Interview by Meg Anderson
Empowered Women Empower Women
by Meg Anderson
Silvana Frangaj is a 22-year-old student at Cornell University, with a warm smile and kind eyes. It is clear from the moment she speaks that she is witty, charismatic, and wise beyond her years. On the surface, Silvana appears to have an easy, privileged life, with an Ivy League education and a membership in the sorority, Pi Beta Phi. However, the reality is anything but. Silvana’s upbringing was full of struggles.
Silvana was born in the village of Rapsh in Albania, a mountainous country in Southeastern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula. According to Silvana, there is an emotion that the mountains invoke: a beckoning call, a silent powerful strength, and magnificent beauty. But as a former Soviet territory, Albania’s transition from 46 years of Communist rule to democracy in the early 1990s proved to be challenging. Successive governments grappled with mass unemployment, widespread corruption, dilapidated infrastructure, and powerful organized crime. Nevertheless, these mountains, and the history they contain, are where Silvana’s story of empowerment begins.
As a young girl, Silvana lived with her grandparents, mother, and two older sisters. When she was 3 years old, her father migrated to the United States to escape persecution (due to his political identity) and have a better chance to provide for his family. She did not meet her father again until she was 13 years old when she came to America. Silvana’s household became female-driven; her mother and sisters took on roles in the community that were usually done by men. “Men are always right in Albania...women were not considered on the same level as men, my sisters and mom challenged that societal norm,” Silvana says. “Everywhere they went, they left their mark.” Her sisters both became leaders in their community and church, learning Italian from the nuns to teach Sunday school, and organizing Christmas plays. Her mother and siblings were a powerhouse, and they became among the most respected leaders in their village –– exuding grit, perseverance, and generosity despite their hardships.
After years of a painstaking legal battle, Silvana and her family immigrated to the United States, a moment that she says changed the course of her life. “If I didn’t move here, I‘d be married with children by now,” she says. On one hand, she has the life that could have been, an arranged marriage in Albania, kids at 21, and on the other hand, at age 13, suddenly in America, with a whole new life path sprawling out ahead of her. One of the first challenges she faced was the overwhelming experience of being an immigrant. “Everything felt out of place, my accent, my clothes, my ideas, my eating habits,” Silvana recalls. She was bullied and secluded, which caused her to feel sad. In addition, she struggled to learn English and reconnect with her father who became a stranger to her after his ten-year absence in her life.
Silvana says she did not feel empowered in her Albanian immigrant identity until she traveled to New York City. Its streets were buzzing with the sights, smells, and sounds of diverse cultures. The glimpses of American diversity she discovered in New York City –– along with the legacies of her mother and sisters –– helped Silvana develop a love for her heritage. “It's normal, in fact, beautiful to be different. It means you have unique value and perspective,” she says.
Silvana plans to attend medical school. Her aspiration following graduation is to open a free clinic in Albania. “I grew up familiar with the suffering of third world countries. Healthcare is difficult to access,” she says. In increasing access to healthcare, Silvana says she hopes to empower Albanian women to follow their dreams as her mother and sisters empowered her. - GGH
CONNECTIVITY CONTRIBUTORS REACTIONS
Silvana has definitely been surrounded by incredibly empowering women. Reading about her sisters and mother challenging societal norms really resonated with me. Silvana’s story showed that her sisters and mother did not need their home to depend on a man, or for a man to teach them things such as driving. They took charge and took control of their lives. Seeing this type of empowerment from women at such a young age must be why Silvana turned out to be such an empowering woman herself. It is amazing how surrounding oneself with empowering people can have such a positive and long-lasting impact. Women teach women around them about empowerment, and the cycle continues. The nurturing of this cycle is what leads to widespread women’s liberation as a whole.