The country that saved me Following the Kraja family's immigration from Montenegro to the U.S.

By Mikaylah Du

They realized.

The O'Hare International Airport officials recognized the fake passports when they tried to pass through the checkpoint in Chicago and detained Sami Kraja and the two other women with her. An agent later came into the room to tell the trio they were going to be deported back to their country and the terrified women started tearing up as they tried to explain their situation.

Sami and her travelling companions were from Ulcinj, Podgorica, Montenegro, where a war was being waged. During that year in 1994, Montenegro –– along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia –– was one of the six republics of former Yugoslavia. The conflicts among the republics started in 1990, when Slovenia requested independence and Croatia followed after Yugoslavia’s former President Josip Broz Tito died. Then, Serbia wanted to declare independence as well and the conflicts started to escalate into a war.

During the war, military service was mandatory for men in every household so in 1991, Sami's husband, Bilal, had to go to a military base and secure the borders. Until that point, regardless of nationality or religion, Sami remembers that everyone in Yugoslavia had lived together in unison as family; however, Serbia's goal in Montenegro was to wage ethnic cleansing of Albanians, and Bilal, who is Albanian, faced discrimination at the base, eventually getting shot and wounded.

He escaped back home, but the Serbian military swept every town to check if any men had neglected to report for duty, forcing Bilal to stay in hiding. Besides the discrimination he faced, he couldn't go into a war to kill someone who had been like family. Sami was also forced into hiding because the Chetniks, the Yugoslav Army, would often rape women.

"If they found a woman alone, they would rape," Sami said. "I had to go underneath the house and be in hiding because someone [called] me to say … the Chetniks went into [one of my friends'] house, killed her father and raped her. We were very scared."

Sami and Bilal no longer felt safe in Montenegro and decided to leave the country. Bilal had family in the U.S., so they decided to go there despite being sad to leave their home. His grandfather obtained fake passports for them and Sami left for the U.S. first.

After hearing the women's explanations, the official called someone to confirm that their stories were true and that they would not be safe if they were deported. He released them later, but told them they would have to appear in court later because they had immigrated illegally.

They left the airport and Sami was awed by the differences. The dark, rainy sky outside was illuminated with light and she saw large highways and bridges extending throughout the city. Ulcinj was a small town, so everything felt huge to her.

"I just looked around and said, 'I am in America,'" Sami said. "I always remember those lights every time it rains. And if I am driving [on] a highway, that memory keeps coming back."

Three weeks later, Bilal arrived by plane, and thirty days after her arrival, Sami and Bilal went to court for their first hearing. Bilal's uncle paid $3,000 for the lawyer, a hefty expense, but they were insistent upon obtaining a reliable lawyer. They were asked to provide paperwork showing evidence of their hardships in Montenegro and explaining why they came to the U.S. illegally and what would happen if they were sent back. Bilal showed his wounds from the military as proof of the discrimination he’d faced and collected letters from his friends who were not only from Montenegro, but also from Serbia before the war. The judge reviewed all the documents and ruled that Sami and Bilal would be allowed to stay.

Twelve years later, Bilal returned to Montenegro, but Sami decided to stay in the U.S. with their young son, Edin. They communicate by phone and try to visit him in Montenegro every summer.

"For me, going back home at [that] point was just impossible," Sami said. "This is a land of opportunity and for me to just get up and leave America, a country that once saved me, back to a country that has been impacted so much by the war and take that opportunity from Edin, I didn't feel like it was right."

Despite growing up in America, Edin believes he has stayed connected with his parents' culture. He grew up speaking Albanian, eating Albanian food, listening to Albanian music and his yearly visits to Montenegro have allowed him to experience the culture firsthand.

"The culture that my parents [and grandparents] have taught me … certainly ties in when I go over there and I see it way clearer," Edin said. "And everybody knows everybody so I just love going there because I can stay out — I'll literally walk home at 2 a.m. And it's fun, we walk home on the beach and it's just nice and calm."

He also believes that compared to American kids, his upbringing was harsher –– when he makes mistakes, Sami doesn't let him forget. She still reminds him of things he did five years ago. But Edin believes this method has made him stronger.

"For example, for soccer, it's not always the easiest," Edin said. "In any sport, an athlete faces rejection many times and it's hard to keep your head up and keep going. I would say because of that culture I've never looked at [rejection] in a negative way –– I know what I did bad[ly], so I'm just going to [improve] and do it better the next time."

Sami credits her struggles in Montenegro and her immigration to the U.S. with teaching her persistence and perseverance, qualities she always tries to teach Edin.

"When you fall, you don't just sit there — you obviously pull yourself together and you try to get up and then walk to your destination," Sami said. "And that's how I feel like life is. [When we immigrated to the U.S.], we fell. But we slowly tried to push and tried to find our journey and where we needed to be."


Photos courtesy of Edin Kraja // Used with permission