An Albanian Muslim whose father was honored by Israel for saving Jews during the Holocaust, was granted political asylum last week by a judge in Boston after he testified that Islamic fundamentalists threatened him and his family if he stayed in Albania.
“Thank you, thank you,” Bujar Veselaj told Immigration Judge Robin Suter after she ruled that his testimony was “extremely credible” and that he and his family had faced not only persecution but “extreme psychological torture.”
After her ruling, Veselaj’s wife and daughter burst into tears and Veselaj embraced his lawyer, Jeff Goldman.
“Congratulations, and welcome to America,” Suter said.“God bless you judge, and God bless America,” Veselaj, 50, replied. The hearing was held after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services turned down his request for political asylum.
Goldman, who handled the case pro bono for the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn in Boston, said in court papers that Veselaj’s late father, Refik, hid Jews from the Nazis — an act that led Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, to honor him with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. He established the Albania-Israel Friendship Association in 1992 and died eight years later.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the fall of Nazi Germany on Jan. 26-27, 2005, Albanian television stations and the national newspaper interviewed Veselaj and he publicly endorsed his father’s actions. About two weeks later, Veselaj began receiving threats against himself and his family. One caller said, “Muslim Albania did not have a place for well-wishers of the Jews …. You must leave the country or else we are going to kill you, your family and anyone who can defend you.”
One morning he found a dead black cat with its head ripped off lying near his driveway gate. A blood-covered note placed on top of the cat read: “This is the way you will see your children if you don’t do what we ask you to do and if you go to the police station.”
The calls continued through May and Veselaj said he believes there was even an attempt to abduct one of his children from school. After receiving a bomb threat, Veselaj, his wife and two children began sleeping in the basement.
In June, 2005, they and his mother flew to the United States and have been living in Quincy, Mass., while awaiting the asylum hearing. The court was also presented with the affidavits of two experts on Albania who supported Veselaj’s petition. One was from Yosef Govrin of Jerusalem, a retired deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was involved in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Albania. “I can well realize the feelings of fear that the Veselaj family faced in Albania as a result of Muslim extremists,” he said. “In the eyes of Muslim extremists, having a ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Jewish’ position represents the evil of Western civilization. These Muslim extremists are determined to terrorize any entity siding with the West.”
The other, Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, which he described as a moderate Muslim think tank in Washington, and who is regarded as an expert in Islam, said radical preachers and terror recruiters have infiltrated Albanian Sunni Muslims.
In his own affidavit, Veselaj, who testified through an interpreter during the three-hour hearing, said that recently “intolerant, divisive, and extreme fundamentalist movements have threatened to corrode traditional Albanian harmony. … In fact, Albania is believed to be deeply involved in Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. It is considered a springboard for bin Laden’s operations in Europe, as well as a training ground for mujahedeens (Muslim fighters).”
“With my father’s reputation and history as a ‘Jewish agent,’ as well as my own public endorsement of my father’s actions and bravery during World War II, my family is now in grave peril,” Veselaj added. He recounted the daily threatening phone calls he had received and noted that in March 2005 someone broke his office window and then called to say, “The way we broke your glass, we will also break your heads.”
Veselaj added, since he was warned not to contact the police, “I was worried that speaking up would actually do my family more harm than good. The worst part was that we could not even tell our friends or relatives about what was happening for fear of endangering them as well. … As far as I know, the rest of my relatives had not yet been threatened or harmed.”
After the judge granted Veselej and his family political asylum, the deputy trial counsel who had presented the government’s case said he would not appeal, Goldman noted.