At the beginning of the 21st century, I lived in Houston and tended to observe immigrant struggles from the relatively safe and somewhat distant perspective of a privileged American.
The fighting in Kosova (the Albanian spelling), where Serbian soldiers attempted to terminate the majority Albanian population, had been halted by NATO intervention.

In one of those instances where God’s timing interrupts my less-than-complete moral concentration, I spent seven days in Stockholm, Sweden, in January 2000.

I met with 43 others from around the world to draft accords on ethnic cleansing.

At that time, there were no recognized words that expressed unequivocally that it is wrong to eradicate an ethnic group and most especially egregious to do so in the name of God.

While helping to write those accords, I received a refresher on the history of Balkan ethnic and religious tensions.

I define it as providential that, just days after returning to Houston, the leader of the missions team in the congregation where I was pastor informed me that 500 ethnic Albanian families from Kosova had been relocated to Houston.

I was shocked because I had just been briefed on Albanian troubles during my Sweden visit and would return to Skopje, Macedonia (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), in less than a year to sign those accords and lead a short-term ministry project among Albanian people.

Almost immediately, our congregation began to care for these immigrants who had recently arrived in our “back yard.”

One day I made a home visit to an Albanian family. Their tiny apartment held a family of seven. In typical Albanian hospitality, they welcomed me and offered sweets and juice.

Immediately, the family pet entered the room. As a seasoned pastor, I recognized the importance of acknowledging family pets. I have admired more puppies and cats than you can imagine.

But I was shocked when this pet strutted in and hopped into my lap because the beloved companion was a chicken.

After the father told me the chicken’s Albanian name, I inquired (with a straight face), “And how did the chicken become your family pet?”

The explanation was straightforward. Coming home from night-shift work, he stopped at a traffic light. Without air conditioning, he had his car windows down and over the noise of traffic he heard the “cheep, cheep” of a baby chick.

Strutting proudly near his car door, amid busy traffic, this little chickadee seemed to be requesting a rescue.

Knowing that his family wanted a pet but could not afford a “regular” one, he took the little darling home. And the rest, as they say, is part of Houston Albanian immigrant history!

You decide how to interpret this. Perhaps it reminds you of significant emotional enhancements gained from having pets around.

Maybe it speaks of innovation amid economic deprivation. Perhaps you hear the tale of a desperate father trying to provide for his children.

Almost 15 years later, I understand immigrant struggles from a much more intimate viewpoint.

Living as an immigrant myself and knowing many Albanians in Athens, Greece, I marvel at the sensitivity to essential necessities, which is often serendipitously honed when a soul leaves his native soil.

My personal experience with immigrants is that, despite the pressures and discrimination they face, their personal losses often help them to understand better, and encourage them to respond more positively to, privations – both their own and those of others.

Their ears have become sensitized and attuned to hear the desperate cry of the less fortunate over the background noises, which so easily conspire to drown them out.

Bob Newell is ministry coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Athens, Greece. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, ItsGreek2U, and is used with permission.

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