Celebrating Gwinnett’s diverse population...... National United Nations Day
By Beth Volpert Johansen
Celebrating Gwinnett’s unique and diverse culture offers myriad opportunities to learn about immigrant stories. With United Nations Day being celebrated on October 24th, the stories of three successful Gwinnett residents who were born in other countries illustrate the adage that the United States is indeed the land of opportunity for world-wide populations.
One universal lesson for those born in America - slow down a little and enjoy what you have with the people you cherish.
Niko Patel - India
The Right Chemistry
Niko Patel’s story begins with an opportunity for furthering his education in the field of chemistry. Working in his father’s company came with great advantages for the young man, but lacked something that Niko could not quite put his finger on. After graduating college and working for his dad, Niko came to America to find a job in his field of chemistry and further his education.
While working at a liquor store part time and attending Mercer to pursue an MBA, Niko became fascinated by the chemical properties of the fine wines, scotches, and bourbons. “I worked for years in the industry before I took a drink,” says Niko. “I am from the same county as Gandi - Gujarat, where, of course, there is no alcohol allowed.”
Despite the fact that he didn’t actually drink any of the items he sold, Niko had a knack for choosing the best wines for customers by simply asking questions, considering the answers, and then recommending bottles that fit their tastes. “I got into knowing all about what I was selling and forgot about my chemicals,” says Niko. “My customers were amazed that a guy who didn’t drink could be right.”
Niko didn’t abandon his chemistry knowledge, but used it to formulate what he considered would be the perfect blend for a red wine. “I was the first in Georgia to make my own wine from Napa grapes at a winery in the Napa Valley,” says Niko. “It was made in California with my own chemical strategy and I sold it in my own store in Georgia.” His bottles are labeled with his Indian name: NiKOONJ. Each letter was assigned a word that represented the wine industry with an appearance that mimicked the periodic table. His customers declared it a delight and the wine sold out in no time.
Today, Niko spends his time in his own wine shop in Snellville-another first. “No one had ever asked for a tasting license before,” says Niko. “We received our license and now we have a wonderful clientele.” Each week, on wine-tasting night, Niko opens the doors to many regular customers who enjoy the various choices for the night and the occasional representative from wineries from around the world. “One thing I missed from living in India was the social life,” says Niko. “Here, in the U.S., people are always going somewhere after work, in India there was a time after work when people got together and shared time together.” Niko explains that the Thursday night wine tastings remind him of how neighbors would gather for conversation and to share their lives before heading home to a late dinner. “Here, after the tastings, my customers order meals for takeout and come here, open a bottle of wine and enjoy each others’ company.”
Enjoying the company of others is an important lesson that Niko wants to make sure his own children understand. Making certain that he and his wife, Benita, instill a sense of Indian culture into their two children, Vrunda and Rushi is important. “I want to pass along our culture to our children,” says Niko. “They are Americans, but it is important for everyone to know their roots.” Attending the Mandir Hindu Temple in Lilburn for worship and cultural events with his family helps Niko and Benita connect with their Indian Culture. (www.baps.org/Global-Network/North-America/Atlanta/Mandir-Info.aspx.
Finding friends there who share their heritage and holy days is reminiscent of the social structure Niko found good chemistry within his hometown. Finding a new formula for friends in the United States blends what he knows about the chemical properties of a fine wine with the chemistry of people. “If I can be right on your taste, that’s fun,” says Niko. “I think that is why I got into the liquor industry - to understand things chemically.”
Understanding the process of how to make a living and raise a family in a new country was simply a matter of combining the right chemical properties. For a man who looks at the world as single elements uniquely blended, success was just a matter of experimenting until he got the formula right. “There are lots more opportunities here in America,” says Niko. “Still, it takes time, but it is true that it is the land of opportunity if you want to work for it.”
Zejna - Bosnia
Heritage American Style
When Zejna Hadzic and her husband Husein arrived in the United States on June 17, 1993, she had just turned 17. The pair were the first to arrive in a wave of Bosnian immigrants relocating to Atlanta as a part of a refugee program sponsored by the International Rescue Committee. After their flight, the young couple was sent to the Jubilee Partners property in Comer, GA. “For two months, they provided us with a real home, taught us English, and took us shopping for food,” recalls Zejna. For she and her family, it was a safe place to begin their new lives.
