Living the American Dream
By Sonia Duggan
The United States is a nation built by immigrants. Some of the earliest settlers came in search of religious freedoms, while the majority of immigrants came to America seeking economic opportunities that would provide them hope for a better life.
Today, not much has changed. The United States 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. This melting pot of cultures has grown to represent ethnic groups from a variety of backgrounds.
Here are stories of three immigrants who found success and newfound opportunities in the ‘Land of the Free.’
Lottery brings new life
Most people dream of cash rewards when they play the lottery, but for Wylie dentist Dr. Fesaha Gebrehiwot, the lottery was a way to get a visa and permanent residency to pursue his vision of opportunity in the United States more than 20 years ago.
Gebrehiwot is a native of Eritrea on the eastern coast of Africa who won the Green Card Lottery under the Diversity Immigrant Visa program of the U.S. Department of State in 1997.
He saw the United States as a destination for opportunity.
“I figured the best way I could get an education was in the United States,” Gebrehiwot recalled.
The dentist is the son of farmers and grew up in a small village, in a stone house that had neither electricity nor plumbing. Water for cooking and cleaning had to be fetched from a well two miles away.
He and his eight siblings had a 6-mile walk each day to attend school, which Gebrehiwot describes as rudimentary, at best. What the students learned was provided solely in the classroom because the school did not have any books for students.
“I was a good student, but the resources were limited,” he said.
Gebrehiwot completed 12 grades of public school in his village and was a freshman student attending college in another village when he heard about the visa program and decided to apply. He was selected by lottery, but the next hurdle was to find someone to sponsor his immigration.
“I didn’t know anyone here,” the dentist recalled.
As fate would have it, he met “a cousin’s friend’s brother” from Chicago who was visiting Eritrea.
“He asked me one question. What would I do if I came to the United States,” Gebrehiwot recalled, “I said I would study.”
With sponsorship and a green card, the then 20-year-old with broken English embarked on an adventure to improve his life.
Initially, he flew to Chicago but found the city overwhelming.
“My sponsor was in Chicago,” he said. “I was from a tiny village. It’s a big city. Finally, I decided to move to Phoenix, Ariz. A friend of mine came through the same process so I thought we could be roommates.”
Even though he came here on the Visa lottery, he said it was not a free ride.
“You pay an administration fee to the Embassy,” he said. “When you get here you get a green card right away. That’s the beauty of that. You can work. You can go to school.”
But first, Gebrehiwot had to establish residency which meant he had to wait one year to go to college.
As soon as he arrived in Arizona, he secured a job with Sky Chefs at the airport.
“I came borrowing money to pay my education,” he said. “The first year I work my butt off. I worked 12-hour shifts for 365 days.”
He lived in an apartment, sharing expenses with five other people and after a year trimmed his hours working to go to school.
Although he had studied written English, his ability to speak the language was rudimentary at best. Within a year, Gebrehiwot began taking ESL classes.
“An immigrant would tell you the same story,” he said. “The spoken part you practice, practice and practice.”
The next year, when he felt comfortable enough speaking English, he enrolled at Phoenix (Ariz.) Community College where he took his basics then transferred to Arizona State University where he earned a degree in electrical engineering in 2002.
Working as an engineer with Motorola in Phoenix, he received benefits as well as earned a good salary. After experiencing dental issues for the first time in his life that involved a root canal, a crown and treatment for bleeding gums, Gebrehiwot said the experience changed him.
“People like me had no idea of dental health,” he recalled. “I found myself getting kind of fascinated about it.”
Initially, he continued working as an electrical engineer while returning to ASU, taking night classes in biology and other sciences required to attend dental school. In 2008, at 32, he was accepted into the dental program at the University of Washington in Seattle, and for the next four years worked to become a doctor.
While some may have questioned his decision to start a new career after earning a decent salary, he said it didn’t stop him. “I came here with nothing,” he said. “Age doesn’t matter, as long as there is a will, it can happen. You can use it to empower you or use it to disable you.”
Gebrehiwot returned to Arizona after earning his degree and worked in a group practice until deciding to strike out on his own. The dentist said he looked at possible areas to relocate, studied demographics and decided on the Dallas area, eventually zeroing in on Wylie, opening his private practice, Trusted Dental, in October 2018.
There’s no doubt Gebrehiwot is confident about the choices he’s made since he made the move to the U.S.
“Being here honestly, if you have a dream you can make it happen.”
Lavon resident Daisy Wu, 56, first became interested in relocating to the U.S. while a masters’ level student at Hainan University in Haikou, China. One of her professors – from London – would introduce different cultures and food to the class each week.
“At that time, I thought about Britain and (the fact) that school was easier to be accepted,” she said. She eventually learned even more opportunities for the pursuit of education existed in the U.S.
Even though she was already pursuing an advanced degree, she ultimately wanted a doctorate.
“In China, all parents, teachers emphasize education,” she said. “Teachers are very well respected.”
Wu grew up in Zhengzhou, a large city in east-central China. At 17, she began studying electrical engineering at Hunan University in Changsha, in the southern part of the country.
