I was born in Albania in 1970, and grew up under the communist regime. It was forbidden to talk about God, but I always wondered who created us as I looked at the stars above my mom’s village. I could look at a watch or a car and understand that somebody made them for a purpose. But who made me? And for what purpose did I exist? I asked my mom about these things when I was still very young. She never responded directly, but would say that I would figure it out some day.
When I graduated from high school, I applied to the university but was denied because my father was not a member of the communist party. So I went to work as a mechanic on large trucks for several years before I went into the army to fulfill my military obligation. They chose me to be a member of the Special Forces, and at the beginning of the revolution we were commanded to break up the escalating demonstrations. One night I received orders to prepare my men for a demonstration the next morning, but this time we were told to bring our guns and use them if necessary. These orders went against the constitution and my conscience, so I decided that I would leave before they had a chance to court-martial me for disobeying orders. I told my men that I was leaving and that they were free to do what they felt was right.
I knew that I had to flee the country, so I went with a friend to Greece. I worked in Greece for almost four years. During that time, a Greek Orthodox man told me about Jesus, but I wasn’t really interested. After making some money, I returned to Albania where I thought I could build a business under the new democratic system. I started selling cars with my brother and sister, but the business failed after my brother wrecked some cars and pocketed some of our profits. Without money in my pocket, I started noticing that many of the people I thought were my friends didn’t want to hang around with me anymore. They didn’t really care about me—they cared about my money. In that desperate situation, I cried out to God. Why did God allow this to happen to me? I was a good person.
One day, I noticed a new booklet in my parent’s house. It was the book of Genesis. For the first time in my life, I read about creation and found answers to the questions I had asked since my childhood. God created the world, and He made me. But why? I found answers to that question when I went to put the booklet back and there, next to it, was a New Testament. I started reading the Gospels, but was confused by some things. The next day happened to be a Sunday, so I decided to go to the Catholic church (the only church in town). I listened as the priest preached about salvation, and I asked him afterwards to explain some things to me. He told me to come back on Tuesday to play soccer with him. He spelled out the way of salvation through the book of John and gave me a copy to read on my own. Looking back, I truly believe that he was born-again.
Because of my failed business and the poor economy in Albania, I decided it was time to return to Greece. The first time I tried, the police caught me and sent me back. I was still reading the book of John at that time, and I challenged the Lord to show me His power by bringing me safely back to Athens. After seven days and nights of walking over the mountains, including many miracles and acts of God, I arrived in Athens. I determined to find a church and learn more about God. Of course, the day after I arrived in Athens happened to be a Sunday. I met an old friend from Albania in the street, and he asked me to join him for the afternoon. I went with him and it turned out to be a Bible study. Leading the Bible study was Scott McCracken, who later became my Team Leader when I joined the International Teams missionaries in Athens.
After six months of studying the Bible, I committed my life to Christ and was baptized. Around that time, Scott also told me about the soup kitchen they were running for refugees and invited me to come help if I had any free time. So I went, enjoyed it, and soon discovered one of my gifts in helping to organize the volunteers. I also learned that I had the gift of evangelism as I shared with many of the people who came.
Over the next couple years I grew in the Lord, and God fanned the fire in my heart to serve Him and make Him known among the nations. Along with continuing to help at the soup kitchen, I started sharing the gospel with other Albanians I met, and began leading a Bible Study for new believers. It was my heart to encourage them to share the good news with others.
In 1997, I began asking the Lord what He wanted me to do with my life. One night in September, the Lord responded in a dream. I saw a bright light and a man telling me, “Get up, my son.” I woke up and saw that my window was open. I knew I had closed it the night before, so my first thought was that a thief was in the house. I checked around and saw no one, so I closed the window and went back to sleep. Again, I saw a bright light and the man saying, “Get up!” I woke again and the window was open again. This time, I heard footsteps in the room, but no one was there. So I crawled under the bed, covered myself with my blanket, and began praying, “Lord, here I am. If you want to take my life, take it.” But he told me, “Get up and go read your Bible.” My Bible was open on my desk. I read the page quickly, slammed the book shut, and then jumped back in bed because I was scared. But the Lord wouldn’t leave me alone. “Get up and go read!” And I heard the Bible open again. I went to my desk and read more carefully this time, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). I thought, “Lord, this is not for me. Forget it. Find somebody else.” It was four in the morning and I went to sleep. The next morning I got up to do my normal morning devotions and the Bible was open again, this time to the book of Jonah. As I read that story for the first time, I realized that He was going to have me serve Him whether I wanted to or not. I could choose to obey, or I could choose to go through the fish first.
The next day, I told Scott McCracken about my dream, and he told me that he had also been praying about asking me to come work with the team full-time. So after I applied and was accepted to International Teams, and after God provided for my support, I officially joined the team in May of 1998.
It is not easy to be an Albanian in Greece. There is a lot of prejudice against us. But I believe that God has called me to remain here to tell refugees about Jesus. Since I was a refugee, I understand their need to find true Hope.