Every year one hundred thousand Albanians try their chances at a better life by entering the American Green Card lottery while their neighbours seem less interested.
47-year-old teacher Adela started to believe in the “American dream” 21 years ago. At a time when many Albanians were emigrating to neighbouring countries like Greece and Italy, she had cast her eyes to another continent.
So, in 1996, she and her sister applied for the US Diversity Visa Program, otherwise known as the American Green Card lottery, for the first time. And after only one year her sister won, setting sail with her family to US as soon as she did.
“I was happy for my sister and after she left I became more committed to go into the lottery. On top of my American dream, I added another big wish: to reunite with her,” she told BIRN.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa program was established under the US Immigration Act of 1990 and gives the winners and their families the chance of permanent residency.
Every year the US State Department allocates 50,000 permanent resident visas in an attempt to open up the country of origin of US immigrants to a more diverse range. The program explicitly selects applicants coming from countries with low rates of immigration from the previous five years.
The draw opens for online entries in October and November each year, with the first replies reviewed by the following May.
Like Adela, many Albanians chase their dream of a better life through the DV lottery. And the number grows every year, making Albania the Balkans’ biggest source of applicants.
The latest data published by State Department shows that in 2015, close to 200 thousand people applied from Albania out of almost 14.5 million applications from across the world.
From 2007 to 2014 the number of Albanian applicants rocketed from 87,189 to 173,012.
And when that data is compared across the rest of the Balkans, the differences are stark. In 2015 only 27,385 Serbians applied, almost 34,000 applications came from Macedonia, 6,379 from Croatia, more than 12,000 from Bosnia, close to 19,000 from Kosovo and 1,623 came from Montenegro.
But further east the numbers rise with more than 70 thousand Romanians applying in the same year, while to the south more than 90 thousand Bulgarians were chasing the dream.
One result of the high number of Albanian requests has seen the small translation offices, notaries and tourist agencies inundated in October and November, where they offer to fill out peoples applications for a small fee.
In Tirana, for example, an Albanian dreaming of the US can get their application done for just 500 lek, or 3.7 euros.
One translator, who didn’t want to be identified, told BIRN that many people come to him to have their entries filled out because the whole procedure is too difficult to do over the internet by themselves.
He considers the fee symbolic and said he offers it as a service to help people who, in some cases, don’t have a computer at home.
Photography studios also see more people at their doors over those months asking for digital photos in the exact same dimensions requested by the US authorities. They’ll do it for 1.5 euros.
Alban, an unemployed 26-year-old finance graduate told BIRN that he applied because he can’t see a future in Albania.
“I have applied for four years in a row because I have American dreams. I find I don’t have a place in a country where you have to join a political party to get a job. At the same time, private sector wages are so low that you cannot secure a normal living,” he said.
He believes that in the US, people’s hard work pays off and even a regular job can give you a good standard of living.
22-year-old communications graduate Xhuliana has also applied every year out of the last four for almost exactly the same reasons.
“I want new opportunities for my life, like a better job and salary and a better life overall,” she told BIRN.
While many think the large amount of applications comes down to a weak economy with youth unemployment rates reaching more than 26 per cent, others believe that many Albanians are just trying their chances.
“I think a lot of people just apply so they can get a second passport. It’s very convenient to hold the American one. For that, I think Albanians are smart, it costs nothing to apply, so why not?” the translator told BIRN.
And the chances of winning? In 2015, 2,946 Albanian entries won a ticket to their dreams. But the number of those that received a visa is actually much higher, with many entrants picking up permanent residency for their whole family.
Meanwhile, Adela has been entering the lottery since she was single and is now the mother of a 9-year-old girl. But she hasn’t lost hope.
“I will not stop applying now. Not just because for my own sake, but because I want to raise my daughter in a better place,” she said.