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Away From My Community, Away From My Culture

The disconnect from our cultures is the near-universal immigrant child experience across the world. With America being a complete melting pot of dozens of different cultures, it’s only expected that the children of immigrants merge their family’s cultures with American ties to create their own personal fusion culture.

My experience as the child of two immigrants has ingrained into my story from a young age, leaving me confused about my identity. Too Albanian for my American friends and too American for my Albanian family in Kosovo, never just right. Simultaneously too Muslim and not Muslim enough. And, of course, this usually ends up as the same experience for other immigrant children, right?

So to all the children immigrants who relate to any part of my life or any part of my story, I hope you find your community. I hope you find that connection to your culture and hold onto it for as long as possible.

My story begins before my birth, starting with my family’s stories. My parents are refugees from Kosovo, a small country in the heart of the Balkans that only gained citizenship in 2008. In 1999, the Kosovo War began, and so did the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, displacing 1.5 million Albanians from their homes. Without going into further detail about the atrocities done to my people, I can say my family were just a few of over a million Albanians who were displaced.

Due to their displacement, my family spent a while in a refugee camp in North Macedonia, waiting to either return to their homes in Kosovo or rebuild their lives somewhere else, alongside thousands of other Albanians who were experiencing the same hardships. My family spent their days living in tents, eating the same pasta dish day in and day out just to survive, and playing with the surrounding families to pass the time.

Amidst all the chaos of living in a refugee camp, my parents and older brother’s dreams came true when my mom’s cousin suddenly sponsored them to move to America, specifically Las Vegas. They jumped at the opportunity and came here with nothing but the clothes on their back. And years later, once they settled into a small apartment with steady jobs, they had me.

Their story of resilience has always inspired me and kept me close to my culture. The consistent retelling of their experiences made me almost feel like I was there. However, I’ll never have the same relationship with my Albanian side and most of my extended family, who are still in Kosovo. I didn’t grow up learning Albanian as my first language, playing with my cousins outside all day, or devouring Albanian meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while celebrating Islamic holidays with dozens of family members.

Because I grew up here in the infamous Las Vegas, I spent my days speaking a weird language I like to call “Albanglish” while playing with the neighborhood kids, devouring my school lunch, and having a nice Albanian dinner, spending Islamic holidays in a small and somewhat lonesome atmosphere.

But I still loved my childhood, even if it was different from what my family in Kosovo expected of me. And sure, I’m pretty close to my culture. I eat the food, know the language, listen to the music, and visit Kosovo as much as possible, but there’s still something missing.

Growing up on the West Coast, there isn’t a huge Albanian-American population and even fewer Muslim Albanians. Finding an Albanian family with children close in age to me feels more and more impossible as I grow older. I’m at that age where I don’t fit in anywhere with the Vegas Albanians. I either have to play catch with the seven-year-olds outside or listen to my mom’s friends gossip about random people I’ve never met.

The few times I did have a close-aged Albanian friend, they usually moved away. The first time I remember this happening was in middle school, I had an Albanian friend I was extremely close with, and we’d text and hang out—it was especially easy since our mothers were friends. But at the end of eighth grade, she moved away to the Midwest. Later, it happened again during my sophomore year of high school, I got a private message from a girl on Instagram who happened to be Albanian. She was just as excited to meet another Albanian girl in Vegas as I was. We instantly clicked and became friends. But, soon, her family lost their jobs and moved back to New York, where they had better opportunities.

This recurring cycle of becoming close to girls close in age to me, only for them to move and us to lose that connection, feels like a constant in my life. It forces me to become apprehensive about the people I meet and connect to within my culture. Even when I know I have that desire to make friends within my culture, especially near my home.

However, I swiftly learned it’s okay not to have friends of my culture or a community of my culture right now. I learned to trust to process and trust where life takes me. I’ve held close to my community and friends here in Las Vegas; my childhood friends who have seen me through my best and worst moments, my journalism friends who understand the panic of trying to make a deadline, and my coworkers who I can always count on to want to get a nice meal after work.

But, even with my communities at home, I still have this subtle jealousy within my soul that I’m trying so hard to rid myself of. Seeing Albanians on the East Coast, like New York or New Jersey, where there is a larger Albanian-American community to connect with caused this jealousy. They’re closer to Europe, in turn, closer to Kosovo, giving them easier access to trips back home.

Not only that, but Albanian and Islamic holidays are celebrated as huge parties and events on the East Coast, such as Albanian Independence Day, Kosovo Independence Day and the Islamic holiday Eid. My jealousy grew as every celebration was spent at home with my family while watching the TV broadcast of the East Coast Albanian’s giant celebrations and block parties.

The internet has made it easier to meet more Albanians. Two of my closest friends are Albanian-American Muslims. We text almost daily and I'm forever grateful for their love and friendship. But a text or a Facetime call isn't the same as hanging out and enjoying each other's company. Because when the phone call finally ends, I’m back to square one.

What hurts the most is I know I’m not alone. I know so many people feel the same sadness that I do. I know that so many others, not only Albanians but thousands of children of immigrants have this universal longing for their culture and this disconnect to their communities, just like me.

It’s the painful truth that too many of us go through, growing up in America away from our Motherland with only the stories and short travels to keep the culture alive and create the memories we deserve.

I urge you to go out there to find your community if you haven’t yet, and however you choose to define that community, find it. Whether that be within your culture or not, I hope you create a community that understands you, cares for you, and most of all, loves you for you.

If you don’t know where to search, try starting on campus, if applicable. Take a moment to befriend the people in your major or join a club full of your interests, so you can surround yourself with people who can relate to you. You can also try finding organizations beyond schools that you can build relationships and connections with, because my story would not be shared had I not joined the Love Yourself Foundation and built a community with the members.

If you aren’t a student, try attending community events in your city, like Las Vegas’ First Friday, to meet new people in an enjoyable environment. Most importantly, don’t forget the power of social media. As I shared through my story, two of my closest friends are Albanians I met over TikTok and now I entrust them with my most vulnerable secrets. It’s important to note that a community online is still a community and you never know if someone online who shares the same interests as you is your neighbor.

Because even if we cannot create a community within our culture, even if we are so far from our Motherland, we still deserve a community for ourselves. We deserve to be surrounded by people who will always be there for us.

And I hope you find exactly what you deserve and more.

About the Author

Grinesa is a first-generation student and senior at UNLV studying Journalism and Media Studies with a concentration in social media. Her future goal is to work as a sports journalist, writing news that will bring people joy and excitement. She hopes to be able to spread the mission of LYF as the Social Media Marketing Intern to as many people as possible and hopes that she can help bring a smile to thousands around the world.

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