You Ought to Know: Ferki Ferati

Categories:      Community
Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 at 11:00 AM
You Ought to Know: Ferki Ferati by Cory Vaillancourt
Contributed photo

Jeta e paprovuar nuk ka vler.

I don’t speak Albanian. Ferki Ferati does, though. Born in the small village of Bare, Kosovo in 1983, it’s his native language.

“My ethnicity is Albanian Kosovar, for around as long as anyone can remember.” He trails off. Ferki’s not a big guy, but he’s not small, either. He kind of looks like the type of person you don’t want to mess with, but he smiles easily and is affable and friendly. “Our family has an Illyrian background; when the Romans ruled that part of the world, there were Illyrians, Romans, Greeks and Macedonians. But now, the Balkans are much more complicated."

“I am the fifth of six children,” he says. He gives a far-off glance that suggests he sees all of their faces, right now, in his head. “I have two of the best parents that anybody could have [who live here in Erie]. They’ve been through a lot in their lives, and they’re still great. I have a brother who lives here who is a successful IT person over at Erie Insurance, a sister who is married to an American Marine and lives in San Diego, two brothers who own a construction business in Slovenia, and a sister with three kids who lives back home in Kosovo…

“My dad was a miner,” he says. Again, he trails off. When Ferki was born, Kosovo lay within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; during the late 1980s, decades of ethnic, political, racial, and religious tension under the SFRY augmented by millennia-old territorial disputes were quickening the pace of the SFRY’s disintegration.

“Around 1987, I believe it was, the Serbs fired everybody; but my dad is a resourceful man –  we already had a farm in Kosovo, so he put all his effort into that, and that's how we lived. We had a lot of land and therefore were able to raise cows, and chickens, and grow grain, so that our dependence on urban life became very limited. We did very well for a while, and then he had some health issues, so we went to Sweden in 1992 so he could get better healthcare.”

If you happened to be living in a cave or lying in a crib during the 1990s, you might not know that right about the time Ferki and his family left Kosovo, the complete dissolution of Yugoslavia had spawned a series of separate but related conflicts in most of the other republics that comprised the former Yugoslavia – Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia. Kosovo was left largely unscathed during this period, but was immune from neither the sporadic violence nor the religious persecution that was prevalent in the other republics.

“We stayed in Sweden for a 20 months, then we came back home to our farm,” Ferki tells me. “But in 1997, a full-blown war started in Kosovo. Our village was one of the places that was targeted. We happened to lose everything we had, and my dad decided that we had to leave.”

That part of this shiny blue marble we all ride around the sun and that Ferki’s family called home for centuries was unraveling. “What they were doing was targeting young men. I was 15 at that point; my brother was 20.”

By ‘targeting young men,’ Ferki means anyone old enough to hold a rifle. As Orthodox Christian Serbs tried to prevent the hopelessly outnumbered and underequipped Albanian Muslims from proclaiming Kosovo an independent republic, extra-judicial killings, genocidal massacres, and mass graves were the calling cards of both sides. Occasionally, armed groups would enter villages and execute all men of fighting age – often unarmed, peaceful villagers – in retaliation for casualties incurred at other times, in other places. However, more than 20,000 Albanians lost their lives in and around Kosovo, compared to about 1,000 Serbs – a grim proposition for the hopelessly outnumbered and drastically underequipped Albanians.

“We stayed there until 1998,” Ferki says. “We didn’t want to fight because Kosovo had no chance against the Serbs until NATO got involved – a little late, but better late than never. We went to Macedonia, a refugee camp, and we stayed there for six weeks. I somehow ended up being the chief translator for the Israeli troops because I spoke the language pretty well. Then one day, Bill Clinton showed up. He walked around the camp, and the next day he sponsored, I believe, 5,000 people from the camps, to come to America. We were first on the list, and the next morning, we were out – to America.”

A Life Anew

“We went to Fort Dix, N.J., and, this is a funny story,” he says flashing that easy smile. It’s hard to see the humor in being displaced by war, but Ferki, prone to self-reflection, continues to testify to his own affable, friendly nature. “We stayed for six weeks, and we were taken care of very well. They asked us where we wanted to go and we told them, ‘We want to be next to New York,’ meaning New York City. So here we are in Erie, Pa.,” which is, technically, right next to New York. State. This delicate misunderstanding is the reason I’m sitting in Ferki’s office today. “It’s the best decision we ever made,” he says.

