christian summer camp albanian jehovah's suicide injustice roma people

As I’ve mentioned quite a few times, Albania is a strange, lovely…

Here’s what happened in the middle of that sentence. My bladder told me it was time to go to the bathroom. Well, I lied. My bladder told me a minute or two ago before I got to the middle of that sentence, but I saw a woman go into the restroom, so I thought I better wait for her to finish. I’m in a coffee shop.

As I’m in the bathroom–don’t worry, I won’t get into the details–a conversation between a woman and a kid takes place outside.

The woman asks the kid where she lives. Shyly, the kid answers.

This is already off to a bad start, like why do you need to know where a kid lives? Why are you asking them that in the bathroom with no one around? (It’s hard to tell if someone’s in the bathroom when you’re waiting outside, so I doubt the woman knew I heard everything.)

But it gets worse. The woman seemingly randomly tells the kid that’s where their church is.

The kid doesn’t respond. She probably just wanted to pee, as a normal person usually does when they go to the bathroom. Well, okay, you’re normal if you’re doing #2 too, hey, I don’t judge. 

What I do judge, though, is people who talk about such a loaded topic as religion with kids they don’t know… in bathrooms… with no one around.

Putting her investigative hat/voice on, the woman now asks the kid if she’s been to their church. 

The fact she keeps calling it “our church” makes it sound a bit cult-ish. Like, you and whose?!

The kid says that she hasn’t been there.

Demandingly, the woman asks–and I think it bears repeating–THE LITTLE KID why she hadn’t been to their church.

I don’t remember if the kid responds or not. This all happens in a few seconds.

The woman continues: “Come to our church. Why don’t you come to our church?”

I open the door, ready to fight this woman. At my sight, and I’m sure I gave her the nastiest look, she disappears.

Here’s where it gets worse: she was an employee of the coffee shop.

canva graphic about religion jehovah's witnesses suicide and the demanding albanian barista

From the way she disappeared, she knew she had done something shady.

In the meantime, the kid went to the bathroom. I waited a little bit. I wanted to tell her that what that woman did was wrong. She didn’t have to listen to her or any adult telling her to do this or that, well, besides her parents. I wanted her to feel safe and know that what happened shouldn’t have. But every way I looked at it, I’d be another adult telling her what to do. A little more time passed and I decided to get back to my laptop and the unfinished sentence.

Walking upstairs (the bathroom is downstairs) to my table, I quickly realized this wasn’t the end of it for me.

I wasn’t having a full-on panic attack, but my heart was beating extremely fast and my hands were shaking.

Maybe you’d be pissed too. But I’ll give a little more context just in case you’re not. When we were 11 or 12, my school friend and I heard about this great summer camp.

We were excited about summer, camp, meeting new people, life. Everything was exciting. We told our parents about it and started preparing for camp.

The first day was introductory. We’d get to know other kids in the camp, as well as the organizers and the camp teachers. They’d booked a big space in the center of the city. There was food and fizzy drinks. (If I’m not mistaken, one of their value propositions was that we’d be practicing our English with native teenagers.)

A few people got up to the podium and talked about the camp, how much fun we’d have, what it’d be like. Stuff like that.

A young girl, probably 15, went to the podium and started speaking. Again, she talked about the camp and told us what to expect. (A lot of fun.)

Then, she started telling her story in a very heartfelt tone, as if she was letting us in on a secret she’d kept for years. Can you share a secret with hundreds of kids you met an hour ago? Are kids especially trustworthy? If you have no issue telling a secret to a hundred people at once, can we call that “a secret”? By definition, a secret is “something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others.”

She starts telling us about her relationship.

Now, imagine a room of angsty teenagers who are having their first crushes. They’re super interested in hearing about others’ first relationships. They want to know what to do or avoid.

The girl told us about this boy she’d met and how they fell in love. She was so happy. It felt right. He made her feel amazing. She talked quite a bit about their dreamy relationship.

Here’s the guard in charge of cue cards during Fiona and Lord Farquad’s wedding in Shrek.

Shrek cue cards aawww audience on the story about the hidden christian camp

Just as hundreds of kids were probably starting to think that her relationship was #goals, she said that all of a sudden, he broke up with her.

*audience gasps*

She didn’t know what hit her. She felt so sad and didn’t know what to do. Her parents obviously didn’t understand her.

Once we were all hooked hearing her story, wondering how she coped, we got our answer.

She said that she was doing 1000X times better now. She was happy and excited about camp. Depressed who?!!

The way she made this happen? You might’ve guessed it, with the help of Jesus Christ.

I won’t go into the details of what she said, but she spoke at great length about how her newfound relationship made her happier. Now, that she’d found Jesus Christ,…. It all sort of faded in the background. I looked at my friend. She was just as shocked as me.

Xh, if you remember this and are reading right now, let me know if I’ve missed anything.

