By Marie (Notcheva) O’Toole
Ajkena Çela was three years old when the sound of praise and worship songs drew her mom to church in their Lushnjë neighborhood. Her mother gave her life to Christ soon thereafter, and Ajkena attended church with her regularly. By age nine, she had a strong understanding of personal sin, and already was following Christ. Her biggest childhood dream was to study in the United States, and she prayed fervently for this. When she turned seventeen, God enabled her to move to the US to graduate from high school while living with a host family in Glendive, Montana. Helped by her sister Suela, who works in community college admissions, she was able to earn a two-year degree in Science….but she wanted more.
“I wanted to complete a Bachelor’s degree, but it was only possible with a full scholarship,” she explains. “I was waiting to hear from Boise State University in Idaho, where I had applied.” Nervous, Ajkena constantly checked her email and shared her fears with her older sister. “I was freaking out,” she says. “I was praying, but I was not really giving it to God. Suela reminded me simply, ‘If God wants this to work out, it will. Trust Him! If it does not work out, he will certainly open other doors.”
Taking her sister’s advice, Ajkena immersed herself in her day-to-day life in Glendive and forgot to check her email. A few nights later, she learned that she had won the scholarship, and cried tears of joy. Ajkena, now studying Kinesiology at Boise State, recalls, “It bolstered my faith immediately, but God had already been with me so much that I shouldn’t have been surprised.”
Waiting on God to answer her prayers hasn’t always been easy. I first met Ajkena at age 15, when she was a part of her Lushnjë church youth group attending summer camp. Ajkena stood out as a young woman with unusually strong principles, an unwavering faith in God, and a beautiful singing voice. (She could sing Christian praise songs equally well in both English and Albanian, switching flawlessly between the two languages during evening events). Once camp was over and she returned to “real life”, however, things weren’t so carefree.
Missing her Father
Ajkena and I kept in touch through Skype, and I learned that she was struggling with her father’s recent return from Greece. Her father had been working there since she was one year old, and due to geographic distance they did not have a close relationship. Ajkena only knew his voice. “I will never forget his sacrifice for our family, or how my parents sacrificed their marriage in order for my sister and me to have the best food, clothes and education. But I thought that I’d never be able to fill the “hole” in my heart, of my father not being with me when I needed him the most.” God used this painful experience to mature Ajkena and she says her heart is now healed. “I am where I have always wanted to be. I let God heal my relationship with my father, and now I love him more than I could ever imagine.”
Coming to America
In 2013, Ajkena arrived in Glendive, Montana. It was a dream come true….but Ajkena faced new challenges that would cause loneliness and isolation, and force her to examine who she was in Christ. “I didn’t expect life in the US would be so different,” she says. “I was missing the warmth of Albania. In the US, there is less hugging, touching and emotional support from people. At first, I thought people around me were rejecting me, but over time I realized ‘that’s just the way it is; they’re not ignoring me.”
Getting accustomed to the cold climate of Montana, detachment of people, and countless cultural oddities (such as the use of artificial flowers for home décor) was just the beginning for Ajkena. Soon, her faith was tested when she entered the world of American college life. She attended church, but did not feel connected in her small town. Loneliness is common for university students when they leave home, but Ajkena was half a world away from her home and church family.
She began eating for emotional reasons, and gained weight. “American food has a lot of sugar and I started to eat more to combat stress. There are two types of women in the world – those who don’t eat when they are emotionally upset; and those that eat more. I am in the second category,” she says. Ajkena was trying to fill a spiritual void. “Growing up in church in Lushnjë, we were given real spiritual ‘food’. But here, my faith was not being fed.” Her steadfast immersion in God’s Word and reliance on Him kept her faith strong during those three years. She read her Bible daily and prayed, but says “I was downcast, but not hopeless because I knew God was with me.”
Finally Feeling at Home
True to her strong convictions, Ajkena focused on her education and her personal walk with God. Then in May 2016, she received the dreamed-of scholarship and moved west – to Boise, Idaho. Finding a new church, Ajkena says, “I finally felt at home! Bose is a bigger city than Glendive, so there were more people to befriend. I found other people who also felt disconnected!” This common ground with other believers helped Ajkena mature in her faith. “While I was going through my struggle to find community in Glendive, I was not judging anyone. I focused on not letting culture or nationality divide us. We are defined by the same God; we have the same Bible. Despite our nationality, socio-cultural influences, as true Christians, we define ourselves as citizens of God’s kingdom….who love and obey in the same way,” she says.
Having finally found her niche, Ajkena feels free to love others because she is so secure in her identity in Christ. “After my third year in Glendive, I learned how to love all kinds of people and realized this is life. I’m always going to have a good connection with people who think like me, but I am better able to love others for who they are.”
For as long as I have known Ajkena, this young Christ-follower has always had an optimistic attitude towards even the hardest battles in life. Much stronger than she looks, she works hard in all she does but has learned first-hand that the battle belongs to the Lord. “When you let Christ change your identity, you trust Him to do great things through you,” she reflects. “When you take big steps toward loving and accepting and having compassion for other people, just the way they are, it is completely His power.”