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Young Albanians work to address inherited trauma

Maria Parubi with her mother Diljana, while visiting her family’s village as a young girl. Parubi, 23, is one of a community of first-generation Albanian-Americans working to process inherited trauma and promote mental wellness.

As war progressed in Kosovo in 1999, 7-year-old Ariana Metalia sat in front of the television in her family home in New York and watched the bloodshed taking place more than 4,000 miles away.

“My parents didn’t hide anything from us. Every day we came home from school, we would watch the news,” said Metalia. “They wanted us to see what was going on.”

Metalia, a first-generation Albanian-American whose parents immigrated to the Bronx from mainland Albania, is one of an estimated 100,000 Albanians currently living in New York City.

The majority of Albanians to emigrate between the 1970s and 1990s, did so as refugees. Like Metalia’s immediate family, some came fleeing political persecution under communist rule in Albania; others fled war in Former Yugoslavia, where ethnic Albanians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo were the targets of ethnic genocide.

Despite having never lived through the violence first-hand, Metalia represents a community of Albanian-Americans born in New York City after their parents immigrated. It’s a generation left to grapple with the impact of familial trauma. 

Now, she is part of a team of young Albanians working to establish a mental health day for the Albanian community. The event would be the first of its kind to address what she said is a need for open conversation about trauma and grief.

“Because my parents were so active in supplying weapons and funding to help my cousins rebuild their homes during the war, I felt like we were a part of it,” said Metalia. “Nobody in my family died in Kosovo, but it’s just been drilled into my head how devastating these situations were.”

Metalia, whose childhood experiences led her to pursue a career as a licensed mental health counselor, said that the exposure to trauma, combined with a cultural stigma against getting help in Albanian communities has taken its toll.

“People are walking around like zombies with post-traumatic stress disorder, and nobody is doing anything about it,” said Metalia. “People can get better if you provide the resources for them, but I mention therapy and Albanians look at me like I’m delusional.”

That’s something that she is hoping to change.

Inherited trauma and unspoken grief

Vlash Parubi doesn’t like his wife’s Okra stew.

Vlash Parubi is one of several thousand Albanians to immigrate to the Bronx, where he now lives with his family.

The traditional dish—called Bajme in his native Albanian language—is a savory blend of onion, garlic, tomato and lamb, simmered with the summertime vegetable until the flavors fuse.

To his family in the Bronx, the stew is a piece of cultural heritage, but to Vlash, Bajme is a sore reminder of an earlier life lived out under communist reign.  Like most young men who grew up in The Eastern Bloc, Vlash served mandated time in the Albanian national military before immigrating to New York as a political refugee in 1990.

He doesn’t speak much about what happened during his two years of service in the mid 1980s— a decade in Albania defined by economic hardship, violent imprisonment and global isolation—but one of the few things his children have come to understand about that time in their father’s life, are his eating habits. For dinner in the military, he’d eat Bajme every single day.

Now, he can’t bear the thought of the taste.

Maria Parubi dressed in traditional clothing during her first visit to Albania as a young girl.

Maria Parubi is Vlash Parubi’s oldest child.

The 23-year-old’s Instagram account is decorated with photos of beautiful Albanian landscapes and portraits of her posing in front of them.

In one photo, she stands alone, wearing a white dress, speckled in blue, while looking out onto a jagged mountain range covered in patches of dark greens that turn pastel under the shadows cast by the clouds above. In another, she stands smiling with her brother as the sun sets on a village in the backdrop. Her caption reads, “Home is where the heart is, and ours will forever belong to Albania.”

But Parubi’s relationship to the country of her family’s origin isn’t so simple.

Born just a year after her parents immigrated in 1995, Parubi said that preservation of Albanian identity was important growing up. Throughout her childhood, her parents spoke fondly about their home in Albania, dressed her in traditional clothing and spoke Albanian language in the household to instill the connection to their Balkan homeland, but neither her mother nor her father ever spoke about the hardships that they faced.

Maria Parubi’s mother, Diljana (left), stands with a friend in her village, Murqian, in Shkoder, Albania.

“My dad will talk about the happier times or about the future,” said Parubi. “But when it comes the darker stuff, it’s like that time period doesn’t exist.”

