In Memoriam Frederik “Fred” Stefani – Tribute to the Human Side of Immigration

Rafaela Prifti

Frederik Stefani is a good example that denounces the false dichotomy of America as either a nation of immigrants or a nation of laws. He believed that it is possible to advance an immigration system that is both humane and effective. As anti-immigration bills sweep through the country, it is fitting to highlight his legacy and pay tribute to him as a person.

When The Migration Resource Center was honored with the GuideStar Gold Seal of Transparency in 2022, its founding Executive Director Frederik “Fred” Stefani wasn’t there to enjoy the moment with his team of associates and friends. He had passed away on September 4, 2021, at age 53. The recognition of the services provided by the nonprofit center was a credit to all the members and volunteers and their ongoing work since its founding in 2015. To receive it a year after Fredi’s passing was especially meaningful. It validated the motivation for such a project, namely “to give families and individuals in need the best possible opportunity to succeed,” as Sue Burns, MRC Grants Program Manager puts it.

While Fred’s legacy of service continues to be an inspiration, his friends and colleagues have had to cope with the sudden and premature loss of the Albanian American who made an imprint on their lives. They miss his warm personality and effortless charisma. In the recorded videos of Fredi, as he was known affectionately, “his spirit and inner warmth come through,” they say. At least one short video recording of Fred was shared by his relatives with me so I would be able to get “a sense of who he was as a person,” since I didn’t know him personally.

His story begins in Tirana, Albania. He was born there in 1968 to a loving family. He was orphaned at a young age when his father passed away leaving behind Fred, his three sisters and a younger brother. Growing up in a family of modest financial means made for a difficult childhood. Fred Stefani went to Petro Nini High School in the early 90s. His graduation coincided with the collapse of the communist system that had ruled Albania for half a century. Stepping up to provide support for the family meant putting on hold his own dream of graduating from college. In the 1990s he migrated to Greece as did droves of Albanians driven by the need to improve their lives. Fred worked off jobs he could find including construction and farming. Most of the earnings went back home to his mother and siblings as supporting the family was the primary purpose of his immigration. While doing menial work, Fred put himself through school and learned the language. Not only did he believe that the key to a better future was a good education, he put it to practice.

When the opportunity presented itself to leave Europe and go to America, he was ready. Drilon Burda is among the family members that recalls how “Fredi often recounted the story of crossing the Canadian border at midnight over a stream on the US side and how he got himself to a bus station and then to his destination.” It is a story shared and experiences by thousands of migrants in search of a better life at a high cost. These daring exploits had a profound impact on him and formed the foundation of Fredi’s character, his friends say. So much so, that he turned it into his life’s mission to provide support and resources to people with similar experiences and challenges.

He was 20 years old when he moved to America where he first settled in Florida doing different jobs. After a few years Fred Stefani moved to St. Louis before arriving to New York. He got married and started a family in Staten Island. When he graduated from American Public University with a Bachelors of Science in Legal Studies, he had worked in the immigration field for over 15 years serving with various organizations, including Catholic Migration Services of the Diocese of Brooklyn and others. One of the jobs he worked early on was at the Catholic Church in Brooklyn. There he found his calling to help migrants through the complicated steps of filings documents and following through processes to become documented citizens. Concurrently Fred put himself through school and completed his education with the intention of starting a non-profit focusing on immigration issues. Hundreds of families particularly in the Albanian community benefited from the services provided by various agencies thanks to Fred’s relentless efforts. To him “It was personal,” relatives say, because behind every application or filing, there was a dream of a family to live in America legally, there were individuals with touching stories who face challenges and obstacles that is a commonality of humanity.

In 2015 Fred Stefani founded the Migration Resource Center on Staten Island where he served as its Executive Director. Under his guidance, the organization grew into a strong and valuable member of the nonprofit sector on Staten Island. He served on the Board of Directors of the Staten Island – a Not-For-Profit-Association and was a member of the American Bar Association and New York Immigration Coalition.

A person of deep commitment and hope for a better future, Fred Stefani devoted his career to helping families and individuals by resolving their immigration and tax issues. His professionalism as an immigration legal counselor changed the lives of over 1,000 clients who came to the Migration Resource Center door in a desperate situation, hoping to find a solution. He served each client with devotion and compassion, working days, nights and weekends just to prepare the best case which would bring the long and much desired legal papers.

In her remarks Sue Burns, the MRC Grants Program Manager at the time, remembered the weekly meetings and “how deeply personal each client was to him. They weren’t just clients; they were people with families, hopes, and dreams,” she said. Fred’s drive to help the younger generation touched many students, interns, and volunteers whom he mentored at the Migration Resource Center. Paying tribute to his innovative leadership and kindness towards his colleague, Burns said that Fred Stefani “always led by example and aimed to build a team that thrived on trust and respect. He created a community around his work and impacted each member for life.”

