Sunday, January 29, 2017

Early Muslim Immigrants in Waterbury

Waterbury was one of the first places in the United States to become home to a community of Muslim immigrants, when Albanians began arriving a few years before World War I, fleeing war and massacres.

Although Muslims have lived in the United States throughout the entirety of the country's history, it was not until the twentieth century that sizable Muslim communities were able to establish themselves and thrive. The first recorded instance of communal prayers being held by American Muslims happened in 1900 in North Dakota.

Waterbury had one of the first mosques in the United States, established by the Albanian community in 1919. Earlier mosques included ones in North Dakota and Michigan in 1912 and Biddeford, Maine in 1915. Waterbury's mosque may well have been the fourth mosque to be established in this country. I have found very little information about it. By the 1930s, it was gone, but Waterbury's Albanian Muslim community would continue to grow as new wars and political oppression forced more people to flee their homeland.

Albanian American Muslim Center on Raymond Street, built in 1969.

During World War I, the population of Waterbury expanded rapidly, as there were thousands of jobs available in the factories. An estimated 3,000 Albanians came to the Brass City for war-time work ("Lessons in Patriotism," Literary Digest, Volume 63, October 18, 1919). After the war, it would appear that many of those workers moved on to other opportunities, but Waterbury still retained one of the largest Albanian Muslim communities in the country: in 1919, as part of a national survey, the City of Waterbury reported a total of about 300 Muslim Albanians living in Waterbury, coming in third behind Philadelphia (450) and Biddeford & Saco, Maine (400). Another 30 Waterbury Albanians were Christians. The next largest Albanian Muslim community was in Pittsburgh, which reported 200 people (Statement of the Natives of Korytsa and Kolonia... in Reply to the Declaration of the Pan-Albanian Federation in America, 1919).

Immigrant groups in Waterbury during World War I included Albanians, Armenians, Syrians, Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, Finlanders, Russians, and Chinese. Waterbury took pride in its efforts to "Americanize" the local immigrant population through a partnership between the Board of Education, the manufacturers who employed the immigrants, the YMCA, the North American Civic League, and several churches.

Charles Lee, industrial secretary at the Waterbury YMCA, explained their approach to Americanization: "Not much can be accomplished with the average foreigner unless you first gain his confidence. Prove to him that you are his friend and are not trying to exploit him or get his money, and he will do anything for you. More can be accomplished through the 'personal touch' method than in any other way." ("Waterbury is Rid of Red Leaders," Hartford Courant, 23 November 1919).

Lee also shared some of his work with the Albanian community: when a large group of Albanians wanted to return home to Europe, Lee personally traveled to Washington, D.C. and New York City to secure their passports and steamship tickets, and stayed with them until they were safely on board their ship, making sure the language barrier didn't prevent them from making their journey. Lee later received a letter of thanks and an invitation to visit them in Albania.

The Waterbury Board of Education offered citizenship classes for adults in the public schools during the evenings. The classes, primarily for immigrants from Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Albania, included an English-language literacy component. For the Albanians, the Board of Education also made an effort to hire Muslim teachers, as many of the Albanians were uncomfortable being taught by a Christian (Report of the Board of Education, 1921). There were approximately 450 students enrolled in the night classes at any given time, with three or four graduations being held each year ("Waterbury is Rid of Red Leaders," Hartford Courant, 23 November 1919). Today, this type of work, English-language learning and citizenship classes, is being done at the Silas Bronson Library by the nonprofit organization Literacy Volunteers of Greater Waterbury.

Waterbury's Albanian Muslim community began publishing a monthly Albanian-language newspaper, Albania, in 1918. The Moslem National Alliance offered religious services in Albanian and established a school in Waterbury to teach the local Muslim Albanians.

In 1919, Waterbury was home to an estimated 1,500 Albanians. There were also about 2,000 Portuguese and Spaniards (no distinction between these two nationalities was made by local officials); 3-4,000 Russians; 4,000 Poles; 13,000 Lithuanians; and 22,000 Italians ("Waterbury is Rid of Red Leaders," Hartford Courant, 23 November 1919).

