It was 1999 when the Shala family first met Bill Clinton.
He was still president when he visited the refugee camp in Macedonia, where the Albanian family of 30 fled after war pushed them out of Kosovo, their southeast European home near Serbia.
The camp had little shelter, no food and no showers. Disease was spreading fast. When Clinton arrived promising to help the hundreds of thousands of people there relocate to safer parts of the world, the Shalas told him they wanted to go to America.
Less than a month later, U.S. officials brought them to Safety Harbor, where they still live today — and where earlier this month, they finally got to thank the man who they say helped bring them to this country.
To family patriarch Raif Shala and his wife, matriarch Elhame, the 42nd president of the United States saved their entire family.
When they got word that the former president would be campaigning for his wife, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, just a few miles from their home, they rushed to wait in line for him.
If they could just catch a glimpse, maybe shake his hand. Or, if they were really lucky, give him the photo clenched tightly in Raif Shala's hand showing the Clintons talking with refugees in Macedonia.
"When he walked in to give his speech, all I wanted to do was hug him," Raif said, using his son Bekim Shala, 45, as an interpreter. "I wanted to tell him I am happy to be in this country."
After his Oct. 11 speech at the Safety Harbor Community Center, Bill Clinton walked away from the podium, shaking hands and waving, then turned when the Shalas called out to him.
The couple, both 65, pushed through the crowd to reach him. Elhame Shala said they were so happy they both cried. Raif Shala grabbed Clinton's hand.
"Clinton, refugee Kosovo," he yelled in broken English. "I love you. … I love you. … Thank you."
It took the former president a few moments to catch on to what was happening. Then Raif Shala showed him the photo.
"He put on his reading classes and said he remembered my family and our children," the patriarch said. "Then he hugged us."
Raif and Elhame Shala will always remember the refugee camp — they were scared to stay and even more scared to leave. They will always remember the feeling of what it's like to have nowhere to go.
But because of the former president, they said, they will also always remember that there's always hope.
"I wanted nothing more in my life than to see Clinton again … to be able to tell him thank you for saving not only my family, but my country of Kosovo," Raif Shala said. "The United States was the only country in the world that helped us."
Most of the Shala family now lives in Safety Harbor. But ever since they left 17 years ago, an American flag has flown over the family home in Kosovo. The family members who live there have even invited over American soldiers stationed there for meals.
"The flag will never come down," Raif Shala said, "because we will always be American people."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.