BALLSH, Albania — For Hekuran Jahaj, the closure of borders between his nation of Albania and European Union member states was the worst news during an already difficult time caused by the global coronavirus outbreak.
After spending last summer as an agricultural worker in Italy, Jahaj, 24, had returned to his hometown of Ballsh hoping to make a life selling the cherries his family grows on their land.
But with the returns from the family farm failing to meet expectations, Jahaj struggled to make ends meet. And now he no longer has the option to find work abroad.
The town of Ballsh, 140 kilometres (90 miles) south of the capital Tirana, was created in 1972 with the construction of an oil refinery. Like many other Ballsh residents, Hekuran’s father, Novruz Jahaj, now retired, had made his living at the plant.
With the fall of the communist regime the management of the plant was privatized, but almost all the private businesses failed. The last one abandoned it last year, and at least 700 Ballsh workers were left unpaid and with no other employment alternative.
When the plant closed, the prospects for most of the young people in the poor southern town of 8,000 residents took a dim turn.
Jetnor Gllava, 28, had also looked abroad to make a living, but was forced to stay at home by Europe’s coronavirus response.
”There is nothing to do now in Ballsh, just sit at the cafes, be with our families, study, and wait until we can leave,” said Gllava.
Having previously lived in Germany, working as a caretaker at a primary school, Gllava returned to Albania to apply for a job-seeker visa at the German embassy in Tirana. After months of delays, his chances of obtaining a visa were upended when the embassy suspended its operations due to the virus outbreak.
Having spent the lockdown period with his parents, grandparents and his unemployed brother in Ballsh, Gllava is now waiting for travel restrictions to ease and is considering a move to Finland.
“We were born to leave here, it is a hopeless place,” says Gllava.
Albanians can go visa-free in all EU member countries and stay there up to 90 days in six months. To obtain residence permits they have to find a full-time job but if they violate the 90-day limit they are not able to go to Western Europe again for five years.
Ballsh is the main town of of the Mallakastra district, which has about 27,000 residents. Agriculture is the main source of income. Poor investment in agriculture and poor infrastructure have left many people with no other option that looking to migrate to Western Europe.
Though the official figure of unemployment is 9%, it is believed that many people do not register and the actual number is much higher.
Nowadays Ballsh’s small cafes and leisure halls are filled with youngsters looking to leave Albania someday.
After the lockdown measures were relaxed in early May, they flooded into cafes to talk about cars or watch European football matches in bars and pool halls.
“We love where we come from, but we just want to leave as soon as we can,” says Gllava.