Albanian family to get money back, but not faith in America
Albanian family to get money back, but not faith in America
PARMA HEIGHTS, Ohio – Rustem Kazazi had a dream since he came to the United States in 2005 to return to his native Albania, sell the old family home and buy a small cottage on the Adriatic Sea.
Kazazi and his family scrimped and saved. They never had cable television. They each worked two and three jobs at a time and saved every penny. They drive 16-year-old cars. Last year, when Rustem Kazazi prepared to fly to Albania to make their dreams come true, U.S. Customs and Border Control confiscated their life’s savings at the airport.
Even though the government Wednesday agreed to return most of the money, the dream is spoiled.
“It’s just not the same anymore,” said Rustem, through his son, Erald. “We have been through too much.”
On Oct. 24, 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents seized the family’s life savings at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. They confiscated the cash – either $58,000 or $57,330 depending on who’s counting – under the government’s “civil asset forfeiture process,” which allows authorities to seize assets when they suspect a person obtained money or property illegally.
“It was like, ‘He’s carrying all this money, he must be guilty of something,’” Kazazi said.
On Wednesday, the CBP agreed and notified the family they would get their money back.
But not all of it.
The CBP said it would return $57,330 of the $58,000 within 30 days, with no explanation for the missing funds.
Kazazi said the agents seized $58,000 at the airport, all in $100 bills that were carefully wrapped and marked. But the government claims they only took $57,330, and that is how much they will return.
“Who knows which agent lifted the $770 from the money,” said Eral Kazazi, son of Rustem and Lejla Kazazi. “It’s not a lot of money, but it’s ours and we will fight to get it returned.”
The family said they had turned over supporting evidence to the government including tax records, employment records and bank statements, showing how they carefully saved the money since 2005. The government apparently agrees, since they are not contesting the return of the money taken in the controversial “civil asset forfeiture process.”
The forfeiture process has been criticized by civil liberties groups who say it is ripe for abuse, because it allows officials to seize money from people who were never convicted or even charged with a crime. The Washington Post reported that federal authorities seized more than $2 billion in assets from people in 2017.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for interviews on the story or the process.
Rustem said he didn’t understand much of what the agents said, and they did not get him a translator as he requested. The agents kept the money and allowed a bewildered Kazazi to go to Albania with just the money in his wallet. He was unable to repair the old home for sale or look at the cottage by the sea he hoped to buy.
“This was all horrible,” said Erald Kazazi. “It all happened while I was taking final exams (at Cleveland State University, where he is finishing a chemical engineering degree) and I could not concentrate. I was so afraid that I would get one tiny thing wrong in filing the paperwork with the government and that we would lose everything.”
The law requires the CBP to return seized property within 90 days if it has not initiated criminal proceedings or civil forfeiture proceedings.
“In this case, the CPB’s deadline expired without the government doing any of those things,” said the lawsuit filed against the CBP by the Institute of Justice on the Kazazi’s behalf, noting that this meant the government could not pursue further civil or criminal litigation against the family and that it must return the money.
When the money was not returned by May 31, the family sued for its return in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.
“We’re pleased the Kazazis will get their money back within 30 days, but we will continue the suit to get back the remaining $770,” said Johanna Talcott, attorney for the non-profit Institute for Justice handling the case. “The government only settled after the lawsuit was filed and in light of all the publicity that ensued. The case is not over yet.”
There will be a hearing on Dec. 10 in federal court over the missing $770.
“I just don’t understand that figure,” said Erald Kazazi. “The money was all in $100 bills. My father sat here and counted it out three times before sorting it into stacks, wrapping it and labeling it. How could those stacks of $100 amount to $57,330?”
Rusted Kazazi said there were good reasons he wanted to carry the money as cash to Albania.
He said he did not trust the banks of Albania.
“They only insure transactions up to $20,000,” he said through Erald. “There are many fees, plus, I do not have a bank account there. The country is very cash-oriented, everything is done in cash, and there is corruption there. I don’t really trust them.
“Our dream was to buy a little house on the coast,” he continued. “Very small, nothing fancy. We would sell our old home after we fixed it up and use that money and our savings to buy the seaside cottage. We would use it as a place to go for vacations. The prices were very good last year, but no longer.”
He said the contractors in Albania prefer American cash for their work, another reason for bringing the $58,000 in bills.
He said he did not declare the cash at the Cleveland airport because he planned to do it in Newark.
“The flight from Newark was the international part of the flight,” he said. “I had a four-hour layover and was planning to do it then.”
Kazazi, 64, is a retired Albanian policeman and taught at that country’s police training academy.
He said that last year, after his money was confiscated, he went to Albania with just the money in his wallet. He said when he arrived, he was confused and depressed.
“I was supposed to be the visitor from America,” he said. “I was expected to give presents to my family members, but here I was with nothing. I was asking them for help.”
More than that, he said the entire incident has affected his belief in America.
The family won a Visa lottery in Albania in 2005 that allowed them to emigrate to the United States. They became American citizens in 2010.
“I always thought the government was here to protect us,” he said. “We worked hard, obeyed the law, lived honorable lives. My son was an honor student. I dreamed that my children would be Americans and live the good life.”
The family is glad the ordeal is almost over, but won’t believe it until they have their cash back.
Rustem’s wife, Lejla, who teaches English as a second language at a charter school, said very little during the interview. But she did make one statement.
“The thing I was expecting to hear I have not yet heard,” she said. “The government has never apologized for what they did to us.”
The Kazazi’s lawsuit can be viewed here: