Kelementina Shahini admits she didn’t know what she was getting into when she raised her hand at an evangelistic meeting.
“My husband raised his,” she said, “and like a good Muslim wife I did the same.”
From that reflex gesture some two dozen years ago, Shahini and husband, Dini, became the first Mennonites in Albania and went on to form the first Mennonite congregation there.
Today Shahini has become an educational entrepreneur, founder and principal of the Lezha Academic Center in Lezha, Albania.
Albania used to be the world’s most isolated country, a hard-core Soviet satellite.
“For 50 years everything was controlled, even who one could marry,” Shahini said. “People could be jailed just for saying a wrong word; some were killed for nothing. Our dictator learned from Stalin, but was worse.”
Her own family was persecuted.
“My sister was put in jail for 10 years, and I spent many years in labor camps,” she said.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, communist control in Albania eased, and doors opened to Christian visitors.
One group included Mennonites from Harrisonburg, Va. Though the Shahinis were Muslims, they decided to attend one of the group’s events. “When Dini raised his hand at an evangelistic meeting, I did too, to follow him,” Shahini said. “We became Christians.”
Shahini, then in her early 30s, got a job in a library and studied English. More Mennonites showed up, and Shahini helped them hand out Bibles. When a local group was created, the Shahinis were asked, “Can you keep this group together?”
Before long the Shahinis became the first baptized Mennonites in Albania. A Mennonite church was formed.
“Our lives changed completely,” Shahini said. “We were getting blessing after blessing, every day.”
Another abrupt change followed during the civil uprising in 1997. The Shahini family — Christians from the north who were now planting a church in the south — suddenly found themselves in danger. They fled to Greece, then moved to the U.S.
Settling on the eastern seaboard, the Shahinis connected with local Mennonites. She got a job in a private Christian school and enrolled at Regent University in Virginia Beach, where she obtained a master’s degree in educational leadership.
A mentor urged her to go back home and start a Christian/Mennonite school. Her husband and children supported the idea.
“Virginia Mennonite Missions and a group of people who loved mission and education said they would stand behind me,” she said.
So in 2011 Shahini gave up her English department chair position at Portsmouth Public School, and Dini left his job at the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“We moved back to Albania, and I became principal of a school that was not yet established,” she said. “We had nothing, just the vision and the people who supported us.”
One day an email arrived from a Christian school in Florida. “We have some books,” it said.
Then a Mennonite school in Germany offered furniture. Don Steiner, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg and chair of the Lezha board, had more good news: “I think we have found some teachers, just graduated.”
“The pieces fell together,” Shahini said. “By the end of June 2011 we had four teachers, books and furniture. But we had no license to operate. People were coming from the U.S. for the inauguration, and we did not have a license.”
Two days before the opening ceremony, the government education department called to say the license had been granted.
The school opened in September 2011 with five students.
“We started by teaching them English,” she said. “By the first day of regular school we had 31 students.”
None of the students were Christians, but they sensed an opportunity for a better education.
“Classes are overcrowded in Albania,” Shahini said. “They lack materials. The quality of teaching is poor.”
They started with Bible clubs, which most of the students attended despite being Muslims.
“We build relationships,” Shahini said. “We build trust. In Albania people don’t trust easily.”
The school now has 85 students in grades seven to 12.
Winnipeg, Man., businessman Arthur DeFehr, who with his wife, Leona, founded Lithuania Christian College (now called LCC International University) in the 1990s, heard about Lezha school and came to visit. That encounter sparked connections not only with the college but also with Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. Last year five Lezha students went to Lithuania to continue their education, and this summer LCC International University is sending representatives to Albania to offer summer programs at Lezha.
Lezha Mennonite Church, the only Mennonite congregation in the country, now numbers about 50 people. It meets in a converted bar.
Both the school and the church have their work cut out for them. The continuing struggle with Islam and communism is not to be taken lightly.
Shahini said the Mennonite emphasis on peace and justice is sorely needed in her country.
“People came out of communism with so much anger,” she said. “We don’t have churches and counseling services to deal with this. We have no tradition of that kind of resource.”
She is determined to make a difference.
“We are there to change the culture and to change people’s lives,” she said. “We want the school to be a light to the city, and then to all of Albania.”