This was a Christian camp! Not any Christian camp, but a camp where they weren’t upfront about it being a Christian camp.

Until that moment, we had no idea this camp had any religious affiliations. It’s different if they’d made sure we knew what this was. But they didn’t and I believe that wasn’t a coincidence.

It’s easier to lure kids in with pools and fun and conversations with native English speakers. Once you’ve lured them in and put them through the trouble of convincing their parents, you present an innocent heartbroken girl who finally found the road to peace and happiness and is sharing her secret with you.

I left after her speech, though I’m sure there weren’t any similar to it after. They don’t want to make it too obvious. Kids are gullible, but you don’t want to make them suspicious. You want to sprinkle religion just enough so it enters their consciousness, but not so much that they mention it to their parents when they get back home.

My friend continued going to the camp. She said it wasn’t that bad.

When I was in the bathroom, this day flashed before my eyes.

Luckily, I had a great relationship with my parents, so I let them know what had happened and they were just as pissed as I was. Luckily, I had an overall great support system and wasn’t struggling financially.

But imagine a kid who doesn’t feel safe, who feels lost, whose parents aren’t supportive, and he’s never felt that he’s worthy of love.

You’ll get any chance at connection you have, right?

Besides this, in Albania, throughout the years, there have been numerous suicides from people who were part of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Googling “Jehovah’s Witnesses suicide” doesn’t show much of what I’m looking for besides their strong view against it.

A DailyMotion video titled “Suicide: Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses have a rate far exceeding that of the general public” shows up.

One thing’s for sure, that if a religion is driving people to suicide, you won’t find much about that online. At least in English.

But as you know, I’m Albanian. So let me tell you a terrifying story from here, whether you’re a long-time reader or you ended up on this page by also googling “Jehovah’s Witnesses suicide.”

In July last year, a mother and her two daughters self-sacrificed.

They’d stopped eating. Their neighbors reported not seeing the daughters in a long time, while their mother had started looking extremely thin.

One of the daughters had died more than a year ago, but they kept using vinegar and oil on her body to keep her cadaver from smelling.

Their father had killed himself six years ago by jumping off a building. He was one of the founders of Jehovah’s Witnesses branch in Përmet, the city where they were from. A spokesperson for JW said this family had no affiliation with them. (Of course.)

They believed in revival. When they were found, the mother had also passed away, but the other daughter was alive, in an extremely bad condition, but still, alive.

page from a book on rebirth jehovah's witnesses suicide albania


In a later interview with the survivor, a page from a book in their house appears on the screen. This is highlighted: “Leave, the girl isn’t dead, she’s sleeping.”

The next few lines are about how people ridiculed [the person who said that]. “Then when they took the crowd out, he went into the room, grabbed her hand and she rose. The fame of this spread all over that place.”

Do I know for sure that Jehovah’s Witnesses drove this family to suicide, promising them they’d return to life? No. Do I find all these coincidences too coincident-y? Yes. Have I (and thousands of other Albanians) heard similar stories throughout the years about people who committed suicide who happened to be part of JW? Yes.

I guess another question I could pose would be: Why is the promise of rebirth so appealing and who needs revival when they’re alive?

But in that bathroom, the question that I asked while that conversation between the kid and the woman was happening was: what the fuck?

When I went upstairs, shaky hands and heart beating fast, I went to the counter to confront the barista who I’d heard downstairs.

She wasn’t there.

I went back to my table, but I couldn’t sit still.

A few moments later, I went back to the counter. Still not there.

I went back to my table, but I still couldn’t sit still.

I decided to talk about it with one of the other baristas since we’re a bit more familiar and she’s been there for a while.

“Can I talk to you for a second?”

She says of course. I explain to her that it’s not cool for a barista to push her religion on people in her workplace, especially when they’re kids. She can scream from the rooftops of how much she loves her church in her free time, but not here, and not to kids. Well, I didn’t say that second sentence, but you get the idea.

She seemed taken aback and said I was completely right.

She asked who was I referring to and at this moment, the barista shows up. I tell her the same thing I told barista #1.

Immediately, she gets defensive. Apparently, she’d done nothing wrong.

“The girl told me she lived at X street. We have a church at X street.”

I was confused as to why this seemed like a legit argument to her.

“And? You could have a church at Popular Street and she could live at Popular Street. This doesn’t mean you can demand a kid to come to your church.”

Then, she replies with something that made me realize why that seemed like a strong argument to her.

“I wasn’t demanding. I was just informing her since she was an *insert derogatory racist term*.”

The other barista almost sighs of relief.  “Aha she was a insert derogatory racist term. Well, what’s the problem then?”

Mind-blowing.

The girl was part of the Roma community. Like a lot of Balkan countries, Albania has one of the least racially diverse populations you’ll find. A considerable amount of Chinese people live and work in Albania, but besides that and Roma people, there are very few Asian, Black, or Indigenous citizens.

