Monday, July 27, 2009

Restaurateur Finds Peace, Opportunity in America

Mefail “Mike” Ibraimi is a well-known face in Ripon. First at Kristina’s Café, which he bought in 1999, and more recently at the Red Apple Family Restaurant, Mike has been feeding Riponites some of their favorite food for years. Mike’s immigration odyssey started in 1972 in Macedonia (part of the former Yugoslavia), and took him through numerous European countries, to the US, and eventually to Ripon.

Mike and his family found life very hard in Macedonia back in the 1970s. Cultural and political prejudice against ethnic Albanians, and communist government intolerance of religion and political dissent were his primary reasons for leaving his country of birth. “They treated Albanians very badly. We had no rights, not even to study at the university. Only Serbo-Croations could go to university. From second grade on, they made us speak their language. They discriminated against our religion [Muslim.] The communists were against both churches and mosques, and if you criticized the communist government, they would put you in jail. I had a cousin who cooperated with the communist government. They gave him schooling – he was an excellent student. When he was done with his studies he was fluent in Serbo-Croation and Albanian, and he was a good translator – that was his job. Then in 1982 when they found out he was Albanian and that he had been in Pristina (Kosovo) when there was a revolution for more rights and freedom, they killed him. He was 25, with a wife and two kids, and they killed him.”

Mike, who lived and worked on his family’s small farm in Macedonia as a young man, had decided to leave his country before something like that happened to him. “I left on December 20, 1972. I went all over – to France, Italy, Germany, Austria.” When he arrived in Austria, he made contact with a Christian church that had a ministry of helping immigrants. Within a few months, all the arrangements were made for Mike to emigrate to the United States. “At that time I didn’t even have one dollar. They [the church] paid most of the fees to apply for a visa to travel to the U.S., and they did the paperwork and paid for my airfare. I paid only $70, three months after I arrived in Chicago.”

“July 11, 1973 – I call it my second birthday. It was a very special day in my life – I took a plane from Vienna to New York.” From there, Mike traveled to Chicago, where his youngest brother and a cousin were waiting for him.

Mike found work quickly. “I got a night job in a factory, and a day shift in a Denny’s restaurant. I worked at the factory for nine years. I learned a lot at Denny’s. I worked in the kitchen, I learned everything. Then I worked at a McDonalds. I learned everything there, too. For the first day, they have you do nothing but cook French fries, then they have you cook quarter pounders, then they put you on the line. After three weeks I surprised everybody. That McDonalds had eight cash registers. It was very busy, but I learned how to set up, how to cook, how to serve. If you want to learn, you learn a lot. But I learned more at Denny’s – we’re similar here at the Red Apple, except we do more from scratch.”

In 1981, eight years after Mike arrived in Chicago, his immediate family was able to join him. They would have liked to come sooner, but getting passports from their native Yugoslavia took years. “They [the government] gave you a hard time. They treated Albanians bad, and they made you wait years to leave.” Mike’s family did not experience significant delays or difficulties at that time getting visas for the United States.

In 1982 Mike moved his family to Monroe, WI, and later to Janesville, Lake Mills, and finally Ripon in 1999, owning restaurants in each location. Mike’s son, Nick, left Ripon and Kristina’s last spring to help another relative with a restaurant in Lodi.

Mike found his passion in the restaurant business. “My family loves the kitchen – my father, my brother, me, my son – people know they’re going to eat good when they see him! And last week, I was in St. Louis where a nephew just bought a restaurant – he asked me to help him set it up.”

Besides his successful restaurants, Mike appreciates other things about living in the U.S.: political freedom, entrepreneurial freedom, friendly people. “I had never been free in my life before I came here. In my country, you can’t say things. Life here is good – I have good friends. They come in here, they’re happy to see me. You have to be friendly – business is not just for one day! If you’re friendly, you make friends!”

“I am very pro-US. Every Albanian is. The US saved our lives – almost two million of us in Kosovo [during the recent war in the Balkans]. Thank God for Bill Clinton! He decided smart and fast what to do, and he saved a lot of people. If you go there, you will see that every Albanian has two flags: an Albanian flag and an American flag.”

“I got my US citizenship in 1994. All my family has citizenship now, and for me, it’s been more than good. Here we have more freedom, you can find jobs everywhere, you can move around, and you’re treated the same. Jobs are number one. In Europe it’s not so easy – you can’t just go to another city and find a job like you can here.”

Mike’s entrepreneurial spirit is typical of many immigrants, who start businesses at two and three times the rate of native born Americans.

Mike’s experience of the U.S. immigration service was good. Being a refugee from a communist country during the height of the Cold War undoubtedly helped, as did the energetic efforts on his behalf by a church experienced in immigration work. The financial assistance, too, was important in his successful application for a visa. “Immigration [now called the US Citizenship and Immigration Service] worked out for us. We did it by the rules. I waited seven months – I could have come illegally but we did it right. Now it’s harder though. The immigration service is so busy – overdone busy. You can see the papers in their offices, big stacks like this [indicates 5 feet high]. You can wait for years now. It helps if you are in a war, if you are in danger. A lot of people in our situation got permission right away to come.”

Mike’s experience was that the system worked for political asylum cases (though currently only a small percentage of asylum seekers are granted this status.) He suspects that those coming for economic reasons will not have as easy a time, and government statistics bear this out. For example, according to the State Department, even those economic immigrants with an employer sponsor and firm job offer could easily wait 5 years or more for permission to enter the country legally.

Mike emphasizes the importance of patience, of having personal contacts in Immigration, and the necessity of keeping up with changes in immigration law. “If you are coming for economic reasons, the US isn’t going to let you all in – people need to be patient. We had nothing – we were hungry. I understand that people who are hungry don’t want to wait, but you have to be patient. It also helps to have personal contacts with people in Immigration – just sending a letter doesn’t help. Some people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to follow the rules, and they don’t follow the news in the papers. You have to pay attention and know the system and play by the rules.”

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