News Date: 
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Source: The Red and Black

Whitney Kessler

The Red and Black – September 24th, 2008

Donika Harallambi won an immigration lottery ticket and moved to the United States. She knew no one except the small congregation of a church in Talladega, Ala.

She hadn't learned English because only the city children were taught languages beyond their native tongue.

However, the young mother of two took the risk with her husband at her side in order to live the American dream.

Sitting across the table in Bolton Dining Commons where she works, Harallambi fought back tears as she described the communist effects on her small village in Albania.

"There was no freedom. In communism, everything was limited," she said. "If you cried, they put your momma and daddy to jail."

Although her stories are heartbreaking in many ways, Harallambi said Albania is still home and a place she misses.

"Albania is on the Mediterranean and it is very, very beautiful," she said. "I lived on a farm and the ocean was close. I love the water."

Growing up in rural Albania, Harallambi said her friend jokingly encouraged her to play the lottery one time, but she expected nothing to come of it.

"My friend said, 'Donika, you lose nothing to play. Just do it,'" she said. "I wasn't prepared to move from Albania, but I won."

In 1995, she said everything changed when the prize of immigration was given to her and her family.

"Even when the postman came to my house, and he had a big white envelope, I didn't believe it," she said. "I said, 'Wow! This happened to me.'"

After moving to the States, the Harallambi family was given assistance from the sister church that Donika was connected with from the Albanian capital. She said she credits the members of the church in Talladega for being her first impression of how wonderful the United States can be.

"The church helped me out. They helped me to find a job and a house, to start speaking English," she said. "After that, I have Albanian family that has come, and what the church did for me, I do for them."

She said the circumstances of the past have affected the way she lives now. Her value of education and employment stem from the knowledge she has of difficulties many Americans have never known.

"You have freedom and you can go to school and you will have a good job and be educated," she said. "People here, they have problems, like I have, everyone has, but if you have jobs and you eat and you have a house, you are fine."

She said her life here is better than ever. Growing up on a farm made her a big advocate for the outdoors which she said is the reason she loves Georgia.

"I spent 33 years on a farm and the ocean was close," she said. "Here, I have lots of flowers and trees and a garden."

America, to her, is a symbol of what you can do, she said, instead of the way communism presented life, as what you cannot do.

"I am so happy all the time," she said. "I compare my life to before - for example, I wanted do something and I can't. I wanted to go to school, but I can't."

Harallambi said she taught herself English because she had to take care of her kids and work two jobs when they first moved to the States. Her daughter, who was 13 when they moved, became the family translator upon their arrival.

Harallambi said she started with children's books, magazines and newspapers. After she was able to get through a book of 3,000 study words, she began to speak. Now she is studying Spanish in her spare time just for the love of learning.

"We moved on purpose because we wanted better for our kids," she said. "I told my children, 'Here is a great place to go where you can get a better education, a better life.'"

Both of her children have utilized the University. Her daughter graduated in 2006 with degrees in French and health promotion. Her son is finishing his degree in computer management systems and business. She said most of her reasoning for leaving Albania was for them.

Her love for education brought her to Bolton, she said. For the past 10 years, she has spent day after day working for the University food services. Her work with students has affected many around her, said Bolton Dinings Commons Manager Wayne Fair.

"She's been here longer than I have, but I've always known her to be the most friendly and attentive to the students," Fair said. "She is fulfilling the American dream and she's very proud to be here."

He said Harallambi always has a smile and is one of the best workers he has had. Selected as Employee of the Year, he said she is genuine and is doing her part to show how much people of our world have in common.

"If you are like her, you're willing to make the effort and work hard and instill that in your children, you've planted a seed."

Nowadays, he said, University graduates aren't ending up at a job in Marietta working for the rest of their lives; you may be in Saudi Arabia. There are more things in common than there are differences and the staff looks at that as part of their responsibility, he said.

"I look at our cashiers as our ambassadors," he said. "They are not only there to take in the money and run the cash register. We are an extension of these kids' families."

Donika said she agreed with Fair.

"I try to give everybody a good day and to feel like they're at home," she said. She said being there to greet the students gives her the chance to befriend them and be a friendly, familiar face.