Meet Me in a Minute (Special Edition): Arviola Pemaj

By Gabrielle Abesamis

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






About 17 years ago, eastern Europe wasn’t the safest place to be in. There was a war that split up provinces, and communist ideas upset a lot of people. Military tanks were outside every building, and in Shkoder, Albania, four-year-old Arviola Pemaj and her family weren’t living in healthy conditions. Shkoder, Albania was a city that had beggars wandering in every corner and barely had cars running on the streets.

The chances of getting out of there were literally one in 55,000. The only way families, like Arviola’s family,  could move to a different country was if they were selected to be a part of the Diversity Visa Program.  The program uses a computer-generated tool to pick 55,000 families every five years, and the application is a very long process.

“My parents applied for five years straight because they were determined to find a better life for my brother and me,” Pemaj said.

Considering the fact that she was only four years old, Pemaj didn’t have a hard time adapting to the culture.

“I didn’t have a hard time speaking English because my parents already knew how to back in Albania,” she said.

After two years of being in the United States, she and her family got settled in Chicago. Her parents were able to find a job right away, and they were able to support their family.

“My dad was an electrician back in Albania and he started off as a bus driver, but now he is an electrical engineer in the U.S. My mom went to Wilbur Wright College, and now she teaches math at Waukegan High School,” Pemaj said.

Now a junior, Pemaj said that she still keeps the Albanian culture in her lifestyle. 13 years after her move from Albania, she still speaks Albanian and eats Albanian food.

“My mom never makes American food. My parents never go out to eat, and whenever we eat together, my mom has to cook the food, and it’s usually a lot of stews and meat. There’s also bread and a lot of  different forms of carbs in every meal.”

Though Pemaj doesn’t follow most Islamic rituals, she still lives by its basic beliefs.

“I’m always careful of what I do, because I’m a firm believer of karma. I know that  if you’re a good person, good will come around,” she said.

Even though the war is over, Pemaj said that she doesn’t see herself moving back to Shkoder. After her move to the United States, she was able to visit her native country seven times.

“There was always a reason to go back. I visited my grandparents, and I went to several weddings,” she said.

Even though it has been over a decade since she moved, Pemaj is still thankful for her once in a life time opportunity.

“While Americans spent fortunes on lottery tickets, so that they could win money, countries in eastern Europe were trying to win [a ticket to] America. My family is one of the few who can proudly say that they have accomplished the American Dream. We started from nothing, and we built our way up to having safe lifestyles. If it wasn’t for my version of the lottery, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” she said.

Fun fact: Mother Theresa is from Albania.