Caught Between Two Cultures
It took Arlinda Shehu’s family 11 years to win a Green Card in the Green Card Lottery to be able to come to the U.S. from Albania in 2007. It was a long process—“a one in a million chance,” she said.
But even now, 11 years after coming here, after graduating from Cornell University, moving on to Columbia while working full time as a paralegal, she’s not sure where she belongs. “I feel in between,” she said in her oral history. “I’m not American enough, but at the same time, I’m not Albanian enough. It’s the strangest feeling. I don’t really know where I belong. I’m trying to figure out where I fit.”
Albania is a country in southeastern Europe, which had one of the most repressive Communist regimes in the world and was exceedingly poor. “We didn’t have asphalt roads, just unpaved ones,” she said.
While her older sister had some sense of the U.S., Shehu did not. “When we studied geography in school, we stuck with the map of Albania,” she said. “When I heard we won the lottery, I didn’t know if we were going north, south, east or west.”
Thanks to the Diversity Visa Program, which offers an opportunity for people from countries underrepresented in the U.S. population to take a chance in a lottery, they were lucky enough to win Green Cards. It was a stringent process requiring paying $4,000 in application fees, not including the plane tickets. Once here, Shehu and her parents and her sister moved in with her aunt in N.J. in an overcrowded house that already had four other people living there. She and her sister slept on the floor.
Her most vivid memory from the day she arrived was going into a Duncan Donuts for the first time. “It was so colorful . . . it has that orange and pink. My classrooms hadn’t been as colorful—nothing in Albania is colorful. It’s really bland. It was the first time I had seen donuts. It was a really, really strange experience.”
The only English she knew was from two years in elementary school in Albania, simple phrases like “how are you.” But she learned pretty quickly. But there were cultural differences as well. “In Albania, being the smartest kid in the class made you the most popular kid in the class,” she said. “But here, people were always making fun of me. I was so nerdy. I was always raising my hand. I didn’t get it.”
Shehu did exceedingly well in school. She went to Cornell University on a full scholarship and graduated in 2018. “At Cornell, there are so many rich people—and a lot have been for generations,” she said. “I was not really friends with any of them. I can’t identify with their experiences,” she said. “Most of my friends are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves; they identify very strongly with their culture.”
And yet, despite her divided identity, where she is still trying to figure out if she is American or Albanian or some combination of them, whenever she and her sister would ride the N train and it would go above the ground, “we’d see the Statue of Liberty and we would stop talking. We were so thankful to be here.” She, her parents and her sister became citizens and she wants to eventually become a lawyer.
But she went on, “I only know Brooklyn. That’s the U.S. to me. I really love it. It is so diverse. Anything more than that, I don’t really click with it,” she said. “The past election has shown that. I don’t really connect with most of the country and they don’t connect with me.
“But I really love Brooklyn. It has taught me a lot. I don’t think I would have been who I am if I hadn’t immigrated to the U.S.”