by Michael Koli
In the Eastern Bloc rests a little country with a long history. This land has gone by many names, but we know it as Albania. By the 1960s, the government was already falling apart under the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Albania was on the East of the Iron Curtain yet we were not allies with the Soviets. Serbia, Albania’s life long enemy, formed its own coalition under the protection of the Soviets, Yugoslavia, and they had their mind set on finally conquering Albania.
Albania was suffering: state mandated Atheism was implemented and Albanians were insulted. Equal rights to religion had always been fought for, but now this freedom was illegal. Furthermore, Albania's economy was crumbling. Hoxha was scared of an attack so he built ten thousand four-person bunkers all over Albania. Hoxha believed should there ever be an attack, citizens could defend these positions with their spears and outdated pistols.
This was the Albania into which my father was born. He was taught from a young age that there will come a time when he must either fight or leave. When my father was nine, his uncle, a physicist, was being coerced by the Yugoslavian government to make nuclear weapons. His uncle refused and was assassinated but not before he could warn his family to board a refugee ship. My father, his four siblings, and parents fled to America.
Once my family arrived in America, they settled down in Detroit, Michigan. Life was not easy, but it was better than staying in Albania. Hardships still followed my family: my father’s mother died and his father returned to Albania prior to her death. With his parents gone, and his two sisters married with their own families, my father had to drop out of school and raise his two brothers, the eldest of which was a polio victim as a result of overprices vaccines in Albania.
My father started working in restaurants to make ends meet. At first he was a dishwasher, but eventually he became the cook. For fifteen years, my father worked in the service industry, raised his brothers and put his eldest brother through college. In 1996, my mother, a NYC born American/Albanian got arranged to marry my father. They bought a house and started their own restaurant together where my father could be his own cook.
I was born in 2000. By then, we had a home, a restaurant, and a whole lot of family. Our restaurant was set up near a military base and more than half of our patrons were military personnel. After the September 11th attacks happened, though, bases went on high alert shutting down most entrances for security purposes. Unfortunately, the gate near the restaurant was closed. Without the convenience of being near a gate, my family lost half of their business and had to file for bankruptcy.
In 2002, we moved to New York to be closer to my mother's family. We lived with my grandmother until we could afford to get a place of our own. My father was hired to be a superintendent at a building on the West Side. In 2005, my parents filed for divorce, a result of unresolved stress from the arranged marriage and bankruptcy. My mother and I moved to the suburbs of NYC, and she worked long hours to make ends meet. As I got older, we were able to move into the upper middle class suburbs.
I grew up witnessing both sides of America: friends who live in 3-story mansions in Scarsdale, contrasted with a four family household in a studio apartment in Mount Vernon. Despite the differences, these two different groups both encompassed honest, good Americans working their hardest to make this wonderful country a better place. I appreciate that I was able to experience both sides and believe I am a stronger American because of that. I am now going to be the first in my direct family to finish college and my parents couldn’t be prouder. I believe the American Dream is not dead and my family is proof of that.