Since 1999, Hector and Mike Sala have been known as the owners of the Butterfly Club supper club. This is the true story of how these brave brothers risked their lives to escape Community Albania in order to pursue their American Dream.
Mike and Hektor Sala celebrate many holidays each year. But they celebrate Independence Day every day of their lives. “The United States is the best country in the world,” Mike says. “No one conquers you here.”
The brothers speak from experience. Born and raised in Albania, they fled Communist Albania in 1990, leaving behind family and friends, risking their lives in order to find a better way of life for themselves and their loved ones.
“Albania is the last castle of communism,” says Hektor. “It was the most isolated country in the Eastern Bloc. I’ve never lived in North Korea but I bet it’s comparable. We were ready to liberate ourselves.”
For years, the Sala family had a front row seat to many horrific acts in their hometown of Korca, a city of 105,000 people in southeastern Albania. The country of 3.5 million people is nestled among Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro. Before they were born, their father, James, at age 21, was sent away to a labor camp for five years to punishment him for the fact that his brother escaped the country in 1960. Their property was taken away from them; they suffered emotional abuse from teachers in school, and they witnessed death and destruction.
“We feared for our lives,” says 47-year-old Mike, who is two years older than Hektor, his only sibling. “People were murdered and their bodies were dumped in the streets.”
The brothers have come a long way since those harrowing days. Today, these cordial and polite men are husbands, fathers, and successful business owners, living and working in the U.S. They learned to speak English after they arrived here, by taking classes and speaking English to co-workers and customers. Today they own The Butterfly Club, a popular fine dining restaurant located on East Country Road X. And they couldn’t be happier.
“America is a beacon of light for people who are anti-communism and anti-dictatorship,” Mike says. “There isn’t a more stable country in the world.”
Reign of Terror
For the past 1,000 years, Albania has suffered one invasion after another. At the end of the 14th century, it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. From 1912 until the end of World War I, the country was attacked by neighboring countries. Albania was occupied by the forces of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1939. Four years later, Adolph Hitler’s Nazi armies occupied Albania.
Prior to communism in Albania, the Sala brothers’ grandfather worked in the banking industry; their father was a home builder. Under communist rule, much of their property was taken by the government.
“No one had the right to own anything,” Mike says. “Communism destroyed everything. People who disagreed with the government were sent away to camps. Good, innocent people, such as priests, officers, bankers, even foreigners whose spouses were Albanian. They took everything we had except our house.”
The brothers also saw oppression in their education. Mike says they enjoyed going to school but were emotionally bullied by party leaders and teachers. “If they had a bad day, they took it out on the students,” he says. “Instead of As and Bs, they gave us Cs and Ds.” The Sala brothers were members of the school’s and city wrestling team, and recall that athletes were treated more favorably than other students.
The brothers graduated from high school but were prohibited by the government from attending college. Instead, they joined the military, where they were involved in non-combat duty. After a stint in the army, they opened a tailor shop, where they repaired everything from pants to suit coats.
In early 1990, demonstrations protesting the government broke out across the country. The brothers took part in those protests, which turned violent. “We didn’t just protest for ourselves, we did it for our people,” Hektor says. “People were protesting for freedom and democracy. Many people had had enough. They didn’t want to protest, they just wanted to leave. They didn’t see life in Albania getting any better. Many tried to get to the border but were shot and killed before they got there. Others were jailed. The whole thing makes me sad. I feel sorry for my father, grandfather and my countrymen.”
The Sala brothers began planning their escape during the height of the turmoil. They decided to leave separately, in the event that one of them didn’t make it out alive. “It would have been too big of a loss for our family to lose both of us,” Hektor says. “We couldn’t take that chance.” A year later, under the dark of night, the brothers said goodbye to family members and to each other, leaving a few days apart from one another.
They say they felt they had no choice but to leave, unsure of their fate, but certain Albania’s future would not be good. “We didn’t think we’d see good days in Albania ever again,” Hektor says. “We thought, ‘whatever happens will happen.’ We had no weapons, nothing. We put our lives on the line. All we had was God’s blessings.”
From Korca, they walked at least 20 miles through rugged mountain terrain, sneaking past protected borders and into Greece. Hektor escaped with a cousin and a friend. Mike left with two other relatives. Despite the risk they were taking, the brothers say they weren’t frightened along their journey. “Freedom was the most important thing,” Hektor says. “When you’re fighting for your freedom, you don’t worry about anything. Not even your life.”
