Albania is a world away from the suburbs of Northern Virginia, but in some ways, teenagers are the same everywhere.
So before Dhurata Majko, Erina Sinoimeri and Najada Bedini arrived at Stonewall Jackson High School for their first year in a U.S. school, the 17-year-old seniors spent a little quality time on fashion. "We have been discussing already what we will be wearing tomorrow," Dhurata said Monday afternoon, laughing.
The three decided on what has become practically the school uniform for high school girls: jeans, blouses, tiny pocketbooks, delicate silver rings on their fingers. On Tuesday, the first day of school, they blended into the 2,100 other students streaming through the halls of Stonewall Jackson as if they had been in the United States all their lives.
But few Americans have gone through what these Albanians students have to get to the United States.
The students are not refugees left homeless during the recent NATO actions in that part of the world. Most refugees are ethnic Albanians who were living in Kosovo, a province within Yugoslavia.
Albania, though not target in NATO airstrikes, was far from untouched by the bombings. The teenagers described a country already wracked by political upheaval that was stretched to the limit when millions of Kosovar refugees fled there for safety.
Hoping to give their children a better life, the girls' parents scraped together $4,000 for each teenager to pay for a student exchange program--an enormous feat for residents of the poorest country in Europe, where the per-capita income is $830 a year.
Five Albanian students arrived in Gainesville in late July, leaving their families and friends behind. Sofika Londo and Iris Haxhi Aliu, also 17-year-old seniors, will miss a few days of school at Stonewall Jackson while their vaccination records are completed.
Iris, Dhurata and Erina are from the capital city of Tirana. Najada lived in Vlore, and Sofika is from Sarande. They did not know each other before coming to the United States.
The five were taken in by Rainbow Christian Services in Gainesville, a residential program that usually accepts children who are having legal or emotional problems and who can be helped in a structured, home-like environment. Rainbow Christian Services is affiliated with the Churches of Christ. "We are helping children who need help," said Executive Director Foster Caffi.
The five girls visited Stonewall Jackson during an orientation program for new students last week. All agreed on one word to describe it: "big."
And although their schooling in Albania left them with excellent English and advanced skills in many subjects, it didn't quite prepare them for the confusion of the cafeteria; Erina ended up buying a chocolate bar out of a vending machine because she wasn't quite sure how the cafeteria system worked. "I didn't know how to do that," she said, gesturing toward a line for chicken patty sandwiches. "That's okay, I wasn't that hungry anyway," she added later.
They also weren't sure how they liked Stonewall Jackson's open classroom architecture, which means classrooms have no doors and are open to nearby corridors. Conversations from other classes were barely muffled.
"I can bear it now, but I don't know if I could bear it during exams," Najada said After the press of classes was over and they were back at home yesterday, the three students said they liked Stonewall. The crowds weren't so bad, and the teachers seemed nice.
"We were prepared for everything," Najada said.
All five said they want to attend college in the United States, studying business or communications. But they disagree on whether they will return to Albania. "I don't want to go back in Albania," Dhurata said. Neither do her parents. In Albanian colleges, "the teacher wants money to [give] you a passing mark because their salaries are very low," she said.
But Sofika, who did not start school yesterday, said she wants to go back to Albania someday.
"We chose to apply because the situation there is not very established. We had another war and worse yet, it was a civil war, in 1997," she said. At that time, she said, the collapse of several financial "Ponzi" schemes brought the entire country to virtual anarchy that took more than a year to control.
She wants to return "after I learn something from here, to help make the country better."
Caffi, treating the students as economic refugees, agreed to take them in after he was asked by a contact in Texas. Caffi said he is prepared for them to stay through the school year and to help them attend college.
"Some of their parents have gone to great lengths and financial hardships to give their child an opportunity to learn more," Caffi said. "I think their parents were trying to give them hope."
But leaving family and friends behind was not easy. "I love my parents, and I miss them a lot," Dhurata said.
Iris said it has been her dream to come to the United States. Still, she also admits to bouts of homesickness.
"I miss my parents, my cat, my dog, my friends, everything," Iris said. "But at the same time, I don't want to turn back."
CAPTION: Najada Bedini, Dhurata Majko and Erina Sinoimeri run into each other between classes.