After their two month acclimation within the protective boundaries of the Jubilee Partners property, the couple was relocated to an apartment on Memorial Drive. “It was a very busy place, but the point was to provide us with bus service so that we could get jobs and access the IRC offices,” says Zejna. During their time at the Memorial Drive apartment, many of their family members joined them including Zejna’s parents. “We spent seven years there, learned English, got better jobs and had both of our children.”
Getting married and leaving Bosnia at such a young age was more than traumatic for Zejna, like it was for many other refugees. With her heart still hurting from neighbors and friends turning their backs on her family, interment in a concentration camp, Husein’s brutal treatment in a concentration camp, and losing many of her family members to the war, Zejna could hardly fathom what “America” meant. “It wasn’t someplace you consider just up and moving to,” says Zejna. “Not when you are happy living in your hometown, you don’t expect everything to suddenly become such a nightmare.”
Putting their own trauma aside, Zejna and Husein began working very hard to better their lives. Husein had the advantage of possessing an international commercial vehicle driver’s license which helped him find a good job fairly quickly. Zejna began working at the Renaissance Hotel in Atlanta, but quickly learned her English skills were not going to get any better when the majority of her coworkers spoke only Russian so she continually sought better jobs with better pay to help Husein repay the approximately $1,300 they owed the IRC for their plane tickets. “We came to America with one suitcase and maybe $50 in our pocket,” says Zejna. “Everyone from the news stations came out to talk with us because we were the first ones to arrive here and they wanted to know what it was like.” From Bosnia to Comer, to Memorial Drive (with an abrupt introduction to Freaknik thrown in for good measure)...such was the Hadzic family’s introduction to life in Georgia, USA.
Eventually, Zejna began working in the banking industry. On the advice and recommendation of a friend, she applied for a job at Gwinnett Federal Credit Union and, to her surprise, got the job. “That was the beginning of my banking career,” says Zejna. “I am now working at BB&T and successfully pursuing my career.”
After seven years in the Memorial Drive apartment, the couple’s young son, Meho was ready to start kindergarten. On a whim, Zejna drove out to Grayson and decided that would be where they would establish their home. “No one knew ‘Where’s Grayson?’,” laughs Zejna. “Everything starts here, Meho started kindergarten here.” Zejna and Husein’s daughter, Medina was just 5 months old and Grayson would become her hometown. Having a hometown, putting down roots was of great importance to Zejna. Losing her own hometown to disappointment, fear, and war meant that she was more than determined to establish her new home for the sake of her growing children.
Seizing the opportunities of a very busy American life was helpful for Zejna. She had many days that coincided with the tragic events of her teenage years which brought tears to her eyes, but she felt stronger when she was taking steps to build a better life. Eventually, she and some of her fellow Bosnian friends established a community center in Clarkston, GA. As the Bosnian community grew, the center purchased a property in Snellville. When the group outgrew that property, Zejna, who was, at the time, CFO of a group called The Community of Bosniaks, helped her organization relocate to a larger facility in Lawrenceville. “Bosniak means ‘Bosnian Muslims’, “says Zejna. “We needed a place to celebrate our religious holidays, weddings, showers, birthdays and worship-our community just grew and grew.” It is at the community center that her daughter, now a sophomore at Grayson High School, learned traditional dances. “It sometimes feels like we are in Bosnia,” says Zejna. “I miss that relaxed social time we had-not like here where every minute is planned.” Zejna served for 4 years as an officer and is now taking time off to enjoy the center she helped establish. “It is a place that we can share our culture, but also, we know what horrible things each of us went through,” says Zejna. “It is a hard thing to explain to someone; there, they know.”
Sharing culture and heritage are common for immigrants, but sharing the secrets of suffering without having to explain yourself is beyond value. For Zejna, enjoying the protective boundaries of Jubilee Partners was a feeling she never lost. Establishing a place of peace for those who share her very real painful memories while teaching the next generation the customs of their heritage is Zejna’s own way of giving back and helping to pave the way for other Bosnians who had no choice but to flee their homes.
Finding Your Inner Spirit
Nancy (Alhabashi) Abuaisheh
Nancy is one determined woman. From the time she and her father left Jordan in the early 1980’s while she was in her early teen years through her battle with infertility and cancer to finding her way again with a renewed spirit, Nancy has maintained her faith that there is always something else wonderful to experience.
“I never dreamed I would be an artist or a writer or a business owner,” says Nancy. “I was happy being a mom and wife.” Life had far more in store for immigrant from Jordan. “My family, many of them are artists, painters...creative people,” says Nancy. “I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up, but that was not meant for me.” For Nancy, who began, but never finished college, life has offered far more valuable lessons than any formal education.