Reflecting on Fred’s legacy, Board Member Guranda D’Souza, who met Fred at the Catholic Migration Services right after Christmas and days before the New Year 2016, recalled his unrelenting enthusiasm with which he approached and tackled the tasks at hand. “He was a consummate relationship builder, hospitable, generous in every way but above all, he was passionate about helping those in need! She credited Fred’s vision and determination for the work and achievements of MRC. What stands out most, in her view, is Stefani’s legacy of service. “I strongly believe the ripple effect of his life’s work and his friendships will continue to have a far-reaching impact across the world. Migration Resource Center will continue to operate and provide services to its clients and community.”

Fred experienced immense satisfaction when among the letters of immigration received in the mail were Approvals of the Application by a family or individual. Often his associates would see the ‘boss’ tear up while holding the Immigration letter in his hands. He deeply understood and appreciated the significance of that piece of paper – a triumph achieved through sacrifices and a victorious moment for the people who fought and risked so much to get at this point. On occasions, it even seemed like Fred could perform miracles in the sense that he could find a way to deliver results for some families who had struggled many legal battles in and out of courts and had come up short, going through various lawyers and being strained financially had finally in desperation resigned to staying undocumented.

Such work validated his years-long sacrifices and personal struggles which not only made him very proud but also motivated him to work tirelessly. His friends and family relatives recall the moment when, holding back the tears, Fred gave them the good news: “I did it! I opened the business!” At 47, he had opened the Migration Resource Center in Staten Island as founder, president and CEO. To this day MRC continues to pursue its mission and serve the community After Fred’s passing in 2021, the Board appointed Victoria Apostol-Marius and Tom De Kesel as the Interim Co-Executive Directors.*

They all miss him dearly. The conversations on various topics, the humor injected in daily communications and most of all the inherent kindness for helping others. While his absence is felt deeply at the center, the work he started goes on. Viktoria Apostol-Marius who worked with him for five years said that she “joined the Migration Resource Center in August 2016, almost a year after its inception. I came on board as a volunteer and helped with establishing important parts of the organization. In terms of memories from the time when she first came on board, Viktoria said: “I remember feeling good about joining the Migration Resource Center at an early stage of its existence as I was given the opportunity to contribute to building it. Frederik or Fred, as we used to call him, was the master of all trades. He was wearing different hats while helping those in need of immigration services and building something to last. He had a vision for the organization. This was inspiring and it motivated me to stay active. I even returned back to the Migration Resource Center after a short period of absence.” I asked Viktoria what she appreciated the most about working with him. She said that she “appreciated the freedom that Fred was giving to his colleagues and how he built a work environment based on trust and respect. His passion for helping others was phenomenal and a driving force to grow as an organization and community.” Lastly I asked the Interim Co-Director at Migration Resource Center about carrying the legacy expressed in the mission stated on its website “to stabilize families and create strong neighborhoods. Her response was “I feel honored, but I also feel pressure. I know what Fred’s vision was for the Migration Resource Center and I am dedicated to executing it and expanding it, as we keep the Migration Resource Center’s door open for more individuals and families, who need immigration and tax assistance.”

Family is at the center of his lifetime. Fred was a dedicated husband to Anila and an outstanding father to their daughter Yona. Since early on, the primary focus of the couple was her education. Because he loved law, Fred would bring Yona, who was in her early teens then, in the office, with hope that she would pursue a similar course or go in that direction. They enjoyed traveling and did a lot of it. The three of them were aware that the family bond is a precious gift. It was a defining feature of his character that extended beyond the members of his own kin as evidence by the compassion and care with which he treated other’s people’s families, relatives say.

Father Nikodhim of the Church of Albanian Orthodox Church in Jamaica Estates New York who made the announcement of the passing to the congregants, described Frederik Stefani as “a tireless advocate for the poor and dispossessed. In this role as in all those avenues of his service, he sought to meet those in need where they were, helping countless numbers of refugees, exiles, and hopeful newcomers settle and become acclimated in this great land. His was a voice of hope to the discouraged, a hand of help to the downtrodden, and the gift of a smile and warm embrace to those in need of welcome and assurance.”

Anila Stefani’s godmother, who had a close bond with Fred since his childhood days in Tirana, summed up his guiding principles in life: Work hard and dream big! Frederik Stefani did both within the time that he had.

* Victoria Apostol-Marius and Tom De Kesel are currently Co-Executive Directors at MRC Staten Island, New York