Abu Bakker Qassim was a little concerned when Albania granted him and four other Muslim Uighurs political asylum. It was back in 2006, and they’d all spent four-and-a-half years as detainees in Guantanamo Bay.
“What I knew about Albania, it was a communist state,” Qassim says. “I was saying to myself, ‘Albania, that’s a communist state, we already left a communist state.’”
Qassim says he fled China in 2001 to escape persecution of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group.
Qassim was among 22 Uighurs captured near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2001, not long after the US began the war in Afghanistan.
Many facts in the case remain murky, including where exactly they were captured. Or why they spent time at camp in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. By some accounts, they were being trained as militants to fight for Uighur independence in China.
But years of court cases and an evolving position of the US government on the men, generally came to the same conclusion: They weren’t the enemies of the US or US forces.
Still, they remained locked up for years because they had nowhere to go. China considers the men terrorists and seeks to prosecute them. Few countries wanted to take them. Albania, a staunch US ally, agreed to take five Uighurs in 2006.
Qassim actually knew something about Albania, growing up in western China. Chairman Mao and Albania’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, forged close ties in the 1970s.
The result was that people in China heard a lot of Albania and its culture, especially through Albanian movies that were dubbed into Chinese.
“I had this idea that Albania would be a huge country because when I was young, I would see many [Albanian] movies on Chinese TV because of the strong relationship at the time,” Qassim says.
But when he arrived, Qassim says he had trouble believing he was in Albania, in part, because Tirana seemed too small to be the capital of a country.
“I looked at a map to find Albania. And I couldn’t find it. I asked people, “Can you point at Albania on the map?” and what they showed me was a tiny dot.”
The Albania that Qassim encountered had a changed a lot since the 1970s. The country had become a democracy, and it was also no longer an officially atheist state. In fact, the majority of Albanians are Muslim.
Another thing Qassim didn’t know was that Tirana is teeming with pizza parlors. He’d never even heard of pizza before he arrived, but he wandered into a pizzeria and somehow managed to order a pie — without speaking Albanian.
“It was delicious, and the owner didn’t charge me for it as a sign of respect,” Qassim says.
That first taste eventually inspired Qassim to become a pizza-maker. He now works part-time at a Halal pizzeria in Tirana.
“This isn’t a hard job, but it gives you pleasure when people enjoy the pizza you make, when they give you a tip,” Qassim says as he makes his speciality, the Mix Pizza, which is basically the works with a few regional touches: Albanian smoked beef and Bosnian sausage.
His newfound culinary craft also helped him adjust to life in Albania. For the first two years, he struggled with the notoriously difficult language despite taking classes. Once he started working at the pizzeria, Qassim says his Albanian improved considerably.
“At first it was a learning by trial. Sometimes I made mistakes. And guys would make fun of me. It was definitely a learning process,” he says in relatively fluent Albanian.
And when Qassim talks to customers, he makes a point of telling them about the history of Uighurs.
But it was the story of the Uighur ex-Guantanamo detainees that resonated with Ahmet Dursun, a friend of Bakker’s who owns another Tirana restaurant.
Dursun met the Uighurs by chance in 2007, when one of Bakker’s friend’s showed up at his Turkish restaurant to ask for directions.
Dursun invited the Uighurs in for a meal. They were able to communicate because the Uighur language is related to Turkish, And they told him their story.
“I had one of the most difficult meals of my life. When they were telling me of their experiences, it was very tragic to hear what they had gone through,” Dursun says.
Dursun decided he needed to do more than just offer hospitality. He wanted to show Albanians that the Uighurs deserved to be part of their society.
Dursun figured the best way to do that was through their tastebuds. His restaurant had a rotating special in which non-Albanians would come and cook dishes from home to raise money for a charity.
Dursan invited the Uighurs to cook, and Qassim’s veal pilaf was a hit.
“He used so many carrots, that rabbits probably went hungry that day,” Dursun recalls. “It was very tasty – delicious. It also had grilled onions. It was a mixture that I’d never seen before. Everyone enjoyed it a lot.”
Dursan also invited a TV reporter to interview Qassim and the others.
Qassim says that interview marked a turning point. Until then, he says some people were nasty to him, treating him as if he was a terrorist.
“People got to understand our plight, and from that moment on it got better,” Qassim says.
The Uighurs’ lives have improved considerably since. They no longer live in a refugee camp and lead relatively normal lives. Qassim has Albanian friends. He also has a wife here, another Uighur, and an infant daughter.
Qassim’s biggest concern now is making ends meet. He only works part-time, and the state aid he receives isn’t enough to support his new family. Qassim says it’s hard to find work — between the high unemployment and his background.
“It’s difficult when you go and apply for a job. They ask me where I’m from, and I tell them I’m an Uighur. So right away they make a connection with Guantanamo,” Qassim says.
His experience at Guantanamo continues to weigh heavily on Qassim. Three of his friends remain locked up there. “No country is willing to take them,” he says.
It’s a situation Qassim knows all too well from his four-and-a-half years at Guantanamo.
Surprisingly, Qassim doesn’t voice any resentment toward the US or the guards for his plight. He blames Pakistani forces, whom he says turned him and the other Uighurs over to the Americans for a bounty in 2007.
The Pakistanis, Qassim says, duped the Americans into thinking the Uighurs were terrorists.
“When we told the Americans we were Uighurs, the situation improved. They didn’t have any problem with us. They actually treated us quite nice. Some of our jailers would give us chocolate bars,” Qassim recalls.
Still Qassim says the conditions at Guantanamo were terrible. But he also avoids blaming anyone for the fact that he wasn’t released sooner.
“I don’t know what took so long,” Qassim says, “Maybe there were political reasons.”
Qassim, though, might be wise to avoid sounding critical of the US in Albania — an overwhelmingly pro-American country that’s hosting the Uighurs at the request of the US.
Qassim also can’t leave Albania because he’s not a citizen and doesn’t have a passport. And if he were to return to China, he would almost certainly be arrested.