Nancy’s Artist Statement and biography show her motivation and determination to paint a reflection of what she finds in her heart. Her poetry is no less emotional as it outlines the pain of fighting a nearly fatal cancer. It was more than ironic to Nancy to have developed cancer just after she had just given birth to her children. “With three children under age 2, it was like I had triplets,” said Nancy. “I was in heaven and then it seemed like I would lose it all.” At the same time, she lost her beloved father to whom she looked for guidance. “My husband, Hashem Abuaisheh was my rock during this time,” recalls Nancy. “He helped me heal and be strong again.”
Part of Nancy’s healing came from painting. Without any formal training, Nancy began to paint at night after the babies had gone to sleep. For two years, she took chemotherapy treatments which came with all of the miserable side effects. For two years, her husband stood by her, soothed her, cared for their children, shaved his head in support, and prayed with her for a return to her former self.
The powers that be listened to their prayers and answered with renewed health and a strong spirit for the woman once happy to lead a simpler life. She wasn’t her former self, she was far more. “I think I painted the pain away,” says Nancy. “I wanted to feel good again and painting helped me, so I painted and painted.” She also wrote poems to describe the loss of her father, the love of her husband, the support of her local family, and most especially, the pain of having missed two years of her children’s earliest moments. Her poems were published in a book entitled, “Soul Whispers” for which she was nominated for the Poetry Georgia Author of the Year in 2012 and Honorable Mention at the London Book Festival in 2014.
As if poetry and painting were not enough to keep a woman with a new lease on life busy, Nancy presides most days over her own shop on the Lawrenceville Square. Nancy’s Candy and Spices is a bright space with tall dark brick walls perfect for hanging paintings. Her paintings have also hung in many spaces in Lawrenceville including The Lona Gallery and The Aurora Theater where she enjoyed huge success for her “Dream” showing. “It was this exhibit in 2011 at the Aurora that sold the most in Aurora history, that was so exciting!”
Walking into the store is a little like a therapy session. Filled with fresh candies, exotic dried fruits, and specially blended spices, the space gives visitors a sense of peace while they shop under the watchful gaze of the flighty muses in Nancy’s paintings. Nancy loves to counsel cooks of all types in order to match a special dish with the perfect spices. The smell of the shop is intoxicating, the paintings on the wall match the spirit of her newfound joy in life, and Nancy says she owes her ability to own and operate a successful business to the lessons she learned from her father when, as a little girl, she used to hide under his desk at work and listen to him talk with customers. “It is a summary of my dad’s experiences, my art, and my love of life,” says Nancy. “I am so blessed to have it-look around and see how happy I am! It is in everything!”
Nancy is not finished painting or showing art. “I have donated pieces to cancer research fundraisers and they have sold-I want to continue doing that,” says Nancy. “I want very much to give back, to lift up those who are fighting for their lives-I want them to know someone cares just like others cared for me.” Her works on the Art Can Pancreatic Cancer website are helping to fund research for a cancer Nancy finds to be among the most threatening. “It is hard to fight and I want to help.” She plans to paint as long as she is inspired and with her love of life, everything is an inspiration. “I see things with new point of view now.”
The three biggest sources of inspiration for Nancy are named, Hisham, Razanne, and Rowanne. The children bring great joy to the couple. “Being from another country and learning new customs was hard for me, but I still want my children to know of our culture,” says Nancy. “Some of our traditions, especially a deep respect for the elderly, are important for me to pass along.” While Nancy is intent on imparting lessons both Arabic and American, she feels that goodness is universal. “I teach my children that no matter what religion they encounter, good is good.”
Her daily routine is wrapped around her family; she fields calls from her husband and sisters, waits on customers, jots notes and keeps a running conversation answering questions about her life. And just like any other American Citizen, a jury summons waits on the corner of her desk ready to interrupt her daily routine. “You can’t help but fall in love with America,” says Nancy. “I do miss the more relaxed social life in Jordan, but it is funny how adaptive human beings are-people do change when they move someplace new.” The biggest benefit to having her work day extend into the evening has been learning to take a little time to herself in the mornings. “Now, I love to drink my coffee and sit in silence...I would miss THAT!”
As her days and nights blend around her family, Nancy continues to paint and write. “My art is a reflection of my soul,” says Nancy. “Art is the sum of a total experience-It may display love, desire, rage, or anger, but it always the truth.