Sputnik: How did you arrive in Italy? Why did you decide to leave your country?
Eltjon Bida: In 1995, I set out by boat from my hometown of Fier; I was 17 at that time. On the one hand, I was driven by a desire to know Italy, but on the other hand, I wanted to have a better life. In Albania, I didn't have a future.
At that time, even those who were university graduates went to graze the cows if they were lucky. The country was poverty-stricken; there was no work and no money; what we had were continuous disorders. Small bands appeared that could stop you in the middle of the road; they would rob you, and sometimes they even stab you or shoot at you.
The other reason I decided to leave Albania was my health condition. If I had been operated on in Albania, maybe I would have found myself with a single kidney. Unfortunately, at that time, the Albanian health service was disastrous.
About a month after I arrived in Italy, the family that welcomed me (I still keep in touch with them) helped me and made sure that I was admitted to a hospital in Pescara. It was there that I underwent a successful surgery, and today I am in perfect shape.
Sputnik: What do you remember of those hours spent on the boat at sea? Were you afraid of that risky adventure?
Eltjon Bida: I didn’t want to leave with a dinghy. I knew how risky it was. Just before my departure, my two cousins had died in an attempt to reach Italy by boat.
So I first tried to get to Italy by ship using fake documents, but I was discovered and repatriated. I remember that I was with my father and told him I wasn't going to go back to our small town in Albania. At that point, the only option for me was to cross the sea on a dinghy. I went alone.
There were 26 of us on a six-seat dinghy. When I saw the size of that boat, I was terrified and my two cousins swallowed by the sea came to my mind. We didn't hear from them anymore, but at the time it was said that some smugglers had killed them. Having noticed the boat was taking on water, they decided to lighten it by killing my cousins and throwing them into the sea.
When you’re on a boat like that one, your heart beats much-much faster: both because of fear and impatience to reach the dreamed country. I remember the waves that were coming at us, the terrified faces of my companions, the cold wind, the icy hands. I remember when, about a hundred meters from the shore, the smugglers told us to get into the water because they couldn’t get any closer.
Perhaps the most vivid memory is the moment when in the middle of the sea the smuggler shut off the engine because some ship was passing by and we risked being noticed. As soon as the engine stopped, a two-year-old girl who had fallen asleep woke up and started crying. The smuggler said that if they didn't calm her down, he would throw her into the sea.
It may be that it was just a threat, but it still rattled the baby girl father's nerves. The two nearly came to physical abuse. The smuggler had a gun in his hand and if he had shot the child's father, he would have probably had to kill all of us so that there were no witnesses. It was undoubtedly one of the most terrifying moments of my life!
Sputnik: Is there really a pact between smugglers and migrants that some newspapers talk about? Could you tell us about your experience? How much did you pay to get on the boat?
Eltjon Bida: I wouldn't talk about a real deal! It is undeniable that immigrants are forced to pay smugglers. The smugglers are always near the port where they have men who collaborate with them; they search for those interested in reaching Italy. I paid a million old liras.
Sputnik: What did you do once you landed in Italy?
Eltjon Bida: I landed in Puglia; to be precise, somewhere between Otranto and Lecce. There were two Italians waiting for us, they were working with the smugglers. As you may have already guessed, the smugglers have partners both here and there. The two Italians asked us for more money to take us to Lecce.
From there I took a bus to Abruzzo where I was welcomed by my cousin's Italian boyfriend. He didn't really consider himself my cousin’s boyfriend, but nevertheless, he let me stay at his place. I was very happy because I had a place to stay and some food to eat. I helped that man at his farm; I looked after tomatoes and animals.
I worked from dusk till dawn without a fixed schedule and days off. But I was okay with that since I was in Italy to work and get medical treatment and not to be a tourist.
Sputnik: In your book, there is an episode where you find your brother in Milan. Could you tell us about that?
Eltjon Bida: If I reveal that episode, the book risks losing a bit of its charm. The only thing I can tell you is that the story of my brother is incredible! I can give you a little preview – we hadn't heard from him for months and my mother cried for him every night. So, I decided to find my brother. You have to read the book to find out how I managed to find him.
Sputnik: Was it difficult to get rid of your illegal status? Were your first years in Italy hard?
Eltjon Bida: It was not very difficult because I was always convinced that I would be able to do that sooner or later. In Abruzzo, my employers told me that if I behaved well and worked hard, I wouldn't have encountered any obstacles to legal residence. I followed their advice and I always found open doors in Italy.
Of course, I also went through difficult times, like when I had been unemployed for four months and had to eat in Caritas [Italian social services] and sleep in some abandoned wagon. But that was an experience that made me more mature. A person who has gone through this is able to appreciate life more than a person who has always had everything and has never suffered hunger.
Sputnik: In your view, how much has immigration changed since 1995? What do you think of the current policy against illegal immigration carried out by Matteo Salvini?
Eltjon Bida: I think the aspirations of migrants haven't changed much since 1995. It's always based on the search for a better life. It’s not just that Salvini has tightened the entry policy; the Italian state needs to develop a system that really helps integrate those who come here to work and those who emigrate because there is no alternative in their home country.
But these people must respect the Italians and the laws of this country. And Italy should be tougher with those who don't want to integrate, who steal, trade illegally, mistreat women, and basically violate the law.
We shouldn't imprison these people because if we do that, we, the taxpayers, will have to support them. What we should do is send them to where they have come from, having taken their fingerprints. But we shouldn’t treat them all alike; otherwise, those who are really looking for a second chance will suffer.
Sputnik: What is your life today? Do you feel Italian now? Is there anything left from that 17-year-old Eltjon who arrived in Italy 24 years ago?
Eltjon Bida: I’m very happy. I realise a dream after another: I dreamed of having a nice family, and now I have it. I dreamed of learning English, and I did it. I also dreamed of learning some other language, and I'm doing that.
I dreamed of working in a clean, jacket-and-tie environment, and have worked as a hotel receptionist for thirteen years.
I dreamed of doing good and being able to donate something, and, in fact, 10% of the proceeds of my book go to the Associazione Pane Quotidiano. Finally, I had a dream of writing a book about my adventures. And not only did I succeed, but it is even going better than I thought.
Actually, I feel Italian as much as Albanian. Albania is the land where I was born and learned to walk; it's the country where my childhood memories live. In Italy I became a man, I found the woman I love, I got married; it is the country where my two children were born.
So, I would say that I have an Albanian heart and an Italian mind. What's left from my 17-year-old self is determination. When I have to do something, I don’t give up until I reach the goal.
Sputnik: Your story is a story of victory. You were lucky compared to many other immigrants. What would you recommend to people who hope to find a fortune in Italy?
Eltjon Bida: My motto is: only with honesty and the desire to integrate can you succeed. And just looking after the country that welcomes you, you can really be a part of it.
Sputnik: What would you like to get from this book?
Eltjon Bida: As I've told you, I never stop dreaming. I'd like to achieve great triumphs with this book. I dream that this book has become a movie. And, in fact, I have two proposals that I am considering, from two different directors. Since people don't read much these days, I'd like them to watch the film and see that my experience proves my motto.
Views and opinions, expressed in the article are those of Eltjon Bida and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.