We all have our Sunday morning rituals. For some, it’s church then brunch. For others, it’s three Ibuprofen and back to sleep. For Zeqir Berisha, his Sunday pastime is waving the American flag.
On nearly every Sunday for almost a decade, Berisha has stood on street corners in New Haven, Waterbury and Litchfield waving the red, white and blue. Most people honk at him. A few give him the finger.
Zeqir — or “Ziggy” as he’s affectionately known to those acquainted with him — isn’t particularly eloquent, nor well-educated. At times, his thick Slavic accent and imperfect English make it difficult to understand him. But he’s a man who speaks in simple, unvarnished truths about the horrors of his past and his love for America.
On the face, he exudes an over-the-top patriotism: His shirt, pants and folded pocket handkerchief are made of American flag print, now slightly faded from his weekly routine; his car is garishly painted in red, white and blue and adorned with bumper stickers declaring support for our troops and President Bush. Most notable, of course, is his large flag that he waves to passing cars, snapping it back and forth with the vigor of an 8-year-old on the Fourth of July.
But Zeqir Berisha is no child. Born in 1942, he’s witnessed more than his share of life’s pain. He’s also lived that proverbial American dream in all its difficulties. Berisha grew up in Kosovo, then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Bred on the writings of Marx and Lenin and taught in state schools the evils of Western imperialism and capitalism, Berisha sensed the hypocrisy of the so-called “people’s movement” early on.
Though Tito presented to admiring Western intellectuals a thin veneer of an open, less autocratic Communism, the brutal truth of Tito’s brand of Marxism was that it hardly differed from Stalin’s in its desecration of the individual and disrespect for human rights — especially of ethnic Kosovars. Forced to speak Serbian instead of his native Albanian and subjected to searches and interrogations in Tito’s police state, Berisha’s family — all Kosovars — lived a second-class existence. He vividly recalls his father being dragged out of his house into 20-below-zero temperatures, interrogated and beaten.
After being forced into the army for two years, Berisha found asylum in 1964 in Austria, leaving his family behind in Kosovo. Several years later, at the age of 27, Berisha applied for a green card and came to America. He cleaned dishes and worked in factories. He moved to nearby Waterbury, where he met his wife and raised several children, now grown.
Having worked in construction most of his life, Berisha is not a wealthy man. He’s also not an American citizen, due to what he says is “local corruption” by former Yugoslavians involved in a plot to deny his citizenship. Yet somehow, he feels a connection to a country he was neither born in nor is a full citizen of. That connection is strong enough so that he is sure to prop up his American flag next to his bed and spend hours every week waving it on a street corner.
Berisha, with flag in hand, often counter-protests at the frequent anti-war rallies around Connecticut. That’s how I first met him. Originally, I had planned to write a column on a local protest in support of Cindy Sheehan, but found Berisha’s story far more compelling than the half-baked explanations on why America has brought terrorism on itself, the lectures on “deformed worker’s states,” and the Sept. 11 conspiracy theories of the withered flower children crowd.
The juxtaposition of Berisha and the group of protesters was a telling one. Through blaring megaphones and with painted signs, some advocated the overthrow of the racist, capitalist state. Though they wouldn’t admit it, most of the protestors had reaped the rewards of American citizenship all their lives and were at that very moment enjoying its guaranteed rights and freedoms.
Across the street, Berisha gave a thumbs up to honking cars and, with his characteristic bluntness, told protesters who confronted him to go “find Hanoi Jane and Ho Chi Minh.” Though he lacked the PC tact we all strive for at Yale, Berisha had captured the basic truth forgotten by those protestors: that America is not what’s wrong with the world. What’s wrong with the world are terrorists and tyrants — and their abettors who ignore, or worse, explain away their atrocities as natural responses to Western foreign policy.
Berisha is a virulent anti-communist, and for good reason: He knows far better than the rest of us what communism really was. Berisha also knows that those who once were apologists for the Stalins and Titos are now the apologists for the Saddam Husseins and Hugo Chavezes. Under the banner of a “movement to end war,” and armed with non-sequiturs such as how the U.S. funded the mujahideen and Saddam in the ’80s or how the U.S. supports “terrorism” in Cuba and Venezuela, the radical left is once again rooting for America’s enemies and blaming America for anything from poverty in Africa to Hurricane Katrina.
The United States is Berisha’s adopted country, and having known the alternative to freedom, he’s careful not to take it for granted. Nor should we — yet most of us do. So if you see Ziggy with his flag, thank him for displaying his patriotism in a way most among us would be ashamed to.
Keith Urbahn is a senior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.