“The conditions were very harsh for health and well being. It was not a good place to work.”
Bashkim Kokona, from Albania, is a research associate at Haverford College.
I am one of six brothers. When the Berlin wall fell, there was a tectonic shift in Albania, not as drastic as in East Germany but it had a huge effect on the country. I finished my degree in geology and worked in a chromium mine in northern Albania. The conditions were very harsh for health and well being. It was not a good place to work.
I left Albania in 1990 for one year and went to Greece and worked as a waiter. It was good money for the time being. Then I went back to Albania with the idea to invest in a business with my brothers. One brother is a carpenter, and we built a shop and apartments above it. In 1992 I wanted to go back to Greece. Some of my soccer friends worked in the German Embassy charged with the security of the embassy. I asked them for help with the visa application. I went to the German embassy and asked for help to get a visa. Instead I was offered a translator job in the visa section because I spoke German. I worked there for five years.
In 1996 I got engaged. My fiancée’s family had emigrated to the US via visa lottery system. My fiancé and her sister were both over 21, so they could not go along with their parents to the US. Her sister, who is in a wheel chair, got a medical visa. My fiancée and I and got a visitor’s visa, planning to go along with her sister and visit her parents for two weeks.
While we were visiting in the US, the Albanian economy collapsed and the country fell into chaos. My co-workers at the embassy were being air lifted out by German bundeswehr. We decided not to go home. I went from a visitor’s visa to a student visa. I had always wanted to be a doctor. It had not been my decision to study geology. Only one in three persons in a family was allowed to go to university. I had two older brothers who already went to university, so our quota was filled. There was an opening to study geology so I took it.
In the US, I went back to school and studied biology at Drexel University, and graduated in 2002. Biology was closest to my interest in medicine. The stress of living with my fiancée’s family added to disagreements so I parted ways with my fiancée. In 2000, I was at a tennis tournament in Upper Darby, where I met my wife Helen. We met playing tennis and lived together for a year, then got married in 2002.
On Sunday mornings, we like to drink coffee and read the Inquirer. I saw an ad for a job at Haverford College in a structural biology lab. In 2003 I became research assistant there. I love my job doing research and working with students. I got my masters degree in chemistry at Bryn Mawr in 2008, while still working full time at Haverford.
My brother who is a carpenter and his family moved here in 2008. His daughter just graduated from Drexel and wants to go to medical school and his son is studying business at Temple University. Another brother works in Belgium, in Brussels, for Eurocontrol. I have three other brothers still in Albania. One is an attorney, one works at the airport, and the other can’t work.
Am I pulled by different cultures? This is the dilemma. I am not an introvert, I dive right into society. Here life is more work oriented. Friends are from work or business. Family time is not as important. There, family and friends spend a lot of time together and nothing is planned, life is more casual. That part of life is much more easy going. But the difficulty is with the economy.
When my mother passed, we all went back. I stayed for ten days, and tried to give a hand. I saw the family pulling it together in such hard times, and l saw the passion. Family is the center of people’s lives. Being there reconnected me again to something that over time had lost. We get lost here with work, and as a result forget what is most important. I try to strike a balance between work, family and friends.
This country is great for people from all over. People in this community come together on Sunday mornings to play soccer. There is not as much segregation between communities, that is something rare here.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.