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Albanian Woman Describes Emerging From Behind the 'Iron Curtain' To Discover America

Arta Davis, left, with her son, Christopher (Photo provided by Arta Davis)

Welcome to Around the World, Here at Home. I’m Jennifer Davidson. Today, we’re exploring a country that’s a parliamentary democracy in southeast Europe: The Republic of Albania. And we’re seeing this country through the eyes of Arta Davis, who grew up there, and who now calls the Ozarks home.

"We didn't have many toys, and we didn't have access to TV and the media. We played a lot outdoors," she said. Soccer, chess, tag, and reading were a big part of her childhood, she says.

"We would read Russian authors. Albania was a very isolated country. When we had a good relationship with Russia, then we were allowed to read Russian authors. Then, when the relationship with Russia was broken, we would have a good relationship with China, and we would read Chinese books and authors," Davis recalls.

Albania was behind the "Iron Curtain" of communism. The borders, she says, were secured with barbed wire, and in places, it was charged with electricity. Ordinary Albanians didn't have the right to leave the country, and few foreigners made it in. Literature and the media were tightly controlled, and propaganda was rampant.

"We always had an enemy. The biggest enemy was the United States' imperialism," she said. In school, she said the children had military drills "to prepare for the military invasion."

"We only knew what we were told by the Communist Party. We were told that [other] people starve every day, and that people have no clothes. We were also taught in school that the Americans eat mice and rats," Davis recalls.

In 1990, however, communism fell, and with it fell the blockade on information and travel.

“I was in my second year in college when I met the first American ever. I was excited, but also very surprised to meet the first person who we thought was our biggest enemy,” Davis said.

The American she met was a college girl who was there with Campus Crusade for Christ. Davis said the girl shared the Gospel with her, and she became a Christian. It was the first time she had ever heard of The Bible, or of Jesus Christ.

“We were told, and taught, and trained to worship only the dictator of Albania. And we were taught and told in school that there was no God,” she said. She was an Atheist, although she says deep down, she had faith in a higher power.

“I come from a village of 300 people where women are not very privileged. At the age of 16 you get engaged, and at the age of 17 you get married. And this is all arranged. At the age of 18 you have children and start your family,” Davis said.

When she graduated from college, her father’s family pressured her parents to keep her at home in the village. But her parents, who were school teachers, valued her education and let her travel to Bulgaria for graduate school.

In Bulgaria, she met other Americans on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, and delved into Bible studies, where her faith deepened. She was granted a visa to the United States for a summer project in New Hampshire, and visited West Plains, where she met her husband-to-be, Jeff.

When war erupted in the former Yugoslavia, Albania was affected since it was a neighboring country. Davis says ethnic Albanians were being killed in the hundreds by Serb militias; however, she remembers some ethnically Serb families hiding Albanian families in their homes in a touching act of humanity.

The food, Davis says, is healthy—it’s what’s grown in season: apples, plums, pears, cherries, onions, leeks, potatoes, with black pepper and Italian spices.

“One of my fondest memories is at my grandmother’s house,” Davis said. “We would light the fireplace. And around the fireplace, I think life’s greatest lessons were taught.”

The snow would be waist-high in the mountain villages where she grew up. Inside her grandmother’s house, Davis would gather around the fire with her family and play games, roast chestnuts and bake potatoes. It was there that Davis learned “about womanhood, about being honest, working hard, [and] valuing relationships.”

“Sometimes, I even do this with my children. We will turn all the lights off and grab a flashlight and read books under the flashlight, just because I miss this…and I want to share this with my kids,” Davis said.

Arta Davis now lives in West Plains. She homeschools her three children. Part of their education is learning to pinpoint every country on the world map, and learning the Albanian language. This has been Around the World, Here at Home on KSMU.