Parubi said that the absence of conversation didn’t result in the absence of tension derived from her parents’ past experiences. Her mom has panic attacks. Her dad suffers from depression.

“The older I get, the more I understand what my parents went through, and the more I can make sense of how their experiences affected my childhood,” said Parubi. “As a child, you become what you see. We inherited our parents’ trauma and now we have to make sense of it.”

Denise Hien is a clinical psychologist and researcher who has studied the impact of transgenerational trauma on families for the last 30 years.

“I’ve worked with a lot of individuals who are survivors of genocide or persecution, where the children were suffering from PTSD even though they had never been exposed to the direct trauma,” said Hien. “Absolutely, trauma can be transmitted and carried from one generation to the next.”

According to Hien, there are two major pathways through which trauma can be transmitted. The first is when children are overexposed to the stories that their parents carry.

Diljana Parubi had dreams of becoming a physicist, but wasn’t permitted to continue her studies while living under communist rule. “I always wonder what my mom would have become if she was allowed to pursue her passion,” said Parubi.

“If the parent is talking about horrific situations in a way that a child is unable to process, it can be overwhelming and could manifest in anxiousness or depression later one,” said Hien.

The other is when parents are unable to bring words to their experiences and that can result in tension that is also detrimental to a child.

“It’s something you certainly saw in Holocaust survivors,” said Hien. “Many would never speak of what happened. The theory is that that silence then goes on to live an unconscious life that’s transmitted and held by the children of the family.”

Hien said that when there is an unspoken trauma in a family, children can develop related symptoms or disorders and not have an understanding of where they are coming from, much like Parubi’s experience.

Maria Parubi (left) at an Albanian community celebration in New York City.

“Throughout high school I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and anger that I didn’t understand,” said Parubi. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I was like wow, I can’t let myself become this.”

As Parubi began working to better understand her own battles with mental health, she also began speaking about her experiences with other young Albanians for the first time.

“I thought it was just me because nobody was talking about it, but now I’m realizing there are so many of us,” said Parubi. “I started meeting Albanians that were like me, more modern and wanted to let go and fix these generational traumas. It was really exciting.”

One of the young Albanians she connected with was Ariana Metalia.

“We try to find each other, even if just through social media,” said Parubi. “I have so many friends either from here or back in the motherland that I’ve never actually met, but we have these conversations all the time just because we post about them.”

Together, Metalia and Parubi are working to organize a mental health day for the Albanian community in New York City. Although they haven’t set a date yet, Parubi said that it’s a small step toward normalizing conversations about mental health and inherited trauma.

“My parents never had the resources to address their trauma and get the help that they needed,” said Parubi. “They did the best that they could with what they had, they gave me a future and made sure we had a roof over our head, but I’m realizing that there are things I need to address in myself and things I need to let go of that have damaged me.”

 “Now, we’re developing these resources for each other. A lot of us are getting information through education, and what you’re finding now is that the next generation is starting to have these conversations,” said Parubi. “I love standing up for people who are the underdog or who don’t have a voice. I decided I needed to stand up for myself. How can I expect my community to change if I’m not a part of it.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured0 Comments

Bronx kids demand action at global climate strike

Thousands of young New York City school children rallied for the Youth Climate Strike on Sept. 20 in Manhattan’s Foley Square.

A lively sea of young activists gathered near Foley Square in lower Manhattan on Sept. 20 to call for increased environmental protection, just days before global leaders are expected to meet to discuss plans to reduce carbon emissions at the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23 in New York City.

The youth climate strike, which drew crowds that stretched several blocks on Friday afternoon, was led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a widely known climate activist from Sweden who has become the face of the movement to combat global warming. Thunberg, who crossed the Atlantic by sailboat and arrived in N.Y. on Aug. 28, was joined by thousands of the city’s 1.1 million school children who were given official permission to ditch class to take part in the peaceful march.

Event organizers estimate that more than 3 million demonstrators turned out at more than 2,000 locations across all seven continents.

Although Thunberg’s presence drew special attention, the strike held in New York City was of particular importance to a group of high school students who traveled to the march not by sailboat, but by southbound subway— 15 miles from the Bronx.

