As new American citizens, an Albanian family reflects on the journey that brought them to the United States and the rights they will never take for granted.
SEATTLE — Naim and Merita Hyseni are from Albania and they will be voting this year for the first time as American citizens.
The Hysenis are also my parents-in-law.
Last week I went to their home to talk to them about how they got to the United States and what it means to them to exercise their right to vote in their new country.
But first…we eat.
I grew up in the Southeast and I thought that was a culture of food. But I learned early in my relationship with my husband Julian that Southern hospitality has nothing on Albanian food traditions. Just when you think you’ve finished the meal, another delicious course comes out of the kitchen.
Albanian cuisine is similar to Greek and Turkish cuisine: lots of seasoned meat and fish with olive oil, lemon, and fresh vegetables as main ingredients. The intangible ingredient is passion, and you can taste it in every bite. It’s a cultural tradition that Naim and Merita have kept alive during their nearly six years in the United States, and one that I have benefited from as the newest member of their family.
Before I met Julian, I’m not sure I could have found Albania on a map. It is a small country with about three million people in Southern Europe, just north of Greece and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy.
As we sat down for dinner, Julian, Naim, Merita, and I started the meal as we always do, a clink of glasses with declarations of “Cheers” or the Albanian equivalent, “Gëzuar.” On the table is traditional Albanian dishes: Tave Peshku (white fish, fresh herbs, garlic, onion and white wine), Supe Pule (chicken soup, rice, lemon and eggs), and a farro salad.
The longing for family meals like this one is what brought Naim and Merita to the United States in October 2006. Their eldest son and Julian’s brother, Oltion, has lived in the Seattle area for 12 years. So has Merita’s brother Vladimir Kuka, whose family has been in Seattle since 1996. Julian was living in Italy at the time and came to the U.S. in 2009.
“We came here because Merita doesn’t like to be far from her sons. We were spending $200 a month on the phone bill!” Naim teased.
Even with family close, and many other Albanian-Americans nearby, it was a tough transition for Naim and Merita. Unlike Oltion and Julian, their generation didn’t learn English growing up — they learned Russian.
Russia is Albania’s large neighbor to the north and was influential in its communist politics, which began after World War II and ended in 1991. Albania was ruled during this time by an authoritarian leader, Enver Hoxha. Merita and Naim, like every Albanian 18 or older, were legally obligated to vote during the communist regime, but on the election ballot there was only one name under each office. There were no choices.
“There was no freedom of speech; no one dared to criticize the government,” Merita said.
When communism fell, democracy brought hope.
“Voting after democracy was very nice,” Naim said. “We didn’t vote for one person. We had a choice. If we don’t like one person, then we vote for the other.”
“Or we don’t go. We have that choice, too,” Merita added.
Albanians weren’t allowed to leave the country during Hoxha’s regime. Merita left Albania for the very first time in 1999 when she traveled to Italy to visit Julian and Oltion, who were living there at the time.
“When I went to Italy, I felt like I was dreaming,” she said with wonder in her eyes. “It was impossible to imagine traveling to another country.”
Oltion moved to the United States in 2000 and when he got his citizenship in 2005, he told Merita and Naim to mentally start preparing to move to the United States. They were finally ready the following year.
“When we arrived, it was very, very hard to learn English,” Merita said. “Naim and I studied every day. There was lots of stress, but every day, step by step, we learned more.”
As soon as they were eligible, Naim and Merita decided to get their U.S. citizenship, studying for that test nearly every day for nine months. I am certain that they know more about American history and our political system than the average American.
“The way they built the constitution was perfect. The three powers of government: legislative, executive and judicial. Perfect!” Naim said with enthusiasm.
They passed the citizenship test with a perfect score, and in October last year, I was lucky enough to witness Merita and Naim being sworn in as American citizens. They were beaming with excitement and proudly swore their allegiance to the United States flag.
This fall they will vote in their first U.S. election. Its significance is not lost on them.
“Millions of people have dreamed to vote in the U.S., and for us it is important,” Naim said. “We get to vote for the president and my sons’ future.”
As is the Albanian way — family remains the top priority.