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Fashion was always in Nejvi Bejko’s future. Facing the prospect of being deported from the country she calls home and the family she’s built here was something she never thought she would have to worry about.
Nejvi was brought to Michigan by her parents when she was nine years old, who risked their lives to provide a better world for her to prosper and grow –opportunities that they could not find in Albania.
In her home country, education was not a priority, so for Nejvi to have competitive education opportunities and a successful career, her parents knew they needed to move to America. “My parents wanted to build a better life for themselves and their children,” she said.
Fast-forward more than a decade, and now Nejvi, an apparel and textile design graduate from Michigan State University, is living her dream as an assistant manager of a growing small business fashion icon, MM.LaFleur, in their Washington, D.C. showroom. And now that dream is in peril.
I had the opportunity to speak with Nejvi Bejko to hear about her story and learn what the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) means to her family and future:
Tell us about your first memories of coming to America and why it was so important to leave Albania to start a new life.
I arrived in Michigan as a nine-year-old with my parents and brother. My parents chose Michigan because my aunt was based there, and she told us it was a great place for a family to create roots and develop a family. At first, coming to America after leaving Albania left me with an initial shock. I was used to a larger city and then found myself in a rural environment.
It was a complete 180.
There was a huge language barrier. But I overcame this obstacle as a young child because I was able to immerse myself in the new phonetics. I started to learn to read from scratch, cartoons really helped as well, and my classmates in Michigan were eager to help. Our area had fantastic schools, so my brother and I were able to catch on to the English language after about a month and a half. We would also watch our classmates and try to pick up on their mannerisms. It was our goal to become what it means to be identified as an American.
My brother and I would focus every day on how to be an American and study what it means to be an American. My parents, on the other hand, did not have this learning opportunity. They struggled immensely and never had the time to learn the way I did—it was extremely stressful for them so they eventually moved back to Albania.
Tell us about the life and family you have built in America.
I was undocumented for my adolescent life. I did not have an official identity until college. I had to go to community college because those institutions didn’t require a proper documentation to apply. I was considered “out-of-state” meaning I had to pay for my education out of pocket, but I didn’t blink an eye at this because I knew having an American education was worth the expense. I earned my Associate of Arts in 2011, but I couldn’t move further and apply to a state university program because I was considered undocumented.
To support myself, I would work random jobs and babysit, and eventually my older brother moved to D.C. with my cousin and invited me to come visit. I fell in love with the city, and left Michigan to start a new chapter in my life. I worked in the restaurant and events industry and met a group of people who took me in and treated me as family.
When did you hear about DACA and what did that mean for you?
I first heard about DACA in 2012. This legislation means that for the first time I have an identity. That is why it is so crucial.
I applied immediately. It was the first thing I had heard of that would give me and other children and students in my position an identity—a hope.
The process is very paperwork heavy. It is not a process where anyone can qualify—I had to prove myself. In my case, you have to show what you have done since the fourth grade. You have to prove that you are worthy. My brother and I were both approved, and soon after, I applied to Michigan State with a work authorization card and Social Security.
I started to feel like I actually existed.
I was no longer afraid—I could come out of the shadows. Because of DACA, I could start reaching my goals, and I no longer had to feel like I was walking on eggshells. I had lived most of life being scared of getting caught and I had developed social anxiety. Young adults and children in my position had to treat their existence as a secret, and that is a terrible way to live. As a child, you do not have a voice or a choice in your parents’ decision to bring you to another country. It was such a burden to bear.
I wanted to tell and explain to people that I am not illegal, I just wanted a better life, and if I was in my parents’ shoes, I wouldn’t change a thing—there is not evil in their decisions or in my existence. I work, I pay taxes, but I cannot travel internationally, so I cannot visit my parents who risked everything for me.
Explain the support you have received from your employer, MM.LaFleur.
My company and the people I work with have been very comforting. I never thought I would have this family that I have cultivated. MM.LaFleur has worked with other organizations like FWD to make sure DREAMers, like me, have a voice. Although nerve racking, I actually was able to go speak and share my story on Capitol Hill. I wouldn’t feel as strong as I do today if it wasn’t for MM.LaFleur.
I work and live so close to the buildings that host the lawmakers that hold my future in their hands.
What would happen if DACA is revoked, and what does this mean for your family?
"Take good care of myself" is something I have to remind myself every day, but the decision on DACA is a thought I have every day in the back of my head.
I am a person, I am not just a piece of legislation.
Being sent back to Albania would be devastating. It is a country that I have not been to since I was nine years old. Personally, I am recently married, and I would have to leave this life I have built. It would tear up everything I have worked for and known. So many people are going through something similar to my story, so I am thankful that I have found a support group.
We need to think about the children in the schools who wouldn’t be able to finish their education and would have their lives torn apart. These children aren’t illegals, they are just trying to live the American dream like everyone else.
Tell us about what you aspire for your future.
Fashion has always been my passion. I hope to one day design my own line and hire my own group of inspiring employees.
I am proud that MM.LaFleur is a supporter of this dream. They are a company that is beyond clothes and women’s products, they are a champion for women. They are creating a platform for me to grow, and with DACA I can achieve anything. I am a DREAMer. I am not calling for amnesty or a pardon for illegal immigration, I am just asking to be able to provide for myself and my family in the country that I have grown up in and love.
The U.S. Chamber has long called for a solution to address the fate of DREAMERs and urged Congress to continue working on a solution after a failed Senate vote in February. More information on the U.S. Chamber’s support of commonsense immigration reform is available here.