Albanian emigrant loves Riverside’s small-city feel

Albanian emigrant loves Riverside’s small-city feel
Arjola Miruku got her dog, Darwin, in Texas in 2010. “He is a happy dog, but also a good guard dog,” she said.

Arjola Miruku’s immigration story began nearly 30 years ago when her father, Ali Miruku, saw the writing on the wall in Albania.

  He emigrated from Albania in the midst of the country’s political unrest after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. “He was ahead of his time in realizing that life was going to become very hard there,” Miruku said. “He decided to go find another home for us.” 

First, her father went to Switzerland, and then tried other countries, but finally settled on the United States in 1993. “He thought this was the only country that believed that with education and hard work you can get ahead,” she said.

“I have videos my father made of himself watching CNN news coverage of the Albanian war,” Miruku said. “He looks broken and sad in them and says that he is hoping he can eventually get to us.” All communication had been cut off in Albania. They had no electricity and the airports were closed.

Her father was a renowned painter in Albania. When he came to Jacksonville, he had to start over building a reputation. At first, he washed dishes in a restaurant to make money to live. He worked for Creative Environs and then Sally Corporation as a painter. Eventually the Avondale Gallery and Frame Shop, where Whit’s Frozen Custard is now located in the Shoppes of Avondale, exhibited his work, as did Florida State College—Jacksonville. 

Later on, her father got his green card and was able to bring his family to the United States. They chose to live in Ponte Vedra, because people had told her father that the best schools were in St. John’s County. “He taught us that education was so important,” Miruku said. “He told me to focus on honing my talent as a pianist as well.”

“I remember riding in 1997 all the way from Ponte Vedra Beach, where we lived, to the gallery with wet paint canvases just finished in the car with us,” Miruku said. The smell of oil paint still brings back such deep memories of him for her.

“On the way back, he’d take me to Memorial Park and look out over the river. He would get so emotional because getting us here had been such a big, long process. He would cry by the railing beside the sculpture. There were very few times I would see my father cry,” she said.

 Arjola Miruku in front of her treasured practice piano, given to her by her favorite teacher, Dr. Gary Wolf.
Arjola Miruku in front of her treasured practice piano, given to her by her favorite teacher, Dr. Gary Wolf.

Miruku started her education in America as a sixth-grader in Landrum Middle School in Ponte Vedra Beach. Then she attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and after graduating in 2004, she went to Rollins College because she wanted to study piano under an eminent teacher, Dr. Gary Wolf, who had retired after 35 years as a professor at University of Central Florida. 

In 2008, she started her graduate work at Texas Christian University and graduated in 2010, staying on as a faculty member and performing as a pianist for another four years until her father was diagnosed with cancer. She returned to Jacksonville to help take care of him until his death. 

Miruku now lives in River House Apartments, first called the Rochester House, which was built in 1870 as a guest hotel near the present site of Florida Publishing Company. It was moved in the early 1900s to the corner of Goodwin Street and River Boulevard in the historic St. John’s Quarter. 

“I am three minutes walking from Memorial Park,” Miruku said. “To me it is a magical place as I walk the circle and remember my father and what he did for us.” 

Living in Riverside reminds Miruku of all the best parts of her early years living in Albania. “Shkodër, where I was born, is a decent-sized city but very walkable. My mother drove me to my music lessons on her bike, with my brother along, too,” Miruku said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed that small-city feel until I moved to Riverside.

“In Shkodër, small shops are next to large businesses that are next to very old churches and homes where rich people live while street people and all sorts of other people mingle together every day,” she recalled. “I love the diversity in Riverside, too, and the history and uniqueness of every house, as well as the small businesses.”

Miruku is also a small-business owner, teaching piano at PLAY (Piano Learning And You) Academy of Arts in a former Pepsi-Cola plant in the CoRK Arts District, where they used to mix the product, with the mix bottled next door. “I didn’t want the academy named after me because I want it to grow beyond me, if that becomes possible,” she said. “I’m starting with my skill set and letting it grow organically into additional art forms.

In addition to teaching piano, Miruku continues to perform. She played at TEDxJacksonville in 2017 and has done private concerts. She also performs every year at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Extravaganza.

She has four pianos and one practice piano, a special gift from Dr. Wolf. She wants to get a Yamaha piano for the PLAY space so that students can play duets.

“I have played piano longer than I have done anything else in my life,” Miruku said. “I wanted PLAY to feel like a home, but I didn’t want it in my home. I wanted to keep a level of professionalism.”

By Karen J. Rieley
Resident Community News

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