“We’re just trying to come together to make a difference,” said Katie Cruz, a 15-year-old activist from Throggs Neck, a neighborhood in the South Bronx. “It really means a lot to be here and show that we have a voice.”

While the images often associated with climate change are those of melting glaciers, burning forests and endangered species, air pollution is “a leading environmental threat to the health of urban populations,” according to a report published by NYC.gov.

The worst air quality in New York City is that in the South Bronx, where asthma is widespread, and treatment is costly and limited.

Members of Peace by Piece, a youth led organization that addresses issues of social justice through art in the Bronx, organized a meet-up for Bronx students at the climate march on Sept. 20.

“I walk through the streets and see smog,” said Cruz, who suffers from the respiratory condition. “My grandma also has asthma. Walking is so hard for her, and she always feels so out of breath when she’s outside.”

Several studies have shown that climate change is a major contributor to social inequality, and UN research conducted in 2017 concluded that the negative impacts of pollution disproportionately impact already vulnerable communities.

Yarmis Cruz (no relation to Katie), said that’s why it was so important to her to show up and march.

“Minority voices are often covered up by the majority, and our demands aren’t always the same as those more privileged than we are,” said Cruz, a 17-year-old from Morrisania. “I think that it’s important for us to make sure that people know that we want equity, we don’t just want equality. There’s no reason why lower income communities shouldn’t get the same benefits of a clean environment that make healthy living possible.”

Cruz said she’s noticed a growing social justice movement among young people in the Bronx, and that the representation at the climate march serves as a good indicator.

“Most of my friends are from the Bronx, and they are here, and they are speaking out, and they’re marching,” said Cruz. “It’s nice to see a little diversity.”

“We’re standing up for our futures. We deserve to be heard,” she said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured0 Comments

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Violent ads and fake nudes: AOC not sorry for blocking harassers on Twitter

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism following news that she was blocking some users from her personal Twitter account. In defense, Ocasio-Cortez said that the few accounts that she has blocked are those that subjected her to online harassment.

A violent ad paid for by New Faces GOP, a new right-wing political action committee, aired during the Democratic debate on Sept. 12, showing a photo of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s face burning, followed by images of human remains.

Former California GOP congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng delivered the ad’s message: “This is the face of socialism and ignorance,” said Heng, as Ocasio-Cortez’s face burst into flames on screen and melted into images from the 1970s Cambodian genocide, which Heng’s parents survived.

The cost of the ad to the conservative PAC was close to $100,000, according to Federal Communications Commission financial documents.

Heng, who was defeated by incumbent Congressman Jim Costa, used much of the same imagery in the controversial ad as she did in a video for her congressional campaign in 2018, which became the center of a first amendment squabble after it was flagged by Facebook as inappropriate content and removed from the site, resulting in Republican outrage.

“My parents did not have the luxury of blocking the horrific content from the reality of their lives,” wrote Heng in a tweeted response in August 2018. “Why does Facebook feel they have the right to censor that content in the land of free speech?”

Five days after blocking the ad, Facebook reversed its decision and returned it to the site.

While Heng’s ads continue to spark controversy, this time the outrage rests largely on the other side of the political divide.

“Republicans are running TV ads setting pictures of me on fire,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter after the ad first aired on ABC following the Democratic debate.

The 29-year-old from the Bronx gained national attention after unexpectedly defeating longtime congressman Joe Crowley in a democratic primary in 2018 and has been a target of hostility from conservatives since she took office. This time, she said that Republicans are profiting from using her face to spread hate. That isn’t without consequence, she said.

“Who pays for heightened security? Who answers the phones for the threats resulting from a violent, false ad?” she wrote.

Regardless of the ad’s violent nature, Ocasio-Cortez has no clear legal recourse to demand its removal. The conservative PAC’s right to produce and distribute the content is protected under the first amendment, and the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that hate speech is no exception when it comes to speech protections.

Personal attacks are nothing new for the congresswoman. Although people are free to say what they want about her, in cases in which she is subject to extreme forms of online abuse, she said she believes she can choose not to listen.

Her solution? The block button.

