Communism fell in 1989. In that same year, our supervising immigration attorney, Malvina Tashi was born to parents of humble beginnings in the capital city of Tirana, Albania. The shadow of communism lingered over many parts of the country and although she never saw the communist regime in her lifetime, Malvina grew up with her parents’ memories of it.
Although Malvina’s parents wanted to leave with the mass exodus in 1989, the currency system had been devalued so much that they could no longer afford anything more than a new refrigerator with their life savings. So, they stayed in Albania. Her grandparents would become a saving grace when a rebellion broke out in Tirana.
“In the mid-1990s Albania was adopting a market economy, after decades of a Stalinist command economy. The rudimentary financial system became dominated by Ponzi schemes, and government officials endorsed a series of pyramid investment funds. By January 1997 the schemes (many of which were fronts for laundering money and arms trafficking) could no longer make payments. The number of investors who had been lured by the promise of getting rich quick grew to include two-thirds of the population. It is estimated that close to $1.5 billion was invested in companies offering monthly interest rates ranging from 10%-25%, while the average monthly income was around $80.”
People broke into armories and started fighting. Malvina and her younger sister avoided the unrest by being homeschooled for several months. For a portion of that time, she stayed at her grandparents’ house in the countryside. She loved the time she spent there where she helped harvest crops, feed animals, and spend time in nature, something her family highly valued.
Amid all the chaos, her parents created a comfortable life for Malvina and her sister: building a roof over their heads (her parents built their house themselves), maintaining their jobs, visiting weekly with extended family, and creating a tightly knit social circle. They had family gatherings almost every month. “Although there was chaos, I had such a wonderful, happy childhood,” Malvina says. “To this day, that’s the best time of my life.”
Malvina and her sister in Albania.
When Malvina returned to school, she excelled in music and foreign language classes, where she studied both English and Italian. She loved music and singing and couldn’t wait for each musical event the school held. But her studies in the arts were put on hold when her father won a U.S. Diversity Visa, also known as the green card lottery. It makes 55,000 immigrant visas available annually and aims to diversify the immigrant population in the United States. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for this program.”
Malvina was thirteen when her family moved to Temple Terrace, Florida. Her sister was eight. Their lives changed in many ways upon coming to the U.S. Her family had to learn to adjust to the new lifestyle. Emotionally, it was overwhelming. Malvina was the only family member who spoke fluent English, so she spent a lot of time translating for her parents, who both worked two jobs to make ends meet, sometimes staying gone from seven in the morning to one in the morning the next day.
After their one-year anniversary of moving to the U.S., her parents contemplated going back to Albania. They barely had any time to spend with family. They were exhausted and Malvina’s mother faced great discrimination at work for the way she spoke English. Soon after, even though her mother was still very young, she had a stroke and suffered partial facial paralysis.
All Malvina could do was keep going. She continued studying and found she had a knack for speaking Spanish, along with English and Italian. She graduated from high school and began studying at the University of South Florida, Tampa. “I knew when I started that I wanted to continue learning foreign languages.” She chose to study international affairs, but found herself desiring a formal education in law. She didn’t feel powerful enough to speak up about the inequalities and discrimination her parents and other immigrants faced. But if she knew the law, that might change things.
After an internship in Washington D.C., she formalized her decision to go to law school and become an immigration attorney. She got married, attended Western Michigan Cooley in Riverview, and soon after graduating, found out she was going to become a mom.
The following months were incredibly stressful. She worked part-time at a law office while studying for the Bar. At eight months pregnant with her daughter, Isabella, she took her Bar exam. “Isabella and I took the Bar exam together,” she says. She didn’t have much downtime. Soon after, Hurricane Irma began sweeping through the Caribbean. She realized the storm could be serious on September 9th and begged her husband and parents to evacuate to North Carolina with her, even though she was only a week away from her due date.
They drove to Asheville, spending thirteen hours on the road. They had only checked into their hotel for two hours when her water broke. She and her husband found a nearby hospital in the hotel lobby. Malvina was admitted at seven a.m. and gave birth to her daughter, Isabella, at ten p.m. Fortunately, Hurricane Irma didn’t hit the Tampa Bay area as hard as everyone thought. Unfortunately, Malvina then faced an eighteen-hour car ride back to Florida only two days after giving birth. Eight days later, she found out she passed the Bar.
A former boss of hers had once worked at GLS and told Malvina there was an opening for an immigration attorney. Malvina was immediately excited about the job and interviewed with our Deputy Director, Lisa, who offered her the position the next day. “I was super ecstatic. That’s what I always wanted to do.” She began in our St. Pete office but transitioned to our new Wimauma office when it opened in January of 2019.
Malvina loves working for GLS because she is able to do what she always wanted to do – assist the immigrant community on a grant-funded project. Being able to assist immigrants who cannot otherwise afford to pay for a private attorney strengthened her belief that she could really make a difference. With rapidly changing immigration policies, there are days when all odds are against the clients. But each small victory has proven to be such deeply rewarding. There is nothing better than when a client expresses their deep gratitude for having made a difference in their life when they needed it the most, she says.
Currently, Malvina is fluent in Albanian, Spanish, English, and Italian. But she is also learning her husband’s native language, Hindi. The pandemic has been tough, especially as she is pregnant with her second child, but she says that sitting on an exercise ball has “saved” her life while working from home. Her second baby, a boy this time, is due on July 16th.
Thank you, Malvina, for choosing GLS! Your story is incredible, inspiring, and empowering. We are lucky to have a strong woman like you advocating for our immigrant clients. You have become a powerful force in helping them and we are so grateful for your work.