Saturday, July 16, 2011

Winning the Lottery

For most of us the term "winning the lottery" means stopping by the corner newsstand, buying a ticket and scratching off some part of it to see if we've won a million dollars. But for some, it means something completely different, like the chance to start a new life in a new country. And so it was for Ertugert, or as he offers to be called by us linguistically challenged Americans, E.

E is Albanian, and lived there with his father and mother. A very poor country on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Albania was communist until the early nineties. "Today you are either very rich or very poor," E said. And so with limited options on the home front, each family member applied to the US Diversity Visa program, better known as the "Greencard Lottery." Through this program, 50,000 people a year are offered a chance to come to the US and try and make their way. His father's number was drawn, and after an extensive interview process, and a cousin already here guaranteeing they wouldn't become wards of the state, they packed up and settled in the Bronx.

Of course, it's one thing to get an opportunity like that, still another to seize it. But E was a go getter, and set about looking for a job. One barrier? His command of English was, well, limited. He knew a few phrases, like "What time is it?" and "How do I get there?" but not a lot else. For instance, in combing the classifieds, he saw an ad looking for a bookkeeper. That might work, he thought. "In Albania, every office has stacks and stacks of handwritten ledgers," he told me, "and I figured I could keep those books with the best of them." The guy interviewing him began by asking about E's degree. E knew that degrees had something to do with temperature, and since it was hot out, he said there were lots of them. A few more confused exchanges led to the inevitable conclusion: the man set him straight on temperature, education and modern record keeping, and suggested he look for a different line of work.

Slowly his language skills started to improve, courtesy of the Hispanic guys he played soccer with in his new neighborhood. Eventually he heard about a job at an Italian deli in Brooklyn. Since he spoke some Italian learned back in his home country, he went for it. The proprietor, hearing his accent, asked where he was from. Upon learning it was Albania, he told him to keep it to himself, as the older Italian customers wouldn't take kindly to him. Still, he got the job.

But the language, both Italian and English, were still a challenge. Things took longer and needed explanations, such as when he was asked for a plain bagel. "OK," he told a customer, "Plain, but what do you want on it?" He didn't get that plain meant no seeds, so salt, not what was schmeared in the center. He lasted 4 days.

Next he got a job with an electrician, a skill he had picked up in Albania. And since the current there was 220 volts as opposed to our 115, he checked for live wires by grabbing them with his hands; after all, the shock was nothing compared to home. But then he saw shortcuts being taken, and one guy almost get electrocuted. He quit shortly thereafter.

Painting came next. They gave him a roller, a tool he had never used. He had fun making big patterns on the wall, but that didn't go over so well. He insisted on a brush, but that meant he wasn't terribly productive. They eventually made him the sander, since he was tall and could reach up high. He lasted until they taught him to put up wallpaper, only to return the next morning to find it falling off the wall. Eventually he met a guy at his church, a fellow immigrant from Germany, who started to teach him about computers. He picked it up quickly, and began working for companies doing graphics and networking.

Now, some ten years after he arrived, E is the very definition of a successful immigrant. He became a citizen in 2006, is married and has a child. But it was a challenging road. "You have to work hard for what you want here: nothing is given to you on a silver plate." And while he's not blind to the issues we have as a country, from race to economic challenges, he acknowledges the opportunity it has given him. "As to the future, I can see myself having my own company," he mused. Should that happen, you could say he will have won the lottery twice. Says E, "It would be kinda like having my own ‘American Dream' come true."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to meet new people with stories to tell. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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