In August, a letter sent by Knight First Amendment Institute, a free speech protection organization at Columbia University, called the practice “unconstitutional.” Ocasio-Cortez responded, and said that she has only blocked 20 of her 5.3 million followers from her @AOC account.

Among the accounts blocked by the congresswoman is the Daily Caller, a conservative online news organization that shared a fake nude photo of her in January 2019. “Here’s the photo some people described as a nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” read the tweet, which has since been deleted.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a request for a list of additional blocked accounts or specific examples of the behavior she is blocking.

Katie Fallow, a First Amendment lawyer with Knight First Amendment whose name appeared on the letter chastising Ocasio-Cortez for banning certain voices from her Twitter account said that in cases where a “true threat” is made, the rules change a bit, but didn’t provide a clear definition of what a true threat entailed.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has over and over again upheld that public officials must withstand pretty withering and caustic criticism, not just about their policies but about their character,” said Fallow. “The theory is that it’s better to do that than to allow public officials to block speech based on viewpoint and determine when they think something is inappropriate or not.”

But Ocasio-Cortez issued a defiant response to the letter while at a Town Hall held in New York City Housing Authority Boston Post Road Plaza in the Bronx in late August.

“Free speech isn’t an entitlement to force someone to endure your harassment,” Ocasio-Cortez told a crowd of reporters after the meeting.

Currently, two other newly elected young, female representatives from the Bronx have joined Ocasio-Cortez and said that online harassment is a problem and should not be tolerated.

Bronx elected officials speak out

Alessandra Biaggi, a 33-year-old newly-elected New York state senator whose district overlaps with Ocasio-Cortez’s, said she believes the law on free speech is still adjusting to having women in power in the era of social media.

She, along with Ocasio-Cortez and New York Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez of the Bronx represent a growing number of young women and women of color running for and winning positions in public office at the city, state, and national level.

“This is not a knock on men, it’s just that so much about leadership has been defined by this male lens,” said Biaggi, who ousted 14-year incumbent Jeffrey Klein in the 2018 state senate election. “We have to work harder to define what it means to be a leader.”

Biaggi said she has experienced various degrees of gender related harassment since taking office, which has ranged from minor instances, like men using her physical appearance to belittle her position—calling her things like “cute” and “small” in business settings— to more extreme instances of threat and exploitation, such as threatening physical harm.

“I will listen to someone who disagrees with me, who’s angry at me for something,” said Biaggi. “But I don’t need to listen to someone calling me nasty degrading names or harassing me. Online is the perfect environment for that really outrageous behavior.”

Biaggi’s office did not respond to a request for further specification of the type of behavior that she believes crosses the line.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is escorted out of a Town Hall in the Bronx on Aug. 29, as a man in attendance shouts that she’s a fraud.

Regardless, data makes clear that there are major gender-based differences in the experiences of members of public office, especially those engaged in online arenas.

Monica Anderson, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organization, said that 70 percent of women in the US see online harassment as a major problem.

“That’s compared to only about half of men,” Anderson said.

More people are online today than ever before, according to Anderson, and that has fueled the necessity for greater research on online environments and the differences in perceptions of what constitutes online harassment.

Most notably, Pew research found that women experience much higher rates of sexual harassment, including receiving unsolicited pornographic images and having nude images of them shared without permission. Women between the ages of 18 and 29 reported being sexually harassed at rates that more than doubled their male counterparts.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez signs a magazine cover she’s featured on for a constituent in attendance following a housing Town Hall in the Bronx on Aug. 29.

Assemblywoman Fernandez, a former staff member in the same office she now serves as an elected official, said she hasn’t had to block anybody, yet, but she’s seen the differences in how men and women in office are treated online, first-hand.

“I take this experience from having had to manage a social media account for a male elected official,” said Fernandez, who added that followers have messaged her professional account to make a pass at her, called her beautiful and ask her personal questions about what she’s doing and where she’s at. “Now, seeing my own account, I do see different messages come in.”

When asked whether or not she thought Trump blocking somebody on Twitter (he received a letter from the Knight Foundation in 2017 and recently lost a lawsuit raised by Knight First Amendment) was the same as AOC blocking somebody on Twitter, Fernandez said, “absolutely not.”

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