WASHINGTON — I met a man in his mid-50s recently who told me he came to America as a very young man with less than $25 in his pocket and made a pretty good life for himself here.
As the son of Albanian immigrants who came here with just the clothes on their backs, I love such stories about the people who come to this country, filled with hope for a far better future and a willingness to toil long hours to achieve the American dream.
This gentleman told me how he worked 18-hour days, six days a week, on his feet for decades, gradually climbing the economic ladder. He married, raised a family, saved his money and bought a home that he proudly said he owns “free and clear.”
At a time when immigration has become a fierce political battlefield, particularly as it pertains to illegals, but even to those who come here legally, we need to remember how our parents and grandparents came here to make a better life for themselves and for us. And, in the process, they helped to build this country into the largest economy on the face of the Earth.
It is during this debate that I most look back on my father’s inspiring story, overcoming huge odds against him to become a businessman, employer, homeowner and an investor in our country’s future.
He emigrated from poverty-stricken Albania as a very young boy, alone and barely 12 years old, in the 1920s — sent here by his widowed mother in the hope for a better life than faced him in post-World War I Eastern Europe.
Carrying a small bag of belongings, with his boat and train fare carefully sewn into the lining of his native clothes by his mother, he set forth on a perilous journey to the New World in July 1923.
Starting out on foot across treacherous mountains and farm fields, he made his way, often with the help of people his mother had painstakingly arranged to escort him along portions of his trek into Greece, then across the Adriatic Sea on a small boat to Italy, and then by train to Naples, where he boarded a passenger ship bound for America.
He once told me how he was taken down to the lowest, cheapest level of the vessel, known as “steerage” back in those days, where bearded, menacing men frightened him and made fun of his clothes, sometimes poking him.
My father began to cry until a passing woman came by, comforted him and took him up to her room, where he stayed until he had reached the port of immigrants, New York’s Ellis Island.
Somehow, often with the kind help of other strangers, he managed to find his way through the confusion and chaos of immigration officials and medical inspectors. He was put on a train to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where a cold and uncaring uncle took him in.
He immediately was put to work as a laborer to earn his keep, putting in long hours. He eventually went to night school to learn and write the language, and later went to a trade school to learn barbering.
He became a U.S. citizen and was employed by barbershops from Boston to Philadelphia, moving up the income scale and dreaming of one day opening his own shop and becoming an employer himself.
He saved his money, though he was fastidious about his clothes and had a reputation among fellow immigrants as a well-tailored gentleman. So much so, he caught the eye of a beautiful young Albanian immigrant who lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, and married her.
My dad liked college towns and often took the train out to Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, a lovely town with a large and prosperous professional clientele where he believed he could make a good living.
He opened his own shop, worked hard from early in the morning to the evening hours, and at one time held two jobs, serving as the only barber at a military training facility during World War II.
Over time, his business grew, requiring him to hire other barbers. He expanded it into electric shaver sales and service and hair care products.
He saved and invested his money, particularly in a fast-growing commercial aircraft company called Boeing. He bought property, built a handsome colonial home, and with my mom, an industrious and frugal homemaker, raised three children.
For my father and mother, both of whom have passed away, the United States kept its enduring promise as the “land of opportunity.”
Their story perfectly embraces the essence of America, told and retold from generation to generation of ambitious, hardworking immigrants and their offspring who built America into the great nation it has become.
My parents’ belief in hard work and in their endlessly repeated plea to “make something of yourself” has deeply and profoundly shaped my life and belief in the work ethic, American enterprise and economic freedom.
Multiply my father’s immigrant story with that of tens of millions of immigrants who came to our shores, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and it is clear who turned this country into an economic colossus over the past century.
We seem to have lost sight of all this in the battle over immigration, which has, for all intents and purposes, come to a standstill in Washington.
We surely need to control our borders. We also need to modernize a system that most Americans agree is broken. But we also need to recognize and appreciate the value of immigrants who come here legally to work, build a new life and become citizens of our country.
Ronald Reagan said he once got a letter from a man who wrote: “You can go live in Turkey, but you can’t become a Turk. You can go to Japan, but you cannot become Japanese — or Germany or France …” But, he continued, “anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and become an American.”
My father asked for no special privileges or handouts when he stepped onto Ellis Island. “In Albania, we heard that the streets here were paved with gold,” he once told me. They weren’t, of course, but in terms of the freedom and opportunities America gave him, they really were.