I remember this one time in Geography class back in Albania. I had completely spaced out and started looking outside the window. At that moment of time, I thought of what life would be like in a new country with different people and traditions.
In 1996, my country started getting engulfed in what are known as pyramidal schemes. This was a simple transaction and it involved giving money to a person that represented the company and a month later you would get your money back with 50% interest. Practically all Albanians took their savings, and some sold their houses and put their money in these schemes. Even my parents did the same and lost quite a bit of money in these schemes. It took these folks many years to recover from this financial meltdown and some never regained their financial foothold in the economic system. I heard of horror stories of people committing suicide and jumping off balconies because they had lost everything and were going through these uncomfortable and uncertain times.
In 1998, there was a big contingent of religious people that came from Saudi Arabia. They were mostly Muslim missionaries that preached Islam. I suppose they chose Albania given how poor of a county it was. These folks were relentless, and they worked day and night to try to convince Albanians that they should all convert to Islam. However, they did not get the results that they wanted because Albania was secular for fifty years under the communist regime and its people were not entirely religious. I remember growing up we celebrated all the different religious holidays from Easter to Christmas and New Year’s. I was not brought up religious, so it did not occur to me that these folks were very serious about their mission.
My first encounter with them happened at my school lunch break where I was approached by three of them. They gave them two notebooks and a pen and told me that I would get more gifts if I joined their religion. I remember going home that day and leaving the gifts in the apartment. The next day they all approached me as I was leaving school and asked me where the gifts were. I told them I left them home because they were gifts. After inquiring whether I would join their religion, they started to threaten me because I told them I was not interested. A block away from my apartment building they finally caught up to me and started beating me with their fists. Thank goodness for my 5th floor neighbor who saw me and came to intervene because otherwise I would have ended up in the hospital.
A few days later, my dad woke up earlier than his routine and found an explosive right outside the door. He worked for the government so it was easy for him to dismantle the dynamite.
However, this was not the end of it. A week later we were away from the apartment and came home and found out that something had exploded by our doorstep. The neighbor said that he saw a bunch of bearded guys at our doorstep and when they left, a big blast was heard. He opened his door, and the material must have exploded leaving the front door in shambles. I remember dad spending a lot of money buying one of those heavy-duty security doors that had three heavy locks in them.
This was a harrowing event that shook me to the core. I was not sure I wanted to stay there anymore. Fearful for my life all I kept thinking about was how to escape my gloomy reality and leave everything behind. At school all I kept thinking was of a way to leave the country and my prayers were answered. My basketball team was invited to a basketball tournament in Chicago and all I had to do was pass the immigration interview at the US Embassy.
The date was July 3rd (if I am not mistaken). All ten of us went to the embassy to see if we could get visas to travel to the states. Out of ten players, only half the team had their visas approved. I was one of the lucky five! My father could not believe his eyes when I told him the news. He has tears in his eyes and choked up when I told him I was determined to go. All he kept saying was that I was too young for such a journey, but I did not budge. Three weeks later, I was on a plane to Chicago and never looked back ever since.