Living the American Dream

Living the American Dream

By Sonia Duggan

The United States, long known as the land of opportunity, has always been a destination for those seeking freedom and a better life. 

Today, not much has changed. It is still thought of as the land of opportunity, a place where freedoms are

granted and lives can be forever changed by education and hard work. 

Over time, this melting pot of cultures has grown to represent ethnic groups from a variety of backgrounds. Here are the stories of three immigrants who found success and newfound opportunities in the “Land of the Free.”

Together, their accounts of hard work and entrepreneurship highlight the enduring promise of America and the diverse paths taken to achieve the American dream.

From exchange student to entrepreneur

Many know Gino Mulliqi as a dedicated Wylie city councilman and the owner of two popular local restaurants, Napoli’s Italian Restaurant and Starwood Café in Wylie. But few are aware of the extraordinary journey that brought him to this point.

In 2002, at just 17 years old, Mulliqi, an Albanian, left his war-torn homeland of Kosovo, embarking on a life-changing trip to the United States as an exchange student. 

Landing at JFK Airport in New York, he traveled to Portland, Oregon, to a small city near Bend, where for seven months he lived with an American family, immersing himself in a new culture and way of life.

After graduating from high school in Oregon, Mulliqi’s extra credits and college prep tests from his home high school paved the way for his acceptance into college, and his visa status, allowing him to pursue higher education. He moved to New York, where an uncle lived, and enrolled in community college. 

But before graduating college, the lure of a career in the communications industry took priority after being hired at a career fair. The ambitious Mulliqi started as an account executive then quickly climbed the ranks, eventually managing a 90-person team as a sales manager.

In New York, Mulliqi’s life took another significant turn when he met his future wife, Blerina, also an Albanian from Kosovo, through a mutual friend. At the time, she lived in Murphy with her parents. After marrying, Blerina  moved to New York, but the couple frequently visited Texas. During one visit, Blerina’s father, a longtime restaurateur, took Mulliqi to see Napoli’s Italian Restaurant in Wylie, a restaurant once owned by him that was shuttered by the former owner.

The visit sparked a pivotal decision for Mulliqi and his family after being offered the opportunity to reopen the restaurant.

In July 2013, Mulliqi quit his job and the couple moved to Texas to raise their newborn son in what he believed was a better environment. Texas, with its tight-knit communities, offered a stark contrast to New York. Mulliqi saw it as a place where he could make a real difference.

Not only has the restaurant thrived under Mulliqi but his drive to contribute to his new community led him to get involved in local government. He first volunteered to serve on the economic development board where he witnessed Wylie’s business and community growth.

His children, a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, attend Wylie ISD, and Mulliqi said he hopes they inherit his sense of responsibility and community spirit. 

And as a parent of children in the district, Mulliqi said it motivated him to get involved as he feels it’s important to influence the policies that “affect our kids on a daily basis, here in Texas, and in Wylie.”

Additionally, he wants to ensure that the community has “all the necessary things to grow, to learn and to develop.”

Mulliqi said he believes that local government is crucial because “it is where everything starts — where all the policymaking for that city is happening.” 

In 2023, just 11 years after moving to Texas, Mulliqi was elected to city council for a three-year term.

Today, Mulliqi continues to shape his community, emphasizing the importance of civic involvement. He encourages customers and newcomers to participate in local boards or nonprofits, believing that every small effort counts.

“We’re all very proud of where we’re from, but for me, as much as I love where I’m from and I love what I do, I also know that my kids are from the United States. And I try to incorporate that in the community where we are growing them and where we’re developing them. I think it’s important that we put in our time and effort in making Wylie or wherever we’re living one of the greatest communities.”

From a teenager fleeing a war-torn country to a community leader in Texas, Mulliqi’s journey underscores the power of hope, hard work and the desire to make a difference. Or, as he puts it, “You can’t say that for many countries in the world, but you can say that for the United States, specifically the state of Texas.”

Dreams do come true

On July 4, Ania Guzniczak Rust will celebrate her 50th year as an American citizen. But for Rust, the Fourth of July isn’t just a day for fireworks and barbecues — it’s a reminder of the journey she undertook half a century ago, leaving her home in Poland to forge a new life in the United States.

“I always had a dream to come to America,” Rust said. Born and raised on a farm, the prospect of a better life was a beacon of hope. 

“Poverty-stricken is beyond description,” she said, describing her early years in Poland. Her dream became a reality in 1967, at the age of 17, when she immigrated to the U.S. to care for her grandfather in Florida. Her grandfather had left Poland during the war to help support the family, but he never returned. At the time, Rust said her grandmother was pregnant with her father.

“When I arrived, my grandfather was very ill and became quite senile as days went by,” Rust said. 

Despite not speaking English and having only a sixth-grade education, Rust said she knew she had to learn how to take care of him. Then, when her grandfather gave away all his belongings, leaving her homeless, Rust was more determined than ever to stay in America. 

“I knew I was not going back, no matter what,” she said.

To make ends meet, Rust became a housekeeper. However, faced with threats from immigration authorities, she said, “I went on my hands and knees in a praying motion saying, ‘I will create jobs. I promise you, just let me stay in America. I don’t want anything else from America, just give me the opportunities.’”

Rust knew that to move forward, she needed an education. She was advised to get a GED, which she achieved despite her limited English proficiency. 

“I did get my GED in America by guessing because I could not understand English,” she admitted. From there, her career in healthcare began. Starting as a nursing assistant, she became a licensed vocational nurse, 

According to Rust, her education journey wasn’t easy. She initially attended college in Miami on a tentative acceptance after being denied, pleading with admissions to give her a chance. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. During her second year of college, she met her American husband. 

