In my past two contributions with Wall Street International, I explored the origins and heritage of the Arvanites of Greece and the Arbëresh of Italy. In this edition, I will turn my attention to the Arbanas community in Dalmatia, Croatia. A tiny community numbering a couple of thousands, they reside primarily in the idyllic Zadar region in Croatia and its pristine surroundings bordering the Adriatic Sea.

It came as a surprise to me when I first learned in 2016, although I had visited the Dalmatian region on several occasions (Split, Makarska, Bol, and Dubrovnik), that municipal authorities in Zadar with the support of the Croatian Ministry of Education had introduced Albanian language classes in high school. It was done so to enable the Arbanas community, of Albanian origin and ethnicity, to maintain their ethnic genesis and linguistic identity.

A laudable and praiseworthy decision by the municipal authorities to cherish and nurture the region’s linguistic and ethnic diversity notably following the breakup of Yugoslavia, which brought bereavement to the Western Balkans and the break-up of multi-cultural and multi-religious societies that had existed in peace and harmony for centuries.

According to the latest census in Croatia, nearly 20,000 Albanians live in Croatia, primarily immigrants who settled in the country during the Yugoslav era or following the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995, but the census does not clearly distinguish between these two different Albanian-speaking communities. Nonetheless, it’s estimated that the Arbanas community, numbering not more than 2,000 people, speak one of “the rarest dialects or languages in Europe” which combines the Albanian Gheg dialect with Italian and Croatian Dalmatian dialect.

Why the ethnonym Arbanas and not Albanian?

During the Middle Ages, the Slavs of the Balkans referred to Albanians as Arbanasi, not as Shqiptar, which is the ethnonym by which Albanians call themselves. This explains why the Arbanasi was denoted with a different ethnonym than for instance the Albanians of Greece where the Albanians were referred to as Arvanites by the Greeks.

How and why did the Arbanas community decide to emigrate to and settle in Dalmatia? It is assumed that a group of Catholic Albanians, from the northern region of Shkoder, Albania (at that time part of the Ottoman Empire), emigrated between 1726 and 1733, to Venetian-controlled territories of the Western Balkans. As reported by the Albanian journalist, Marin Mema, who made a documentary in 2017 about the Arbanas community, the reasons for the emigration of the Albanians can be traced to the spread of diseases and plagues, high taxation, and forced military conscription to the Ottoman Empire during the Ottoman-Persian War (1730-1735).

The Dalmatian region, which bordered Ottoman-controlled Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, became the natural country of refuge for the Arbanas community. The emigration was led by the former Catholic Archbishop of Bar (Montenegro), Vincenc Zmaji (also known as Zmajevic), who was committed and determined to provide the necessary conditions required for the Arbanas community to populate areas of Dalmatia not far from their original homeland.

It is assumed that the first Arbanas settlement in the Zadar region was in Zemunik and surrounding areas. Afterward, they would populate the vicinity of Zadar, and the main Arbanas settlement today in the Croatian coastal town is referred to as Arbanasi.

Albanian schools existed in Zadar and its surroundings from the 18th century until 1916 during the Habsburg/Austro-Hungarian rule of Dalmatia. However, the establishment of the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, the predecessor of the First Yugoslav state, shortly after the end of the First World War in 1919, decreased the prospects of the Arbanas community to maintain their ethnic and linguistic identity as the Albanians of Yugoslavia were considered as a non-Slavic minority and a hostile community, with irredentist ambitions, against the newly formed Slavic state. This adversely affected the Arbanas community in Dalmatia who would be exposed to forced assimilation policies and notably Slavization and Italianization of their names and ethnic origin.

Despite the challenges and ethnic conflicts emanating from the breakup of Yugoslavia following the end of the Cold War, the Arbanas has managed to survive and overcome obstacles impeding their development as a community. A visit today to Zadar and to the Arbanasi suburb illustrates that the Arbanas community cherishes the unique Arbanas-Albanian traditions, cuisine, culture, and linguistic heritage that they had left behind in Albania. Traces of this Albanian community can be found in numerous road and street signs that maintain Albanian names such as Ogranak Arbanasi, Ulica Jure Kastriotića Skenderbega, Ulica Fra. Gjergja Fishte and Trg Kraljice Teute, to name but a few.

During my next trip to Dalmatia and Zadar, I will pay a visit to the Arbanas community, and learn more about their achievements and their efforts to revive, revitalize and celebrate their ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious identity. But it cannot only be the Arbanas community that puts in the efforts to make this a reality. We as ‘outsiders’ have a duty to accept people for who they are, allow them to take pride in their identities, and treat them with dignity and respect.