When Rep. Eliot L. Engel walks down the street in the tiny Balkan republic of Kosovo, he often gets the celebrity treatment.
“I became very well-known in the country because people saw me on TV, were told what I was doing in Washington,” the New York Democrat said. “Today … it’s not uncommon for people to stop me in the streets and ask to take pictures with me.”
Engel, a longtime advocate for Kosovar Albanians, was among the first lawmakers to call on the Clinton administration to intervene in the Kosovo war against the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He later pushed for the U.S. to recognize the country when it declared its independence in 2008.
The Kosovo government honored Engel last month with his image on a stamp. He also has his name on street signs.
“Peja, that’s their third-largest city, one of their main streets: Congressman Eliot Engel Boulevard,” he said.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency created by Congress, recently launched a $49 million threshold program in Kosovo, which Engel helped kick off in the capital, Pristina, on Nov. 20.
“People stop him on the street, he’s kind of like Santa Claus. Everybody recognizes him, they all want to take pictures of him,” MCC’s chief operating officer Jonathan Nash said. “There’s just really a lot of support there and Congressman Engel is the face of that for them and I think that’s why they put his face on the stamp.”
“For some reason in the lineup of speakers, they put me after Congressman Engel, and I made a joke when I got up there that this is kind of like the opening band going onstage after the main act has already played,” Nash said. “When he’s there, everybody loves him.”
And he loves them right back.
Engel said he’s been fighting for the Balkan territory since he first got to Congress.
“Kosovo was special — not a republic, not granted the same kind of freedom or ability to form their own country,” he said. “The more I looked into this, the more I began to see the atrocities. I began to see that this was a very serious situation that people were being threatened, even killed. I was the first one on Capitol Hill saying that Kosovo should be a free and independent country.”
Nearly 30 years later, the MCC is officially working in the country.
In general, the people of Kosovo are big fans of Americans.
“You go around and … there are all these leaders who have streets named after them,” Nash said. Those include former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“Any Americans who travel to Kosovo, they are really greeted with warmth, with friendliness, like no other place in the world,” Engel said.