Ignorance breeds ignorance. That’s why we now have a generation my age saying such cruel things.

Does a Roma kid not deserve dignity? Does a random barista know better than the girl’s parents?

Are we God to decide who deserves fair treatment and who doesn’t? By definition, doesn’t everyone deserve fair treatment?

If we can’t stand up for innocent kids, aren’t we doomed?

If someone can tell something is wrong, then go ahead and say it’s not wrong because of the color of the girl’s skin, is justice just some abstract concept we expect from our politicians but not from ourselves?

Let’s say I were to give the demanding barista the benefit of the doubt. A lot of Roma people beg for money. The girl was actually there to beg for money, but first, she wanted to use the restroom. The barista felt bad for her and told her that she could get help at their church. They’d give her food or books or clothes.

Even though I wrote this whole thing, I do hope that I was wrong. I hope that the religious woman was just a little weird in the way she approached little kids in bathrooms–see, I can’t write out that whole sentence and pretend I believe that’s the truth.

But I know that a lot of Roma people struggle financially. I also know that a lot of Roma kids selling gum or asking for change in coffee shops are safe.

When I was in university, I remember that a psychology professor who’d relentlessly worked to help on the integration of Roma people in Albanian society said that many of them didn’t want to settle. They accepted financial help, but not all of them dreamt of labor or returning to school. Some of them wanted to live exactly how they were living. Was the professor racist and her bias was showing? Maybe. Was the professor naive in not understanding that integration is a long and very difficult process? Maybe.

superman roma kid Sebastian Kroscen plays near his mother, Jitka Cervenakova, who works with other mothers to build understanding of their legal rights for enrolling their children in mainstream schools in the city of Ostrava, Czech Republic. Björn Steinz/Panos for the Open Society Foundations

Photo by Björn Steinz/Panos for the Open Society Foundations: Sebastian Kroscen plays near his mother, Jitka Cervenakova, who works with other mothers to build understanding of their legal rights for enrolling their children in mainstream schools in the Czech Republic. Article: How a Broken Economic System Keeps Roma Children in Special Schools

A lot of organizations in Albania aren’t trustworthy. They’re phantom organizations created with the idea of legally stealing grant money and doing nothing with it. They say they’re helping victims of domestic abuse or Roma people and what they’re doing is getting rich.

Maybe struggling Roma people didn’t want to share their emotional and psychological integration struggles with white people who were probably in it for the money.

I don’t know.

Maybe the barista had a guilty look on her face when she saw me because she didn’t expect me, not because she was doing something wrong.

I don’t know.

If you have your own theory about what actually happened, I’d love to hear it.

These are some of the things I felt like sharing with you today.

The start of this article: “As I’ve mentioned quite a few times, Albania is a strange, lovely…” was actually the middle of another article I was writing.

But I’ve gotten better and better (putting $1 in the humblebrag jar) at listening to my body and soul and creativity.

Maybe I ended the story with a lot of “I don’t know”-s for your liking. Here’s what I do know: right from wrong, or better yet, what feels right and what feels wrong.

I approach every body sensation- trembling hands, a fast heart rate,  every feeling of comfort or discomfort, and every urge to write or not write with curiosity.

I honor my cycles and I know that what’s meant for me won’t miss me, whether that’s a lesson, an experience, a person, or a story that needs telling.

Comments

Nice read, as always. It touches upon two different issues: racism and religion (or religious zeal).
We Albanian are very racist. So much that we would not recognize racism when we see it (and practice it every day). Like all racist people, when we talk about them “not wanting to settle”, we don’t take into account the historical marginalization and all the context that they have lived in for generations. Somehow we expect that a simple donation or social assistance or low paying job will erase generations of oppression. We treat similarly other issues as well: violence against women is another perfect example. We hide our own prejudices and ignorance behind these types of justifications.
As for religion, as an atheist, I see it as a problem in all societies. In our own, it found fertile ground because of ignorance and greed. I know that I have a bit of a prejudice against churches, but I strongly believe that many people have joined them for benefits. Some of these churches are very powerful and run organizations where people can be employed or get a grant, etc.

Such an important message.”Somehow we expect that a simple donation or social assistance or low paying job will erase generations of oppression.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts, you’ve touched upon some crucial points.

Such an important topic. Such a beautiful piece of writing that it qualifies as an experience. I admire your attitude and the action you took, and I thank you because I learnt something valuable. You have been influencing my perception on so many topics, and triggering the need for having various viewpoints.

What a wonderful message to receive! I read it over and over again. Thank you for sharing, being here, and giving me the honor of being able to influence your perception.

Wow! Yes. I get ya. Rather then comment on the subject and get lost in my personal opinion! I’d rather say, Good read!! Should title this, “Strange but true”?

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