Customers at a Rockville Centre diner have raised thousands of dollars to support a waiter who was deported in April.
Sokol Vokshi worked at the Golden Reef diner for 15 years and always treated customers with kindness and warmth, said the restaurant’s owner, Jimmy Trahanas.
Vokshi moved to the United States in 1994 and was denied asylum in 1997. At that point, Vokshi was issued a deportation order, but immigration officials did not act on it and he remained in the country, according to his attorney, Altin Nanaj.
Officials put him on supervised release eight years ago, but in April he was detained by federal immigration authorities and deported back to Albania, Nanaj said, leaving behind his two daughters.
“I’m very emotional because I thought in my life I’d be able to work hard and save money and build an American dream like every single immigrant — Italian, Greek, Polish, Jewish. To do the right thing for the family,” said Vokshi, 47, in a phone interview from Albania.
When news spread among Golden Reef patrons, there was an outcry, Trahanas said.
“I saw people crying,” Trahanas said. “They still ask me every day if I have any news about him.”
A poster now hangs on the diner’s front door with two photos of Sal, as he’s known at the diner, and an appeal to donate to a GoFundMe campaign created by customers to help defray the waiter’s legal fees and other expenses. So far, they’ve raised more than $11,600 from 166 people, according to Warren Prosky, who helped start the fund on April 22.
“I understand you have people that do the wrong thing and need to be punished and removed,” said Prosky, 62, of Hewlett. “He worked hard. He’s the kind of person we want in this country.”
Vokshi was detained in 2010 and put on supervised release, which required him to check in with immigration authorities annually. He was barred from applying for a green card because of the asylum denial. He has no criminal record, Nanaj said.
On April 3, Vokshi reported to federal immigration authorities in Manhattan with Nanaj and was told that he would be deported. He was detained at Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey before he boarded a plane on April 5 that took him first to Vienna and then to Albania, Vokshi said.
He’s since been living in his hometown of Durrës with his sister, who he says is the only family he has left in the country.
Nanaj said Vokshi is not allowed to return to the United States for 10 years, though he is in the process of applying for advance parole so he can return to care for his two daughters. Advance parole is granted to people who cannot obtain a visa and would likely allow Vokshi to remain in the United States for a year, Nanaj said.
His daughters, Cynthia, 14, and Britney, 12, who has autism, remain in the care of Vokshi’s ex-wife.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for the metropolitan area did not return a request for comment. The current administration has said that any immigrant in the country illegally is subject to deportation as a matter of public safety and law enforcement.
In Albania, Vokshi worked on a farm and lived in a one-bedroom house with his parents and five siblings. He left the country looking for a better life, going first to Italy and then living for a time in Germany.
In 1994 he moved to Elmont to live with a cousin, found work as a waiter in Carle Place and started calling himself Sal, which he figured was easier for his customers to pronounce.
He eventually got the job at Golden Reef diner, where he worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. In 2007, he bought a three-bedroom home in Elmont.
“I worked hard, but I loved the job,” Vokshi said. “I loved being with the people. I loved telling them stories and learning their orders.” Trahanas called Vokshi the best waiter he ever had. On any given day, the Golden Reef is filled with regulars who come for Sal.
Robert Lucks, 54, of Valley Stream, was there for lunch last Wednesday. During the past 15 years, Lucks has had hundreds of conversations with Sal, about their children and their lives on the South Shore.
“He’s a real mensch,” Lucks said. “He’s a really good man, and also happens to be a very good waiter.”
Laurin Levine, 63, of Oceanside, sat nearby. It was one of the first times since Levine started coming to the diner 10 years ago that Sal wasn’t there to greet her with an iced tea, plate of pickles and his warm smile.
“I was brought to tears,” Levine said when she heard Vokshi was deported. “To take a hardworking man who owns a home, who contributed to society, who wanted a good life for his children and rip him from his family. I still feel sick thinking about it.”