With no phones and no money, there was no communication between the brothers once they left Albania. They reunited in Athens six months later, thanks to the help of friends who knew their whereabouts. About seven months later, with the Albanian government losing its grip on power, their parents, Tina and James, left Albania to catch up with their sons in Athens.
The family adjusted well to their new surroundings. The brothers found work at a hotel resort. People they met in Athens encouraged them to stay and make a new life in Greece, but the brothers were determined to reach the U.S.
Under the protection of political asylum, the Sala brothers arrived in New York City in March 22, 1992. By that time, the Democratic Party of Albania took control of the country through parliamentary elections.
It was a dream-come-true for the brothers, whose grandfather used to tell the family wonderful stories about his years spent in the U.S. during the 1920s. “We didn’t come here to make lots of money,” Hektor says. “We came here because the United States is one of the most democratic and free countries in the world.”
The brothers moved to Freeport, Ill., where their uncle lived, despite warnings from the American Consulate in Athens about harsh Midwestern winters. “I don’t mind snow,” says Mike, laughing. “I just don’t like the bitter cold.”
In 1994, the brothers bought a family restaurant called Sandburr Café in Broadhead, Wis., which they owned for eight years. In 1999, they bought The Butterfly Club and parted with the café. “We like this kind of operation. It’s more relaxing,” Mike says of The Butterfly Club. “We wanted to buy a place like this in the beginning, but we couldn’t afford it. We like fine dining.”
A New Life
Hanging on the wall in their snug business office at the restaurant is a framed picture of George Kastrioti Skanderbeg, a 15th century Albanian lord. In 1444, he was proclaimed Chief of the League of the Albanian people, and defended the region of Albania against the Ottoman Empire for more than 20 years. The brothers say Skanderbeg is Albania’s most important national hero and a key figure of the Albanian National Awakening. His photo is a reminder of the sacrifices many Albanians have made for their country.
“He is the only one the Albania nation can be proud of,” says Hektor. “We compare him to George Washington. He fought for his people and our nation. He is always in our hearts and in our minds.”
Tourism websites describe a different kind of Albania today. The parliamentary democracy applied for entrance to the European Union in 2009. It’s surrounded by turquoise seas and beautiful beaches; it has snow-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and forests. Long spring and summer evenings are a good time to enjoy the terrace and sidewalk cafes popular throughout the country. In the fall, it’s still warm enough to swim on the southern coast. Throughout larger cities, young people enjoy pubs, nightclubs, disco music and karaoke. Fishing, hiking and other leisure activities are also popular. Prominent Albanians include Mother Theresa and the parents of actors Jim and John Belushi.
The Salas return to their homeland every couple of years to visit friends and family. Although Albania is no longer oppressed by its government, the brothers believe corruption still remains alive and well. They no longer fear for their loved ones’ safety, but still wish they would emigrate to the U.S. “I would like to see them leave, but they’re not in danger,” Hektor says. “It’s going to take Albania at least 100 more years to be normal.”
On a visit to Albania in 1996, Mike and Hektor met their future wives. Two years later, Mike and Sonila, and Hektor and Ujana were married.
Mike and Sonila have two children – daughter Cassandra, 12, and son Alexander, 8. Hektor and Ujana have three children – sons Aeneas, 12; Briton, 8; and daughter Andrea, 6. The children, who were born in the U.S., participate in soccer and hockey. The girls take dance lessons. The families also enjoy camping together.
The children are too young to grasp the full weight of their family’s history, but their fathers say that this conversation will come in due time. “They hear things,” Hektor says. “We’re trying to teach them to appreciate everything that this country has given them. It’s not something that can be destroyed; it’s something to enjoy.”
The families live together, along with parents Tina and James, who both help out at the restaurant. Having 11 people living under one roof might seem cumbersome to some people, but not to the Sala family. They wouldn’t have it any other way. Not after what they’ve been through.
While they embrace their freedom, the Sala brothers will carry their past with them forever. “We think about it every day,” says Hektor. “Our father brings it up during coffee every morning. He tells us stories we’ve never heard before. He reminds us to enjoy every second of our life here and not to waste it.”
“We are lucky,” Mike adds. “We have our faith and God’s help. We’re extremely thankful to live in this great country. God bless the USA.”