The United States Embassy in Albania celebrated the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of ties between the United States and Albania earlier this year, highlighting the close bond between the two nations since 1991. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has supported that relationship for years, carrying out humanitarian assistance projects throughout Albania funded through the European Command – or EUCOM.
Right now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District is actively managing several projects involving either the construction of new facilities or the renovation of existing facilities to help improve services Albania can provide to its youngest, oldest and most vulnerable citizens.
This work ranges from renovating existing clinics to building and renovating school facilities – including one geared for children with special needs – to also building a shelter specifically for safely housing victims of human trafficking.
“Most of the work we do there has something to do with social services or public services,” said Europe District Project Manager Spenser Ruvalcaba, who manages humanitarian assistance projects throughout Albania. “All of these typically are for something to support the government social networks and care for those that cannot help themselves and are most at risk.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works closely with the Office of Defense Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania’s capital city, to deliver the projects.
“The U.S. Embassy's Office of Defense Cooperation in Albania plans and executes U.S. European Command’s Humanitarian Assistance Program which provides funding and expertise to execute a wide array of projects, to include the renovation of public facilities, such as schools, health centers, and senior citizen centers,” said Humanitarian Assistance Program Manager Artian Dautaj, a local national in the ODC in the U.S. Embassy. “The U.S. Embassy has a great collaboration with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. ODC Albania works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from cradle to grave and contractors to ensure that the work is completed in accordance with the requirements of the supported government agency.”
The most recent project, delivered at the end of 2020, was a new, two-story facility that serves as both a kindergarten and a health clinic in the community of Patos and Dautaj said the community is already seeing the benefits.
“Based on comments from the end users as well as the inhabitants living in that area, this project has an impact on facilitating greater access of locals to education and enrollment capacity, improving the educational and medical infrastructure for them, providing better quality healthcare for the community and better quality of care for children attending the kindergarten,” Dautaj said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also overseeing the construction of a new shelter being built to provide a safe place for victims of human trafficking.
“While the actual construction of the shelter for human trafficking victims will not be much different than you would see for other shelters, the location is remote, secret, and guarded by Albanian authorities to ensure the girls are safe,” Ruvalcaba said.
Additionally, crews are working on several renovation projects to help ensure existing facilities can better serve their communities and continue to do so into the future.
In addition to general improvements, these sort of renovation projects are often focused on addressing potential unsafe conditions that may exist, like for example wiring issues or water hazards. This facilitates a safer environment for staff and the community where important public services can be delivered more efficiently.
One of the larger efforts is the ongoing renovate of a school for children with special needs, both physical and mental, in the community of Durres. In addition to improving spaces where staff and students work and learn, Ruvalcaba noted the project also includes improvements to on-site housing and more since the facility serves as more than just a school.
“Many of the special needs schools in Albania allow the children to live on the premises as many of their families might not have the ability to care for them at home,” Ruvalcaba said. “Therefore, the school is not only a school but also the children’s home, where they eat all their meals, receive therapy, and live their lives.”
Other ongoing renovation projects include a shelter and clinic for the elderly in the community of Poliçan, renovations of health clinics in the communities of Bunavija, Çeprat and Risili and renovations at a high school in Babice.
Ruvalcaba came to Europe District from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sacramento District where she supported projects like the Folsom Dam Joint Federal Project that involved improvements to a massive concrete and earthen dam project in northern California. Though humanitarian assistance project like the ones in Albania are much smaller in scale, she said she enjoys being able to deliver them.
“It feels very good to be able to be part of a team delivering these kind of humanitarian assistance projects and I enjoy that these projects have a direct impact on a community,” Ruvalcaba said. “More so during non-COVID times, you see the kids who attend the schools in person, meet the workers and see that the community and everyone involved really appreciates and utilizes these projects.”
She added that the work in Albania is especially rewarding.
“Albania is an incredible country with incredible people, amazing beauty, and delicious food that I would never have known without the humanitarian assistance program,” Ruvalcaba said. “I truly think the country is amazing and I am very lucky to get to be a part of something that gives back to a people who, from my experience there, are extremely thankful and appreciative of the support from the USA.”