Zef Gjergj Gjonaj, whose hard work and faith in the American Dream for his family saw his son Mark rise to become the first elected Albanian-American Assemblyman in New York, died Saturday, June 15 after a lengthy illness. He was 74.
With his election to represent the 80th Assembly District covering Morris Park, Allerton, Pelham Parkway and Mosholu Parkway, Mark Gjonaj also became a leading voice for the large and growing Albanian-American community in the Bronx and beyond, with his father living long enough to see it.
The journey to that point was an arduous one for the elder Gjonaj, according to the family.
Born in the town of Rec in Ulcin, Montenegro, his mother died shortly after his second birthday and he was raised by his father and extended family.
He became a farm worker, where he met his wife Roza, marrying her in 1966. The couple fled their troubled Baltic nation to Italy, and with help from Catholic Charities, were able to make their way to America.
With no formal education, Gjonaj relied on his determination for a better life for his family, working at two jobs – as a porter at Jacobi Hospital and full time superintendent of an apartment building.
His first paycheck, the family said, went back to family remaining in Rec.
His strong family values extended to those beyond his children, they said, with his frequent saying “We are all family.”
In 1995 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, eventually leading to his death.
Gonaj is also survived by his wife Roza, other son Paul, daughter Elsa, and seven grandchildren.
He was waked Monday, June 17 at Farenga Brother Funeral Home on Allerton Avenue, with a funeral mass that Tuesday at Our Lady of Shkodra Church in Hartsdale, NY.
According to his father’s wishes, the assemblyman accompanied his father’s body to be laid to final rest in his homeland of Rec, Ulqin, in Montenegro.
The family asked that any donations be made to friends “most desired” charitable organizations.