She wanted to study computer science, which is what she requested when she took the mandatory National College Entrance Exam. However, the governing Communist Party of China (CPC) can choose what each student majors in.
Although she didn’t enjoy electrical engineering as much as she would’ve enjoyed computer science, Wu went on to get her master’s in the same subject.
She realized her dream at 28 when she emigrated from China to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering from Louisiana State University. Wu said she picked LSU because the electrical engineering program was ranked higher nationwide than the other three universities she applied to.
Wu said she quickly learned to love the food and the state.
“I remember eating a lot of Po’boys, gumbo, crawfish,” she said. “It’s a beautiful state. American people are really friendly.”
Her husband Ju joined her 10 months later. Initially, he worked while she went to school, then he worked toward getting his second master’s degree in Computer Science.
One and a half years into her doctorate program, a headhunter contacted Wu and offered her a job.
“The computer market was hot,” she said, so she decided to transfer to a master’s program in Computer Science to expedite her opportunity to work.
A financial company in Dallas offered her a job in bank tech, so she and Ju relocated from Louisiana. They became citizens and had a son named Jeffrey, now 24, after they moved.
Wu changed jobs and worked for Nortel, then Erickson for more than 20 years.
Over time, Ju’s whole family moved to the U.S. and Wu has many family members here as well.
“My parents felt so comfortable being in the U.S.,” she said.
The couple moved to Lavon five years ago where Wu, now retired, enjoys the quiet, country life. She raises chickens, ducks and a large garden.
Although she has been away from her homeland 28 years, Wu says she has no desire to return to China.
“I feel I’m treated much better than back in China,” she said. “You have more freedoms – freedom of speech. I prefer not going back at all. Here is my everything.”
New wife, new life
Flamur Derguti may not have ever come to the United States if it wasn’t for his wife Midea. Her dreams of continuing her college education prompted the 26-year-old man to follow her back to the country she and her family had called home since the Kosovo War ended in 1999.
“She said, ‘I’m going to go to college and all that,’ so I said ‘OK, I’m going to come see for six months.’”
Fourteen years later, it’s evident that Derguti, an entrepreneur from the time he was a small child, has seen what he needed to in order to achieve success.
The son of a barber and a teacher, Derguti and his three brothers were born in Skopje, a town in what is now known as North Macedonia. It has borders with Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania.
As a child, Flamur was industrious, always finding ways to make money, including selling cold sodas in a piazza with his brothers when he was in the fourth grade. By the time he was in the 7th grade, Flamur took over his older brother’s job working as a jeweler when his brother left for Germany at 18. Flamur became a student of the trade, making rings and necklaces out of gold throughout school until he was 19.
During the war in Kosovo, Flamur said he volunteered by helping refugees decide where they wanted to relocate. He jokes that he may have even helped his (future) wife’s family at the time, but he is unsure.
At 20, as customary in many countries, Flamur was called to serve mandatory time in the Army for nine months. His assignment was working as a Border Patrol agent near Bulgaria.
After the war, Flamur returned home and became a barber working with his father until a better opportunity came along. One of his brothers started a custom interior design business making columns and decorative items. Flamur worked with him until 2003 when the desire to travel became too strong. He took off for Germany, staying with cousins for a little while before moving to Lyon, France where he lived with his aunt for one year and worked at a pizza place.
Flamur was not fond of France. “For visiting it’s good,” he said. “I don’t like living there.”
In 2004, he rejoined two of his brothers at the interior design business which had become successful. After his older brother got married and left, Flamur continued working. Not too long after, he met Midea when she was in Kosovo on vacation. They became engaged and, in 2005, married in a small ceremony. Flamur said he was excited about the opportunity to move to America. “I love all the time U.S.A.”
He applied for a Visa, and when it was approved, he was able to join his new wife and her family in Dallas in 2006.
“I got a Visa and July 4 I flew from Macedonia to Atlanta, then Dallas,” he said.
While Midea went to college and worked at McDonald’s, Flamur started working for his father-in-law who had a construction company in Garland.
He soon found out that he was not a fan of the Texas heat.
“It’s very hot for me and I cannot handle it,” he said.
After three months in the U.S., Flamur found a job working at Sali’s Pizza and Pasta, a restaurant in Garland. He started in the kitchen, then eventually worked waiting tables.
“When I first started, I was working 12 hours a day seven days a week,” he said.
Flamur embraced free enterprise and his hard work paid off.
“If you work hard you have it, and if you don’t…”
He bought a house in Garland in 2008, and in 2009 got his U.S. citizenship. The next year, Flamur was able to realize his dream of being a business owner. He bought the former Italian Villa in downtown Wylie which he later re-named Villa Vinci after a restaurant his brother owned at the time in New Castle, England.
Although his family still lives across the ocean, he says his mother visits often and stays six months at a time to help with his and Midea’s three children, ages 10, 7, and 5. He travels when he can to visit his brothers; two are in Macedonia and one is in Poland, but he says after a few weeks, “I start missing my Texas. This is my home now.”
Joe Reavis and Morgan Howard also contributed to these stories.