In 1996 my parents won the lottery.
The prize? Four one-way tickets from my poor, transitional post-communist home country of Albania, to Dallas, with little money and a chance to work hard — actually all the time — to chase down a nugget of the American Dream for my six-year old brother, Igli, and four-year-old me.
This wasn’t the Powerball or MegaMillions lottery; it was actually bigger than that, because it breathed hope into our family and individual futures. Albania was in transition, with an uncertain future, and our prospects were bleak.
Stunned that he actually won the U.S. State Department’s Green Card lottery to emigrate to the U.S. and get the chance to start anew, my father, Gezim, gave up his promising career. He traded the life of an economist and colonel in the Albanian Armed Forces in Tirana for a job cleaning restaurants in Texas.
My mother, Mirjan, a French-speaking high school principal in Albania, began cleaning hotel rooms and attending community college to learn English. She worked three jobs, around the clock, throughout the week, on weekends and holidays, while my father worked night shifts so he would be able to care for us and take my mom to work during the day.
The older I got, the more I understood what they sacrificed to get me and my brother into schools where we could be successful — all the way through our undergraduate degrees at SMU.
When people meet me, they see an olive-skinned young woman of Balkan ancestry and a funny name, Bora Laci. Because I will receive my MBA at SMU this month, they assume things: that I came from privilege, wealth or some pedigree of foreign aristocracy. They have no idea how my family and my future were forged as immigrants and by constant sacrifice. I feel duty-bound to explain, to advocate and to remind my fellow Americans that we, the immigrants, are all around them. All we want is a chance. And we deserve it.
The stereotypical immigrant/refugee to the U.S. — someone from Mexico or Central America — is only a part of the picture. You might be surprised to know that one-third of the people who were in Albania in 1991 now live abroad, most of them in Italy and Greece, along with a good number in the United States. Although I don’t look like the “caravan” nomads clamoring at our southern border these days, I understand their desire for a better future and believe in their quest. It is no different than mine.
Who is to say they, too, cannot find their way through the eye of the needle of obstacles and achieve success? My parents managed to hack a path through the American Dream jungle that foreigners like them must navigate. They could not speak English and they started over at the bottom rung of American employment — 22 years later rising in their careers as a controller and university administrator, to mold a comfortable middle-class life. Why should American-born citizens jump to the conclusion that immigrants come here to be coddled by entitlement benefits? Most are like my parents, who came here to conquer and succeed.
I am days away from receiving that MBA. A new chapter awaits in my career, but my heart aches because my father won’t be here to see it. Three years ago, he passed away from lung cancer. I want to carry on his love for economics and apply my business degrees to the American health care system. While my family was blessed with the benefits of insurance and the world-class care that the UT Southwestern medical team offered, there are significant opportunities to revolutionize the health care system in a modern society where many continue to suffer. I will pursue a healthcare career focused on innovative strategies that offer financial solutions and scientific breakthroughs in curing diseases such as the cancer that killed him. There is so much work to be done in this field and I am eager to make an impact.
How will I get there? I will work hard and sacrifice. I have already won the lottery. My mother and father showed me the way.
When our best interests meant going to a certain middle school or high school in the Dallas area, my mother would take a job there, doing any menial task to create opportunities for us. She did the same at SMU — going to work in the Bursar’s office at a stage in her life when she was unfamiliar with accounting, email, English or the basic mission of the office. But with a tenacious spirit, she overcame all obstacles through many nights of practice, to craft and master her duties and become a leader there.
She was determined to work at SMU because qualifying employees here receive free tuition for their children. I took advantage of that, earning an undergraduate degree in Corporate Communications in 2013. I followed my mother’s footsteps and took a job at SMU’s Tower Center three years ago. Soon after, I started work on my MBA.
My mother is an Albanian immigrant American hero. Because of her, I know I can obtain my American Dream through hard work, resolve and reveling in the fruits of those labors.
I am my mother’s and father’s daughter. An immigrant. An American. A reason to believe in every immigrant who follows. Join me in believing.
Bora Laci is program manager and director of studies at SMU’s Tower Center for Political Studies. She wrote this for TribTalk, a digital forum for dialogue and debate about the day’s news and a product of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization. Learn more at http://TribTalk.org.