Black and white picture of young white man with black hair on motorcycle with large front light

A Little Money and A Couple of Outfits

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By Cydney Slinger

Ilir Dervishi is well-known for his restaurant business and for being a part of one of the few Albanian families in Imlay City, Michigan. The restaurant, John’s Country Kitchen was open for 19 years in a central location in his current home town; if you live in the town or nearby, you will definitely know him and his family. 

Moreover, many know him for his journey from Albania to America. At the young age of 18, Ilir had to make a hard decision – to leave his mom, dad, sister, and little brother behind, as he and his older brother immigrated to America along with a group of close friends, due to the dictatorship and Communist government of Albania. He faced a long two-year journey to reach America where he could live in freedom and have opportunities he could never have back home. With his goals set high, he made the leap and never looked back. 

CS: Describe growing up in Albania. What was your life like there? 

Dervishi: Life came with many struggles living in Albania. My family was very poor, most days we would go without food, I only had a couple of outfits to wear and not a lot of material items, like toys. In Albania the things that are everyday items in America – cars, guns, and motorcycles – made you rich. Everything seemed like it was a struggle and there was very little opportunity and freedom, though I tried my best to be the most optimistic I could be, so I did not live my life in sadness. 

CS: Why and how did you leave Albania? Where did you go? 

Dervishi: Leaving Albania was not just a flight on an airplane. The dictator and the Communist government would not let anyone leave the country, and led us with a very controlled lifestyle with little freedom to anything. This is why I wanted to get out. The only way out of the country was to escape to neighboring countries, where you could then potentially get a visa to America. This was a very risky decision, but many tried. 

I was one of the many that tried and I escaped successfully to Italy on a small charter fishing boat. It took about four hours to get from Albania to a small city in Italy, where I then lived for a year and a half with the help of a church that helped immigrants, especially from Albania. 

My stay in Italy ended when I got a visa, with the help of the church, to come to America, where I was then helped by the American Red Cross Foundation in Detroit. 

CS: Who came with you? Who did you leave behind? Why? 

Dervishi: When I escaped Albania, I left with my older brother and five close friends. Throughout our journey most of us got separated, except my brother and I. We always made sure we stayed together, we were all we had at the time. 

I left the rest of my family behind – mom, dad, little brother, sister, aunts, uncles, and grandparents – and many other close friends as well. Everyone was sad and worried for my brother and I, but they knew it was the right thing to do to be able to have freedom and opportunity. The rest of my family stayed behind, because it was too risky for the entire family to escape; we would have definitely gotten caught and punished. 

CS: What did you bring with you when you left Albania? What did you leave behind? Why?

Dervishi: I brought absolutely nothing besides a few dollars in my pocket and the couple of outfits I owned. I couldn’t bring much because I would stand out, making it hard to hide from Albanian officials. Also, I did not have much, other than the money and clothes to begin with.

CS: How did you feel when you left Albania knowing your family was still there and you had to restart your life in a place you knew little about? 

Dervishi: I was terrified! My whole life up to that point, I had been told that America was the land of freedom and opportunity. I was excited to get here but scared if I were to have gotten here and it would have been a lie. I really did not know what to expect, I just didn’t want to be stuck anymore and took the best opportunity I knew of at the time. 

The hardest part of my journey was not only leaving everyone behind, but also not being able to contact them. For two years, I could not contact my family and they had no way of knowing if I was even alive. 

Family smiling at a table, all white with dark hair, of different ages, sheet cake in front of them, one holds a balloon
Ilir Dervishi and his family pose together in 2017 in the restaurant he previously owned. Photo credit: Dervishi’s personal archive.

CS: Describe how your life is different living in America compared to Albania.

Dervishi: My life in America is what I wanted it to be. When I first got here I didn’t even know English. The American Red Cross got me my first job at a restaurant, and from there many more opportunities came. 

A few years after making it to America, I found my now-wife and we had three kids. We also owned a restaurant for 19 years, and I am now a full-time trucker and loving life. 

I am lucky to say that escaping to America was the right choice. I now have more than a few dollars in my pocket and a couple of outfits. I was able to raise a beautiful family with my wife in a nice home, and help support my family back in Albania by sending them money and gifts. I talk to my family in Albania through Skype every week and visit every couple of years.

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