Healing Refuge in Albania

Eljo Patoku

A World Challenge partner followed God’s call to offer support to a boy and those like him in one of Tirana’s grittiest neighborhoods.

I live in Rruga-Ura, a suburb of Albania’s capital, where most residents are Roma with a Muslim background. 

This is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tirana, and it was difficult growing up here. People got into fights practically every day, and alcohol was almost everywhere

Most people dropped out of elementary school or don’t have any education at all. That makes it hardfor them to find full-time jobs. Usually, they earn their living with part-time work, or they beg and survive on whatever they find in trash heaps and garbage cans.

My family wasn’t much different. My father was unemployed, and my mother worked as a house cleaner. She struggled to care for me and my two siblings, especially my older brother who had down syndrome. My father was drunk most of the time, and he and my mother fought a lot.

As a child, all I dreamed of was escape.

A Place of Promise

There was one place in our neighborhood that was a refuge: church.

I was 4 or 5 years old when the church first opened here. All I knew then was that these people loved me and always encouraged me to fight for a better future. 

Maybe it seems strange to you that Roma kids don’t stay in school, but education for us here is hard. A lot of us live in bad situations, and there is so much discrimination against the Roma in society, so it can feel like there’s no hope for us or our futures.

When I was in fourth grade, the church invited me and other kids into a special program that supported and motivated us to continue until we’d finished ninth grade. Part of this program was giving us a new school bag and school materials, new clothes and new shoes every year.

Suddenly, I didn’t stand out so badly at school, and it gave me confidence.

That wasn’t all, though. The church offered us English language classes and also music instruction for talented kids. I discovered that I loved playing the guitar, and the church helped me develop that ability.

At the same time, I was part of the children’s clubs where I learned that God made all people equal and that Christ loves me. 

I needed those promises in the years to come. 

Call for Fishers of Men

During the 6 years that I was in the church’s educational support program, my family went through a lot of struggles. My older brother died, my father got into a fight that ended with him in prison and my parents got divorced. 

However, I finished ninth grade, and the church leaders encouraged me to go to a professional school for carpentry. There I could learn to use my passion for art and design to craft beautiful furniture. 

Another change came into my life too. I knew about God growing up, but then I heard that story when Jesus tells Peter, “You will fish for people.” 

When I heard Jesus’ command, I felt something I can’t put in words.

I wanted to serve God and help my community.

I became part of the church’s worship team and also began working in the children’s clubs, leading crafts and games. I found very good friends who help and support me, and we began praying for my parents.

A Community Being Restored

God answered our prayers. 

My father was released from prison and stopped drinking alcohol. Now my family is back together, and he tries to support my mother, finding any jobs he can. 

So many other things have also changed in my neighborhood since I was a child. Most of the children go to school now, and the church has meetings and activities for young people to attend rather than them being on the streets. 

Without God, the church and my friends, I would’ve been a very different person—bitter and angry at the world—in a much worse situation.

Now I have a purpose in my life. I want to positively impact other young people in our neighborhood. 

I want to see God lift people up out of empty living and give them direction.