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President Bush and First Lady Pay Extended Visit to Opportunity Albania

President Bush met with Opportunity clients and branch manager; enjoyed “Stars and Stripes” cake at client’s bakery

OAK BROOK, Ill. – June 13, 2007 – Sunday, June 10 was a historic day for Opportunity Albania – the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush, and First Lady Laura Bush paid a long visit to the branch office in the town of Fushe Kruje. The president and first lady held a microfinance roundtable discussion with Opportunity International Branch Manager Emila Cangu and five microfinance clients, in cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

During the half-hour meeting, at the president’s request, each of the Opportunity clients told about their businesses and their lives, and of the importance of Opportunity Albania in helping them grow and become successful.

“The president was like us,” said Kujtim Nuzi, one of the clients who had a conversation about farming with President Bush. “What surprised me was that he encouraged me in my work. The president told me he had a farm too, in Texas, and that he preferred to spend time with a shepherd rather than with a lawyer.”

According to the Albanian newspaper, Shekulli, the president encouraged the small businesses that Opportunity Albania supports, telling Nui, “Powerful businessmen in Texas started just like you and Albanians should understand that working is the only way to progress and you are the best example.”

Cangu, the branch manager who brought the clients to the meeting, said she was “thrilled and excited. It was a great responsibility to be able to express the important work we are doing and to make him understand the importance of our activity.”

Though everyone was nervous as the meeting began, Cangu said, “The president was very open and soon made every one of us feel very comfortable and speaking freely. He asked the persons present to tell him about their life, business and especially their families as he considered the family the most important thing for everyone.”

The president listened to clients’ stories of starting businesses – from tailor shops and beauty salons to livestock farms – using loans from Opportunity Albania. Said Luiza Mukaj, a tailor: “It was like he was a friend that we knew for a long time. We talked about the business. He asked us how the business did start and what plans I had for the future.”

Then he met Klarita Topi, who runs a bakery across the street from the café where the meeting was taking place.

“Klarita explained her bakery business and the great relationship she enjoys with Opportunity Albania,” Cangu reported. “And then she invited the president to her bakery. To our surprise and joy, he accepted the invitation and off we went!”

Topi had prepared in advance. President and Mrs. Bush were greeted by bakery employees and family members who presented them with a cake decorated with a replica of the American flag. Later, Topi told a local newspaper the experience was a moment that will be “stuck in my memories.”

This was part of an entire day the president spent in Albania, the first-ever visit by a sitting American president. As President Bush met with Opportunity Albania clients and toured the bakery, he also greeted the public in the streets of Fushe Kruje. According to several wire services, he was accepted warmly by throngs of Albanians, who consider the United States their strongest ally.

Bob Hart, CEO, Opportunity Albania, contacted USAID immediately upon learning of the president’s planned visit. They agreed that visiting Opportunity Albania clients would be an important activity for President Bush on his Albania trip. USAID is a longtime partner of Opportunity Albania, having provided major grants to help it set up operations in 1999. The White House accepted and worked with USAID to arrange the meetings.

White House Press Secretary Describes Event to the Media
After the president’s visit, Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino conducted a press briefing on Air Force One. Here are some of her observations and reporting on the meeting between President and Mrs. Bush and Opportunity Albania.

“I would just give you a little color on a woman (Emila) who works, actually, for the micro-credit lending service, she’s Albanian, she’s worked there about a year-and-a-half. She said two years ago they only had 550 credit applications; today they have over 1,200 clients (referring to the Fushe Kruje branch office). And she said they are dedicated to customer service and focused on the mission of small business to help stabilize the businesses, which help the whole nation’s economy.

“And they’re looking to build themselves up into an actual bank. And the president said, ‘That’s a real sign of progress.’ And then he said, ‘I have three more observations of Albania to share with you.’ He said, ‘I can smell potential in Albania.’ He said, ‘The flat tax will help small businesses’ — they have a 10 percent flat tax. And he said, ‘I want to help you. America wants to help you.’ And then he went over to the bakery. They had a wonderful visit.”

Opportunity Albania Gives Thanks to the President
Hart summed it up this way: “We want to thank President Bush for his visit, the local authorities and the people of Fushe Kruje. We also appreciate the continued support from USAID. We are grateful to the Opportunity Albania staff and our clients in Fushe Kruje. Nothing would be possible without them. It is such a privilege for us to have the opportunity to support the hardworking entrepreneurs in Albania by providing them financial services.

“As an American financial institution, we are very pleased to be an active partner in strengthening the relationships and cooperation between Albania and the United States. And Opportunity Albania will continue to strengthen this relationship and investment in the people of Albania in the future by continuing to provide micro loans to small business,” Hart said.

Added Cangu, “I feel truly honored and fortunate to have met President Bush and the First Lady today. They were very interested in learning about the achievements of Opportunity Albania and our clients in Fushe Kruje.”

“President Bush also was impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit of the Albanian people. He was touched by the personal stories told by our clients. They emphasized how important the relationship with Opportunity Albania is to the success of their business. He understands how important our financial services are to the economic development of our community. And he expressed the continued support of the American people,” she concluded.

Lasting Impressions of the President’s Visit
Opportunity Albania, its clients and the residents of Fushe Kruje won’t forget the president’s visit anytime soon. Beauty products and salon owner Blerim Dema’s brother and his wife are expecting a baby girl and are going to name her Laura in honor of Mrs. Bush. And, according to Perino, they are going to rename their business “The Laura Bush Salon.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, President Bush said to the assembled media, local dignitaries and our clients: “Laura and I thank these entrepreneurs for joining us to talk about your story, about your dreams and about the opportunities a micro-loan program provided by the taxpayers of the United States is giving you to create jobs.” (The President was referring to the USAID grants to Opportunity International.)

About Opportunity International

Opportunity International provides access to savings, small business loans, insurance and training to over five million people working their way out of poverty in the developing world. Clients in over 20 countries use these financial services to start or expand a business, provide for their families, create jobs for their neighbors and build a safety net for the future. For more information, visit http://www.opportunity.org or join the conversation at http://facebook.com/opportunityintl and http://twitter.com/opportunityintl.

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