1. News

Nearly two decades later, Albanian family thanks Bill Clinton for helping bring them to America (w/video)

Elhame Shala, left, and husband Raif greet former President Bill Clinton after his speech on Oct. 11 in Safety Harbor.
Elhame Shala, left, and husband Raif greet former President Bill Clinton after his speech on Oct. 11 in Safety Harbor.
Published Oct. 25, 2016


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 or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.


  1. This aerial photo shows White Island after its volcanic eruption in New Zealand Monday. The volcano on a small New Zealand island frequented by tourists erupted Monday, and a number of people were missing and injured after the blast. (George Novak/New Zealand Herald via AP) [GEORGE NOVAK  |  AP]
    Police said the site was still too dangerous hours later for rescuers to search for the missing.
  2. Check for the latest breaking news and updates. [Tampa Bay Times]
    Police are investigating the shooting at 2570 25th Avenue N.
  3. Leonard Henry, inset, faces charges of burglary, battery of a law enforcement officer, criminal mischief and possession of a controlled substance. [TONY MARRERO | Times; Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]
    The officer was hospitalized. The suspect was apprehended and taken to the Hillsborough County Jail.
  4. Staci Plonsky holds art from son A.J., who has autism, that depicts his memory of being taken by the school resource officer to a mental health facility under Florida's Baker Act law. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  5. Pasco County letters to the editor
  6. St. Lucie Mets outfielder Tim Tebow warms up before the beginning of the Mets at Threshers game at Spectrum Field Aug. 17, 2017. Clearwater is seeking a $79.7 million renovation of Spectrum Field and the Carpenter training complex used by the Philadelphia Phillies and Clearwater Threshers. [DOUGLAS CLIFFORD  |  Times]
    The city faces a number of landmines.
  7. Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes has faced criticism for a trip to Chicago arranged by a bidder on a city-related project. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
    Orlando Gudes says he did nothing wrong by initially accepting a trip arranged by a bidder on a city project.
  8. Hitch, Diana, Juju and Samantha are looking for their forever homes. [Times]
    Tampa Bay shelter offerings
  9. Jan Knowles is the tour guide of a new walking Murals Tour in downtown Brooksville. The one-hour tour is sponsored by the Hernando County Fine Arts Council and features eight murals, including this one painted on the Historic Woman's Club on Main Street. [MICHELE MILLER  |  Times]
    Projects coordinator Jan Knowles is bringing attention to the downtown mural scene
  10. Hernando County community news [Tara McCarty]
    Hernando County letters to the editor