My father began to cry until a passing woman came by, comforted him and took up to her room where he stayed until he had reached the port of immigrants, New York's Ellis Island.
Somehow, often with the kind help of other strangers, he managed to find his way through the confusion and chaos of immigration officials and medical inspectors. He was put on a train to Fitchburg, Mass., where a cold and uncaring uncle took him in.
He immediately was put to work as a laborer to earn his keep, putting in long hours. He eventually went to night school to learn and write the language, and later went to a trade school to learn barbering.
He became a U.S. citizen and was employed by barber shops from Boston to Philadelphia, moving up the income scale and dreaming of one day opening his own shop and becoming an employer himself.
He saved his money, though he was fastidious about his clothes, and had a reputation among fellow immigrants as a well-tailored gentleman. So much so, he caught the eye of a beautiful young Albanian immigrant who lived in Worcester, Mass. and married her.
My dad liked college towns and often took the train out to Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, a lovely town with a large and prosperous professional clientele where he believe he could make a good living.
He opened his own shop, worked hard from early in the morning to the evening hours, and at one time held two jobs, serving as the only barber at a military training facility during World War II.
Over time, his business grew, requiring him to hire other barbers, and he expanded it into electric shaver sales and service and hair care products.
He saved and invested his money, particularly in a fast-growing, commercial aircraft company called Boeing. He bought property, built a handsome colonial home, and with my mom, an industrious and frugal homemaker, raised three children.
For my father and mother, both of whom have passed away, the United States kept its enduring promise as the "land of opportunity." Their story perfectly embraces the essence of America, told and retold from generation to generation of ambitious, hardworking immigrants and their offspring who built America into the great nation it has become.
My parents' belief in hard work and in their endlessly repeated plea to "make something of yourself" has deeply and profoundly shaped my life and belief in the work ethic, American enterprise and economic freedom.
Multiply my father's immigrant story with tens of millions of immigrants who came to our shores, facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and it is clear who turned this country into an economic colossus over the past century.
We seem to have lost sight of all this in the battle over immigration that has for all intents and purposes come to a standstill in Washington.
We surely need to control our borders. We also need to modernize a system that most Americans agree is broken. But we also need to recognize and appreciate the value of immigrants who come here legally to work, build a new life and become a citizen of our country.
Ronald Reagan said he once got a letter from a man who said "you can go live in Turkey, but you can't become a Turk. You can go to Japan, but you cannot become Japanese -- or Germany or France.... But he said anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and become an American."
My father asked for no special privileges or handouts when he stepped onto Ellis Island. "In Albania, we heard that the streets here were paved with gold," he once told me. They weren't, of course, but in terms of the freedom and opportunities America gave him, they really were.