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Culture Shock 

by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & HEALTH CARE An Albanian girl who was the focus of a minor diplomatic skirmish adjusts to life in Spokane & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & magine what it must be like to be 12-year-old Merita Ulaj. The shy, petite young woman is 8,000 miles from home -- her mother, father and siblings are back in Boga, their little village in the mountains of northern Albania (no phones, no flush toilets). Merita is one month into her four-month stay in Spokane for medical treatment. She wears a pink-and-white cast that protects her left elbow, the result of surgery performed at the Shriners' Hospital only a few days after she arrived. Her hearing is poor (planning for an operation is underway). A few of her teeth are badly decayed (a Spokane Valley dentist has offered to work on that). She speaks little or no English ("hello", "pardon me"). And she's had to meet and spend time with a bunch of people she doesn't know, including an Inlander reporter and photographer.

Not that Merita isn't adjusting to life in her temporary home and having a good time. She has a personal interpreter, Genta Hysaj, who left her translation agency and her boyfriend in Albania to help Merita here. They're living in a big, old house in the East Central neighborhood with a woman Merita calls her "second mother." Marvel Nichols -- who met Merita in Boga last summer -- led the bureaucratic battle to bring her to Spokane. And the little girl from the remote village in a country that was shut off from the world for 50 years under a Communist dictator has discovered shopping. On this day, wearing her blue jeans and a ribbon in her hair, she looks like a typical American preteen. And she smiles a lot.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's entirely possible that Merita doesn't understand all the hoohah that Nichols, Hysaj and others went through to get her to Spokane. Beginning last fall, Nichols began the process of arranging Merita's medical treatment and trip to the States. In July, with many of the details arranged, the trip was in jeopardy because of a diplomatic snit with U.S. Embassy officials in Albania who said they didn't have all the documentation they needed to issue visas to Merita and Genta. Nichols made early morning phone calls to Albania, faxed documents and traded emotional e-mail messages with Genta that were often FILLED WITH CAPITALIZED WORDS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!! Eventually, with the help of two staff members from Sen. Maria Cantwell's office, Nichols and Genta gathered the rest of the documents they needed and the young women were issued visas and put on a plane to Seattle.

"It's been such an education," says Nichols, "but it's been fun."

The rush to bring Merita and Genta to the U.S. has been replaced by the rush to arrange the details for an operation on Merita's ears. "And I'm trying to get her signed up for ESL (English as a Second Language) classes so we can evaluate where she should be in school," says Nichols. "She's a 7th grader age-wise, but I don't think she's ready for that."

Nichols, her husband and her friends in the Soroptimist Club have taken Merita and Genta to many of the region's highlights: Silverwood, Duncan Garden, the Japanese Garden, the shopping malls. And Nichols has enjoyed learning about Merita. "She does fabulous beadwork," says Nichols. "And she likes to put ice in a glass and shake it, just to listen to the jingle. They don't have ice in Boga."

Genta, meanwhile, says she's hoping this experience will help her when she goes back to Albania to continue her translating career, which could be sooner rather than later. The U.S. Embassy issued Genta a visa that's only good for two and a half months; she's hoping it will be extended so she can stay while Merita continues the physical therapy on her elbow. If not, Merita's cousin Augustine, who will soon be coming from Albania to attend Lewis and Clark High School, will take over the translation duties.

"We're plugging away," says Nichols. She and the Soroptimist Club have created an account at Washington Mutual to raise money for Merita's ear operation: "Her eardrums are practically destroyed," says Nichols.
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