Driving out of Albania’s capital, Tirana, into nearby Kamza, blocks of communist-era apartments give way to a chaotic jumble of houses of different colours, shapes and heights. Many are half-finished or being rebuilt. Some are just exposed brick, while others are painted near-fluorescent greens, oranges or yellows.
“People pay a lot of attention to the aesthetics of the houses,” says Njazi Murrja, who lives locally. “They show the culture and the wealth of the family.”
On the crowded pavements, street-sellers, children and groups of old men playing dominoes jostle for space. The roads are named after celebrities or international cities; on our way to a higgledy-piggledy street market we pass by Rruja New York (New York Street).
If it all sounds rather informal, that’s because it is – this former slum has been transformed by its residents over the past 10 years into Albania’s fastest-growing city, all thanks to money sent home by relatives working abroad.
In older cities you are just a citizen, but here you have your imprint
Throughout eastern and southern Europe, emigration is dramatically changing communities. Towns and villages in Greece, the Balkans and Italy are emptying as young people head to nearby cities or to northern Europe in search of work. But here, the opposite is happening. The houses, businesses and infrastructure of Kamza, which has a population of around 250,000, would not exist if it wasn’t for Albania’s several-million-strong diaspora.
“People have a deep love for this city because they built it themselves,” says former deputy mayor Tomorr Kotarja. “Everyone has made their contribution. In older cities you are just a citizen, but here you have your imprint.”
Kamza’s history is as chaotic as its streets. During the communist period it was state-owned agricultural land with around 5,000 inhabitants. Internal migration was banned by the regime, and workers in the mines and farms of the north were completely isolated from the rest of the country. “The propaganda stated that living in rural areas was the best because the air was fresher,” says Kotarja.
But when the Democratic Party of Albania came to power in 1992, rural workers set off towards the capital in their thousands.
“Life in the north was hard,” says former miner Ismail Veizi, who arrived that year with his wife and two sons. “I was in hospital many times because of the chemicals I breathed in. It was minus 20 degrees in winter and we had to travel far to get firewood. Coming here was a matter of life and death.”
Sitting in his clean, comfortable house close to the city centre, he describes how the neighbourhood was just fields when he arrived. “There were some people living in the stables,” he says. “Others had marked out space for their house in the field. Some had come as a family, some a whole clan.” He built a simple two-room structure, with no sewage system or electricity. Water had to be collected from a well an hour away.
As well as poor conditions, migrants from the north also struggled to adjust culturally – they spoke a different dialect to the people in Tirana, and for centuries had maintained a traditional clan system. In 1995 police tried to clear the settlements, but gave up after encountering fierce resistance.
“The people from Tirana looked at us with a certain contempt,” says Kotarja. “So we worked hard to improve our position.” Faced with a lack of jobs, migration became residents’ primary option, starting with Greece and Italy.
Today, Kotarja says, most favour the UK, even though a place on a lorry costs around €15,000 (£12,800). The attraction comes from the network of Albanians already settled there, and the fact that they have experienced less discrimination than in other countries.
“All their money went into the houses,” says Kotarja. “People started bringing their expertise back from outside and built bigger and better.”
Murrja, a teacher, moved to Kamza from Diber in 2004 with money earned by his eldest son in Greece. “My aim was to educate my children here,” he says. “The conditions were terrible in the villages, there was no infrastructure. My wife is a nurse and we could never build a house on our salaries.”
When he arrived, he says, there were no roads in Kamza apart from dirt tracks. “I’d be covered in so much mud by the time I arrived at school, I’d have to wash in the well.”
Several years later his second son left for the UK, followed by his youngest. Their money has helped him renovate and improve the house. Veizi has also rebuilt his house from just two rooms to four storeys thanks to money his son makes working as a painter and decorator in Germany. “I’ve got a fridge, TV screens – I always tell him I don’t need the newest version, but he says no!” he laughs.
The city began to rapidly formalise once it became its own municipality in 2007. “The changes happened very fast,” says Kotarja. A water supply was built with the help of an NGO, and the central government provided money to build roads and schools. Legislation formalised building construction.
Some new factories and businesses provide jobs, but with unemployment still around 50%, emigration remains the most popular source of income. The situation places strain on family relationships – Veizi’s daughter-in-law, Xhuljana, raises her child alone for half the year while her husband works in Germany.
The government still struggles to collect taxes on the money sent from abroad, which is largely made on the black market. “Migration has increased since 2013,” says Kotarja. “People see no hope or opportunity in Albania.” Albanians are currently caught entering the UK illegally more than any other nationality.
Although thankful for the new infrastructure, some residents admit they are nostalgic for the days when they could build however they pleased. “There’s a lot of corruption,” says Veizi. “Now you need to bribe someone just to get permission to fix your roof. But overall it is good. I am happy with life here.”
The poverty, informal building and unorthodox road names have made Kamza something of a joke among Tirana’s well-heeled. Some residents of the capital believe it should never have been constructed in the first place: “It’s not acceptable to just build wherever you like,” one says to me.
But Kotarja says people in Kamza are proud of what they have created. “Everything has been made by the people,” he says. “The need to change their lives was the driving force.”