Winning a Rigged Lottery: My Immigration Story
I was 7 years young when we moved to Wisconsin from Albania. I didn’t understand how much this change would impact my life. All I knew was that I was nervous, it was cold and I had absolutely no clue how to relay any of my thoughts to anyone outside of my family (I didn’t speak a word of English). I was lucky enough to move pre-puberty, which meant all the kids in my class were kind and happy to teach me the American way. My principal was attentive, my teachers were patient and I don’t recall ever recall feeling unwanted. In fact, I felt my Albanian background and the perspectives that came with it made me an asset, not a burden. I’ve spent most of my life in America—20 years, to be exact—so much so that I’ve become intimately accustomed to American culture, society and privileges. It’s often easy to take things for granted when they become the norm, but a trip back to Albania never fails to bring upon periods of reflection of what my life could have been—and gratitude for what it is now.
Two years before I was born, communism fell in Albania. In retrospect, this was a good thing, but for many at the time, it was incredibly difficult to financially survive the initial aftermath. Finding work was difficult, resulting in many Albanians traveling illegally by foot, mostly to Greece, in hopes of finding consistent employment—my dad and uncles included. Groups of predominantly men would gather and begin the long trek, not knowing whether or not they’d make it there or back, but knowing this was their only hope. They would work long hours and try to stay under the radar, but most would inevitably get caught and sent back (and most would inevitably try again). We survived off of money sent to us from my dad and uncles, and while we had a roof over our heads and food on the table, it was clear to my mom that a stable Albania full of opportunity was a very distant, intangible dream.
Due to the gloomy economic climate, the post-communist/socialist riots and the lack of security—both in Albania and in our family—my mom decided to test her luck and entered our names (free of cost) into the Diversity Visa Program. This program issues 50,000 immigrant visas annually, based on the results of a random drawing. The visas are dispersed among countries with “historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.” Every year, millions of hopeful souls submit their names, but only a small portion win a chance at the American dream. I often think about how lucky we were to be in that small percentage, because I am sure that without it, we would not live here today.
After filling out countless papers, sitting in various interviews and finding a sponsor, we were ready to board our plane for Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This move happened just two years after we won, which is a short time compared to others not fortunate enough to win the lottery (and a hell of a lot shorter than the current average wait time for a visa). As a requirement to become a citizen, we needed five years of permanent residency before applying to become naturalized citizens. My parents passed the test and my status as a minor meant I was automatically granted citizenship.
Every time I visit Albania now, I’m hit with the stark realization of the contrast between what my life as a woman would’ve been in a small Albanian town versus what my life is now in a big American city. My independence is, without a doubt, my most valued privilege. On a personal and professional level, the avenues for assistance have been endless. The freedom to stand up for what I believe in and have the resources to do so is paramount. The access to proper and affordable contraceptives, feminine hygiene products and childcare is leaps and bounds different than in Albania. The ability to drive a car (and take it wherever I want) is something I’ve come to appreciate after my visits back home, where women driving is still uncommon and judged outside of big cities. The ability to obtain grants for college, apply for internships across various industries, have insurance and PTO, have an HR department—all seemingly normal resources, to some—is far from what’s offered in Albania. As a young, female professional, I’ve come to see the opportunity to build my career as not only a responsibility I have to myself, but to all of the women in my family who were not given the one-way ticket to the American dream. I often think of them and their resiliency, and it’s this reminder that gets me through difficult days.
This freedom to choose our own lives is quintessential to the American dream. While this dream can be easily forgotten or taken for granted by those are born with it, it’s a very real thing for those who migrate here. Albanians flock to America because they know they’ll be able to work hard and actually make a solid living without being judged based on their past —but for as hard as Albanians work and for as much as they enter the visa lottery, there are plenty who take the chance and come to America illegally, but lucky for them they’re not widely targeted by ICE raids or media attention. I’ve never worried about my immigration status; we entered the country legally—and I’m white.
There are plenty of Albanians who are living in America illegally—along with plenty of white immigrants from countless other countries—who are much less likely to be deported because of their skin color. The fact that I’ve never had to deal with any immigration backlash isn’t lost on me, and I believe a lot of it lies in my (white) appearance. Immigration is a key issue in America, but it seems to only focus on a certain type of immigrant.
I’m grateful we won. I’m grateful the lottery exists. I’m so grateful my mom took the chance to apply, but I’m equally aware of how ironic this system is. The lottery is administered by the U.S. Department of State to help people migrate to the U.S., but particular focus is on the countries with low rates of immigration to America—that is to say, America wants immigrants here, just not all of them—and especially not the ones from countries with high numbers of applicants. Some people might look at the statistics and think they make sense, but the reason why some countries have higher rates of applications is because those countries have the toughest living conditions, and their citizens arguably need opportunity the most.
Countless people are suffering and badly need to escape to refuge, but so many aren’t even given the option. Why don’t we give the visa lottery option to our neighbors? Why do we turn a blind eye to so many while opening the doors to others? Why do we make it such a black and white issue when there is so much gray? Why are we trying to make it even harder for legal immigration, when so many who seek it are struggling?
It’s not easy to leave your home, the people you love and the life you’ve always known. It’s not easy to put yourself and your family in danger. It’s not easy to embark on a journey knowing full-well you’re risking everything; at any moment you could be caught, you could get hurt or you could die. It’s a risk many take out of desperation and fear. It’s not a risk they take so they can come here and take “our” jobs. It’s not a risk they take to come here and commit crimes (don’t worry, a ton of crime is happening in the United States without any help from immigrants). It’s not a risk they take lightly, and my hope is that we all take a moment to put ourselves in another’s shoes and assess the situation from a place of understanding, not a place of judgement based on fear ignited by a terrifying and inaccurate rhetoric.
My immigration journey was easy. I was young and it was practically handed to me. I’ve never been treated differently because of it and I’m truly grateful for that, but it hurts to look around and see it’s so far from welcoming to so many others. I once read we play two critical lotteries in our lives, to no choice of our own—the parents we are born to and the country we are born in. So much of our lives is dictated by those two things, and both are completely out of our control. Immigration is a tough issue, and I am certainly not the person with all the answers. There’s a lot we don’t see happening behind the scenes, and illegal immigration in particular isn’t easy to navigate, but it doesn’t take much to be a decent human being.
Families shouldn’t be torn apart and people shouldn’t be treated like objects to be thrown away.
America wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for immigrants. I hope we can we can band together and see the people behind the statistics. I hope we can show kindness and empathy, listen with intention and, before we make up our minds about what is wrong and right (and who belongs and doesn’t), please for the love of whatever higher power you believe in—do your research.
Originally from Tirana, Albania, Ina graduated from the University of North Florida with a B.S. in Communications. She assists BWH with client pitching, content creation, merchandise fulfillment and all-things administrative. She's a lover of adventure, a good meal, the great outdoors, and hammock hangs with her dog, Diesel.