The Albanian Mohammedan Religious Society was established some time before 1916 in Waterbury "To explain clearly and unmistakably the religious teachings, which preach love, brotherhood, peace, love for fatherland, progress and righteousness in full agreement, to print religious and educational books in Albanian, to open schools, to found mosques, to send out lecturers among the different Albanian colonies, and to help as much as possible its members." (U.S. Department of  Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies, 1916)

The Moslem World, Volume XI (Harrisburg, PA & NYC: Missionary Review Publishing Co., 1921) page 196

Like all other immigrant groups, Waterbury's Albanian Muslims found work in the factories. Some, like Sabri A. Kor├ža (Korcha), president of Waterbury's Albanian Mohammedan Religious Society in 1919, worked outside the factories in barbershops and grocery stores. Still others, like Mehmet Tosun, eventually started up their own businesses.

Mehmet Tosun arrived in Waterbury during World War I, registering for the draft on June 5, 1917. At the time, he was working as a laborer in the Chase Rolling Mill and living on Orange Street.  His wife, Barije Raman Tosun, was still in Albania. Mehmet returned to Albania after the war, eventually returning to the United States via Australia with his wife and their two sons. The Tosun family lived briefly in Detroit before coming back to Waterbury in 1926. The lived in the north end, and Mehmet worked as a milk distributor.

Mehmet Tosun, 1926 application for naturalization
From and National Archives & Records Administration

By 1941, the Tosun family was operating a dairy business, Willow Brook Dairy, just over the town line in Wolcott (Tosun Road area today). Their farm had 100 dairy cows, and the family delivered milk door-to-door in Wolcott, Waterbury, and other towns (including Roxbury, where they delivered milk to Marilyn Monroe during her marriage to Arthur Miller). The dairy operated until 1963.

During the 1940s, Mehmet Tosun was president of the Waterbury branch of Vatra, a Pan-Albanian Federation historically supporting Albanian nationalism and today protecting the rights of Albanian Americans. Mehmet was also an Imam, a "personally designated and informally educated leader" active in Waterbury prior to World War II. His granddaughter, Sylvia Tosun, remembers him as a Muslim holy man, "a Dervish and Spiritual Healer, who traveled all over the Middle East and people from all over that part of the world, traveled to be healed by him and to watch him 'twirl.'"

Later Immigration

By the 1930s, Waterbury's Albanian community was small and scattered throughout the city. There was no longer a mosque for them to attend, and at least some Muslim children growing up in Waterbury went to Christian afterschool and Sunday classes because all of their friends were Christian and because there were no Muslim classes for them to attend (Mattatuck Museum Neighborhoods Oral History Project: Jeannette Malich, 2001). Families would worship together in their homes, much like Waterbury's first Irish Catholic immigrants did during the 1840s.

Another wave of Albanian immigrants began arriving during the 1950s, refugees from a brutal Communist regime. Among those immigrants was Halil Bushka and his seven children, who arrived in 1954; Bushka had been forced to leave behind his wife, Haxhire, and their youngest child, Skender, who were being held in a Communist internment camp in Albania ("2 Albanian Refugees To Live in Connecticut," Hartford Courant, 28 Oct 1954). The Bushka family would later sponsor other Albanian refugee families, including their cousins, the Demiraj family, but Haxhire Bushka would not be reunited with her family until 1990, when she was finally freed from the prison camp after 40 years, two decades after her husband had passed away ("Albanian Refugee Sees Kids for First Time in 40 Years," Associated Press, 18 October 1990).

This second wave of Albanians was large, consisting of more than 50 families. They originally met for worship in a building on South Elm Street (Mattatuck Museum Neighborhoods Oral History Project: Rustem "Rudy" Demiraj, 2001). In 1969, they built a mosque and cultural center on Raymond Street.

Another wave of Albanian immigrants, this time from Macedonia, arrived during the 1960s; their mosque and cultural center is on Columbia Boulevard in the Overlook neighborhood.

Albanian Festival, Columbia Boulevard, 2012

The most recent wave of Albanian immigration began in the 1990s following the collapse of the Communist regime. In 2016, Jetlir Kulla became the first Albanian immigrant to serve on the Waterbury Board of Aldermen. Kulla is the grandson of Ajdin Kulla, a teacher who was executed by the Communists in 1945. The Kulla family spent two decades at an internment camp in Albania, which is where Alderman Jetlir Kulla was born. After the collapse of Communism, Ajdin Kulla was honored posthumously by the Albanian government in 2012, remembered for his patriotism and for opposing fascists and Communists.

For more on Waterbury's modern-day ties to Albania, visit the Waterbury Observer website to see John Murray's photo essay about his 2016 trip there.

If you are part of the Waterbury Albanian community and would like to contribute information or images to this post, please send it to me at

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