The ambitious Rust eventually went on to earn two master’s degrees in nursing at the University of Florida.

“I really loved the geriatric population, so I went to get a degree in gerontology,” she said.

After moving to Texas with her husband and newborn son, Rust became a nursing home administrator in Wylie. 

But after a while, Rust continued her quest for success.

“I knew that in order to make a difference to more people, I had to open my own business in the healthcare profession,” she said.

In 1990, Rust opened a home healthcare agency in Richardson, which she sold to HCA/Columbia three years later. 

“After that, I wanted to continue being my own boss and take care of people the right way,” she said.

 In 1994, she opened multiple assisted living homes, which she operated until selling them prior to the pandemic.

Since moving to Sachse a few years ago, Rust has been very involved in her community. “I’m very proud of where I live,” she said. She frequents the senior center, a local gym and volunteers at the Amazing Grace Food Pantry every week, calling it her “happy, happy, happy time.” 

As a widow with two children with families of their own, Rust decided to tackle a long-awaited task 50 years in the making. Her book, “The American Dream: Journey to Everlasting Success,” was released on April 24. 

“It is motivational and inspirational,” she said. “And it includes tips on how to live the best life ever, how you can help other people, what America can do, what you can do for America … it is so very comprehensive.” 

Rust ordered 500 copies of her book and sells them herself to eliminate royalties with 100% of the profits going toward a scholarship fund for students pursuing a career in healthcare.

“I lost lots of sleepless nights writing the book because I wanted to help,” she said. “I want to leave a legacy for American people and for my family too.” 

And on July 4, Rust will be celebrating what she calls “my American birthday.” 

Big influence, big dreams

You’ll often find Oladipo (Ladi) Awowale on the sidelines of local high school sports events, capturing the action through his camera lens as part of his freelance photography gig. But the journey that brought him to this point is one of perseverance and the transformative power of education.

Awowale’s story began in Lagos, Nigeria, where, at the age of 22, he was working as a bank teller. He dreamed of furthering his education abroad, a dream that found a path through a regular customer at the bank. 

“There was a gentleman who had three children in Texas at that time,” Awowale said. “He knew that I was endeavoring to go back to school to go abroad. So, he told me, ‘I will get you an admission.’”

With the paperwork secured through his customer’s children, Awowale filled out the necessary forms, and by 1982 he received his admission to attend Bishop College, now known as Paul Quinn College, in South Dallas and a four-year visa. 

In May 1983, he arrived in the U.S. joining a community of Nigerians who primarily came for education before returning home. However, as political and economic conditions in Nigeria worsened, many, including Awowale, chose to remain in the U.S.

“Things started changing back in Nigeria, and it wasn’t for the better,” he said. “So, the majority of us decided to just stay here.”

Adjusting to life in South Dallas was a challenge said Awowale. Despite speaking English, he said he initially struggled to understand the local accent. Additionally, experiencing the distinct American seasons for the first time was bewildering. 

“When you’ve come from Africa, you only have two seasons; the rainy season and the dry season,” Awowale said. “You know nothing about fall, winter, or spring. One day, it suddenly just got cold. I didn’t even have a sweater, much less a jacket.”

To help support himself, Awowale worked as a security guard, and eventually discontinued his education. But his life took a significant turn in 1987 when he married, and by May 1988 the couple were expecting their first daughter. 

The financial pressure of raising a child on minimum wage led him to return to school in spring 1988.

“I asked myself if I could raise a child making $4.75 per hour,” he said. But with the support of his wife’s family, Awowale said he figured out a way to get an education “and it helped me a lot.” 

“I always tell people, if you want something bad enough, you will figure out a way to do it,” he added. “That’s why I don’t accept excuses. I tell them excuses are a lie that you’ve told yourself and you want me to believe it.”

Balancing work, a family of four and education, Awowale earned a Bachelor of Science in accounting from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1993. His degree opened doors to the corporate world where he worked until starting a home healthcare business in 2001 with his wife. They ran the business together — even after divorcing — until it sold in 2017.

Seeking to expand his knowledge in healthcare, Awowale returned to school and became a nursing home administrator. He lived and worked in various small communities in Texas and New Mexico for about two and a half years until he decided he’d had enough.

With his former career now in the rear-view mirror, Awowale put down roots in Lavon and took a position as a food service manager at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Bonham. 

Here, he found that his familiarity with South Dallas has helped him communicate effectively with many inmates. Because of this, Awowale is particularly committed to influencing the youth, especially those in the criminal justice system, by demonstrating that education and hard work could lead to a life beyond poverty and crime. 

“I’ve been able to influence a lot of these kids’ lives,” he said, adding “I just started my fourth year here and I’m loving it.”

Alongside his professional endeavors, Awowale pursued his passion for photography, becoming a freelance photographer in 2012. He values hard work and patience, believing that success does not come from quick money but from dedication and perseverance. 

“I’ve never been one to be interested in quick money,” he said. “I’ve always known that everything takes time and you’ve got to work hard for it.”

Growing up in Nigeria, Awowale said a belief in education as a passport to opportunity was deeply ingrained. And while some parents might not even be educated, he said they will make sure that their kids are educated.  

“Education doesn’t guarantee richness, but at least it can drag you out of the poverty rate,” he said. “If you manage what you make very well, then you can live a comfortable life without having to live from hand to mouth.”