At the CVS at 120th St. in Ocean City, MD, when you walk into the store you may be greeted by a petite, middle-aged woman with glasses and a great smile behind the cash register. In accented English she'll say, "Good evening, guys. Let me know if I can help you," or some such cheery message, and she'll say it with that great smile. Her name is Sofia, and I asked her about that accent and where she's from.
She's from Albania and she came here two decades ago when she saw an ad about a lottery for visas to come to America.
"America!" she says with a lilt, with the same kind of magic and awe that I imagined my Eastern European ancestors had when they came to America more than 100 years ago, that I heard my Great-Aunt Jenny, the last of the first generation Sobels, say when we sat her down in her 90's to tape an oral history.
"I told everyone, 'I'm going to America!!'" This was even before they entered the lottery, before her husband agreed to go. When he refused to enter the first time the opportunity came up, she put her dream aside. But when it came again the following year, she gave him an ultimatum: Either we enter together, or I take my children and go to America and leave you here.
So, they applied, not so much for them, Sofia says -- they were both chemists, they had good jobs -- but for their children. "There was no future for them in Albania, no opportunity, no place to go."
And she told everyone she was going to America. "How you know that Sofia?" she said her friends asked her. "You haven't been picked yet." But she says confidently, "I knew we would win. I knew in my heart."
And they did. They left their jobs, they packed up their small children, and they came across the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic and came to America. They had no work, little money, and neither spoke any English. But they were here and ended up in Ocean City.
"It was tough," Sofia says now. "We knew no English." They took menial jobs -- he was a maintenance man at a hotel, she cleaned rooms. "People laughed at us," she remembers. "We couldn't speak the language. . . . They looked at me like I was beneath them, because I was cleaning their rooms."
They started a delivery service, but that didn't work: They couldn't speak the language well enough. So they learned English. "It was hard," Sofia says. "For the children it was easy, they picked up a new language . But for us, it was hard."
And then came the job at CVS.
That was 20 years ago she said, turning up the wattage on that smile again. Her husband has since retired. And her children? They’ve gone through high school, college, and grad school. “They have good jobs,” she says with pride.
“It was hard,” she says again. “But it was worth it.”
I tell this story now as the debate about immigration in this country thickens. I’m all for keeping our country safe and keeping bad guys out. Hey, I worked near Capitol Hill. I saw the smoke from the Pentagon from my office window on 9/11. I know the terrorists are trying to come back. I know we are never entirely safe.
But I also know there are common sense, targeted, and effective ways to protect us without excluding large swaths of people. And I know that most of the immigrants who come to this country really want to come here and contribute. They really want to work, even at jobs that many other Americans won’t take. That’s long been the road to success in America for immigrant groups of all colors, from all nations, and of all religions. They do what it takes to build better lives and futures for themselves and their families. It’s what my Albanian friend did. It’s what my family did. And unless you’re a Native American, it’s what your family did, too.
So if you go to Ocean City and you stop in at that CVS and Sofia is there, she will no doubt greet you and make you feel welcome. I only hope that we are still a country that will welcome the next generation of Sofias, too.