When nurse Shpresa Islami arrived at the Staten Island Outpatient Clinic of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System ready to administer COVID-19 vaccinations, she didn’t realize that she would get to fulfill a lifelong goal.

“I grew up in a small country that used to be part of Yugoslavia, called Kosovo. When I was 11, my family and I were forced to flee our home,” Shpresa said.

The conflict in Kosovo began in February of 1998 and lasted until June of 1999 after North Atlantic Treaty Organization and American forces pushed Serbian troops out of the region.

“Until the American soldiers arrived, things were very scary,” she said. “When the fighting ceased, my parents and I moved to a Macedonian refugee camp where we were able to choose from a list of countries offering to take in refugees. The United States was at the top of the list, so we signed up. Although I was very young at the time, my experience impacted me so much. I wanted to give back. I used to tell my parents, ‘Well, I’m going to join the Army so that I can do something so amazing like freeing another country. That’s awesome and I want to be a part of it.’ My parents were worried about their daughter joining the military and my father would say, ‘We’ll see if you still want to do it when you grow up.’

“I wanted to give back. Now I feel like I’ve done it.”

“I grew up and fell in love with the medical field and nursing, so that’s what I did, I became a nurse,” she said. “But I never forgot the soldiers who saved me, saved my family, and saved my whole country.

“I applied for a position as a Licensed Practical Nurse at the Brooklyn campus and was deployed to administer COVID vaccines at the Staten Island Outpatient Clinic. Normally, I don’t ask patients about their service, but for some reason, I struck up a conversation with this young Veteran. He said, ‘Oh, it’s a small country in Eastern Europe you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s called Kosovo. I was there so long ago in 1999.’

“When he said that, I got so emotional in the moment. Immediately, I said, ‘Oh! I’m from Kosovo. And I was there in 1999. Americans evacuated my family! Thank you so much. I appreciate your service and what you’ve done.’ I’m here because I wanted to give back but I never felt I’d done it, but right now, I feel like I’ve done it, I really did it.

“I called my parents right after and told them, ‘You won’t believe this. I just met a soldier who served in Kosovo and I was able to do something. Even if it was just a vaccine, it was just so humbling, so amazing. My father said, ‘You see? You found a way to give back and you didn’t need to join the Army. We both laughed.’

“For me, even though it’s such a small thing, a small gesture, giving a vaccine. I really felt like I was giving back to the soldiers who saved my life, my family’s life 23 years ago. Everything starts with small steps and I hope every bit I give back makes a difference.

“The day I gave that vaccine I made a decision to continue working at VA. Now that I am part of the Post-Baccalaureate Nursing Residency program, I have an opportunity to continue to give back and serve the Veterans of this country.”

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