The writer is a reporter based in the Balkans
Around a wood-burning stove in a shop in Bajram Curri, northern Albania, a circle of women work, chat and swap photos of their sons and husbands, almost all of whom are in London. Of the 12,310 Albanian migrants who went to the UK last year on boats, an overwhelming majority were men from this mountain region. They left because of a lack of work or a sense of boredom and hopelessness.
This exodus is transforming the lives of the wives and mothers they left behind. At the Bajram Curri shop, women gather to make food, produce handwoven clothes and jewellery, and draw hiking maps to sell to locals and visitors. By keeping the home fires burning they’ve created precisely what their men lacked: a social life, a source of income, and hope.
Despite a recent boom in tourism, Albania’s chronic jobs shortage is still driving men away. Economic conditions are nothing like as desperate as they were under communism, but the transition to a prosperous market economy is proving long and hard. The country has some of the lowest wages and highest living costs in the Balkans. A proposed minimum wage will be insufficient to meet surging inflation: in 2021-22, Albanians spent as much as 60 per cent of their income on food alone, explained Andi Hoxhaj, a western Balkans specialist at University College London.
Lured by rumours of easier lifestyles, farmers moved their families to small urban centres like Barjam Curri. The shop’s website manager, Gerta, lived in the countryside growing vegetables and rearing sheep until her father decided to relocate to a dingy apartment in town in 2007. When he was unable to find work, the family almost starved.
It’s common in these cases for women to become breadwinners using “indoor skills” such as cleaning or shopkeeping, explains Catherine Bohne, an Italian-American who has lived in these mountains for 15 years and helped to set up the Bajram Curri shop. “Meanwhile men sit around drinking rakia and feeling emasculated.”
Under communism, women were active in the labour market but in the 1990s patriarchal norms resurfaced, pushing women back inside the homes, especially in more remote parts of the country. Now, men slip away quietly — many who leave simply go into town carrying a T-shirt in a plastic bag and don’t come back. “Often the men don’t send money back for ages because they owe debts to human traffickers or they can’t make enough doing manual labour. The women left behind just have to get on with things,” Bohne says.
This can bring new freedoms in its wake. Gerta has learnt tech skills from running the website and will go to university next year. Lida, the shop manager, was confined to the house by her husband until he left to find work in Belgium. With four kids to raise alone, she made jewellery to sell, gained confidence and eventually stopped texting her husband to ask permission to go out.
The shop’s next project is to create a network for women who earn a living by growing or gathering things: wild blueberries, blackberries or chestnuts. Before, these women would earn just €10 for three days’ work from an exploitative market collection point. The ladies in the shop encouraged them to make jam instead, which they can sell for €5 a pot.
For every success story, there are still women who are starving, who become victims of modern slavery, or who have to pay off debts for a son who took a boat to London. Still, there are some positives for the next generation. Mothers expecting their sons to leave are now more likely to focus on their daughters’ studies. In 2021, 71 per cent of university enrolments in Albania were women, up from 58 per cent the decade before. Meanwhile male participation in the labour force has declined steadily over the past 30 years.
Two hours away from Bajram Curri, in Shtiqën village outside Kukës, lives Naze, 89, with her daughter and three granddaughters. Since her sons and grandsons are all in London, she focuses her energies on her girls instead, and “not just finding them a wealthy husband”, she says proudly. Naze’s nine-year-old granddaughter greets me shyly in English. “She studies hard,” says Naze. “One day, she will be president of Albania.”