Despite spending several of his most formative years moving between Kosovo, Sweden, Macedonia, and the United States, Ferki’s education didn’t suffer. In fact, one might speculate that these experiences would shape his future. “I have good parents. They kept my education going. I met a lot of great people when I first got here, including Dr. [William P.] Garvey, who ultimately pushed me to pursue my education, and those people opened the door for me to go to Mercyhurst Prep. I came here on July 19, 1999, and I had just turned 16 on May 4.”

But the transition to this, his life anew, was not easy. He told me he struggled initially, as a kid who came to a culture he didn’t understand. “It was a different kind of studying; it was a different kind of teaching. So it took me awhile to adjust, but I did. My junior and senior year, I did well. Then, I kicked it up in college.”

He’s referring to Mercyhurst College – now Mercyhurst University. “I started criminal justice my freshman year, and got close to a 4.0, but then I saw this fascinating program. Back then, it was called ‘research analysis,’ so I decided to attend that. They accepted me. They said I would be very good because of my background.” Nowadays, the Mercyhurst Institute for Intelligence Studies is known for producing the world’s finest crop of undergraduate and graduate intelligence analysts.

As Ferki progressed in the strenuous Intelligence Studies Program at Mercyhurst, other threads of his life began to intertwine. “Sophomore year I met my wife, Katya, who was here for the summer. Junior year, I decided to go to Russia to study; I had a great time, got to learn a new language, got married, and came back to America to finish my college degree.”

Once he finished his degree, Ferki’s diverse international experience was about to shape his future, albeit in an unforeseen way. “I had already graduated, and I was having a tough time finding a job, because when I started the program, it was a little easier to get security clearances, and I couldn’t find a job in my field because I was an Albanian Muslim who happened to be married to a Russian girl. I have relatives in probably 40 countries. The government thought I was diverse, but too diverse. That’s when I said, ‘Okay, nonprofit sector, here I come.’”

“So I heard about an internship opening with Dr. Garvey, who was doing a study on the community college, and then all of a sudden some Erieites decided that the Jefferson Educational Society needed to be born,” Ferki says. “Then they decided they needed a director of research. About eight months later, they were looking for an executive director, and I happened to be doing the executive director’s job already; I had grown the numbers – attendance numbers – by over 200 percent, and I happened to mention that to the president and the board agreed that I was the man for the job.”

As a nonprofit think-tank, the JES promotes civic enlightenment and regional progress by offering courses, lectures, and seminars that both introduce and cultivate ideas from the past, present, and future. “Our role is to educate the community and to provide information to the community so we can move forward in the right direction. Our job is not necessarily to do things, but rather to ignite things.

“I want to see as many ideas come into this community as possible. That’s why we have the Global Summit,” he says; he’s clearly excited, as he suddenly shifts forward in his seat, speaking in a more measured, serious tone. Last year’s Global Summit brought General Michael Hayden (retired), former head of the CIA under President G.W. Bush, and Dr. Francis Fukuyama, author of the bestseller “The End of History and the Last Man.” This November, he tells me they’ve got some even bigger things planned. He also tells me not to tell you. Yet.

A Life Examined

Looking back on where he’s been and where he is now, Ferki finally reveals that driving force that’s propelled him along the way.

“My No. 1 goal is to learn. I’m finishing my master’s degree in public administration right now at Gannon, and eventually I’ll probably get my Ph.D. By eventually, I mean I’ll probably start next fall. I think I want to stay in the nonprofit world. It’s a great feeling to help people. I’d like to be here at the Jefferson; I believe in the mission, and I’d like to be here as long as I’m useful to the organization.”

We have problems in this community. Erie Problems, I guess you could call them; brain drain is one of them. But while we’re busy examining Erie’s deficiencies with a microscope, people like Ferki Ferati end up here, one way or the other, making this town a better place to be. This raises the question, wouldn’t it be great if a major Erie’s Problem was brain gain?

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Jeta e paprovuar nuk ka vler means “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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