calling; in Kosovo, he worked for more than a decade handling business strategies for a government trade company.

But an opportunity came along to get into business, and he grabbed hold. Others, including a manager from Italy, make the pizza while Bajrami tends to the business.

With gentle eyes, a quick smile and English skills well beyond 1999, he talks of the struggles of making a small business work in a tough economy.

He may even sell the shop, and his hope ultimately is to find work in his former profession. "I'm going to be in my own business in accounting, finance."

Still, the 45-year-old realizes how far he has come.

Four years ago, Bajrami and his family were forced to flee their home in Kacanik, a small city in the mountains of southern Kosovo near the border with Macedonia. They were on the run from village to village in the mountains with no food.

"It's like yesterday," he said. "You never forget."

They made it to the refugee camps of Macedonia before heading for a fresh start in the United States.

He misses those picturesque mountains, rugged mountains framed by green countryside. He misses other staples of Kosovar life, too, such as gardens and the freshest of vegetables. But a six-week visit to see his mother last year proved to the family that staying in this country was the right decision.

"No jobs, no economy," he said. "It's going to take time."

Bajrami's progress impressed Craig Thoresen, director of the refugee resettlement program at Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, one of the Valley's refugee agencies.

"Good for him. He's making it," he said. "They're doing well."

Refugees fresh to America face myriad challenges when adjusting to a new way of life. Used to buying farm-fresh food in open-air markets, they suddenly walk through grocery store aisles staring at food in boxes they can't read. They are coached on how to figure out bus routes, call 911, pay bills. In time, though, many land jobs, buy homes and cars, get educations. And some start businesses.

"Is everything absolutely perfect? Probably not, because they're not in their homeland" and away from their customs and culture, Thoresen said of the Bajramis. But the key: "They have some opportunities open to them they would never have in their homeland."

As time passes, the Bajramis continue to ease into American life. The kids enjoy school, his wife is adjusting and the family is making friends of many ethnicities. The family also is looking forward to an Albanian community celebration Nov. 28 for their Independence Day.

"Everything is fine," Bajrami says with a smile.

Reach the reporter at chris.fiscus@arizonarepublic.com, or at (602) 444-7942.