America, the world’s melting pot, has been welcoming immigrants since the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock.
Woven into the fabric of our nation’s history, their stories and ancestry help paint a picture of who we are as a country, where we came from, and why. Seeking ideals like religious, political, and artistic freedom, as well as access to opportunity and education, their reasons for coming to America are as multifaceted as they are.
However, most, if not all, share a common thread: the dream of a better life.
Mohamad Hafez, 34
artist and architect from Syria
With a serene expression, and hands held in prayer, the Virgin Mary stands atop a staircase, awaiting entry into a celestial doorway.
By contrast, the building around her appears decayed, ravaged by bombs, and artillery shells.
Capturing both the hope and destruction that accompany war, the finely detailed piece, fittingly titled, “Why Have You Forsaken Us?!” hangs on the wall of Mohamad Hafez’s New Haven studio.
For more than 15 years, the 34-year-old artist and architect has used his work as a conduit for expressing the emotional connection he shares with Syria – his birthplace, and more recently, one of the most war-torn countries in the world.
“Seeing parts of this beautiful, rich culture, getting bombed out of existence, from afar…to see that from a distance, is really painful,” explains Hafez. “So, this is, what you’re seeing, a way to cope, in a cathartic expression, with that pain.”
The third of four children, Hafez spent much of his early childhood living in a Saudi Arabian village, where his father worked as a surgeon at a military hospital.
With limited access to education, his parents sent him and his siblings to school in the capital city of Riyadh, a two-hour ride across the Saudi desert.
“They bussed us, every day, almost 120 miles each way, to get an education,” he says.
Native to Syria, his family eventually returned to live in Damascus when Hafez was 15, and the experience served as an awakening.
“You see biblical architecture, Islamic architecture, Jewish architecture … Roman, Greek, and I’m seeing thousands of years of architecture, just taking it all in, taking it all in, and I fell in love.”
Hafez said that the four years he spent living in the city were defining ones, providing him with a deeper understanding of who he was and where he’d come from.
Following in the footsteps of his older siblings, he eventually left Damascus, however, to attend college in the United States.
Initially an electrical engineering student, Hafez switched gears after realizing that his passion lay in architecture, and enrolled at Iowa State University.
But while he’d found his vocation as an architect, he lost the ability to travel home, as the single-entry visa he’d been granted to study in the U.S. didn’t permit return visits to Syria.
“My family would get together, my sister got married … kids,” he says. “And I’m staying from afar, in the middle of Iowa, dead winter, and I’m homesick to the bone, and they would send me photos, and I’m homesick; I miss them, I miss my country that I only discovered for three or four years.”
One Friday evening, while his fellow classmates were out socializing, Hafez found himself working in an empty architecture studio.
Drawn to discarded scraps of wood and metal, he began to tinker with them.
Working through the night, he channeled his loneliness into a three-dimensional scene, depicting what he most longed for.
“I had made a piece that looked like old Damascus,” he says. “I didn’t feel the time, tremendously enjoyed it, and felt I had connected to home.”
It was then Hafez realized that although he couldn’t go back to Syria, through his work, he could recreate it.
“That’s when I found a cure to homesickness.”
In the years that followed, Hafez spent much of his free time working on his art, before graduating in 2009, and relocating to New Haven, where he accepted a job with an architecture firm.
It was on a work assignment in 2011 that he first returned to Syria, having been away for more than eight years.
“I was in heaven,” he recalls. “I was walking, again, I’m walking the same streets of old Damascus, but as an adult, as an architect, as an artist; a woke person.”
To assuage the homesickness he knew he’d experience upon leaving, Hafez used his phone to record audio snippets of life in the city.
From children playing and birds flying overhead, to street conversations and calls to prayer, he preserved in sound what he viewed through his eyes, never knowing that he was capturing the end of an era.
“Years later, after the war had started, and the devastation had started, I had come across my recordings by mistake, and I discovered that I had captured this moment of peace, that is no longer existent, because the Syrian skies were not sounding like call to prayers and pigeons flying anymore. They were sounding of bombs, and mortar shells, and people dying.”
Despondent over the conflict and subsequent refugee crisis, which included many members of his own family, Hafez’s art became a personal reflection of his grief, inspiring him to create pieces like “Why Have You Forsaken Us?!” to help express it.
“So now my work takes a shift, and I remodel the destruction of my country in high detail to raise awareness, to cope with what’s happening, and to talk about it to the world.”
And the world has taken notice.
In the last three years, Hafez’s intricate depictions have been exhibited throughout the East Coast including his most recent work, a series entitled, “UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage,” which was displayed at the UNICEF House at the United Nations in New York.
As his artwork continues to garner recognition and media attention, Hafez hopes that it will bring a greater awareness to the plight of refugees throughout the world, as well as convey the message that while each of us might have a different story, we all share in the same human experience.
“We are as united by our differences, just as much as we are united by our similarities,” he says. “Nothing is more beautiful, in my mind, than spreading good in an art form. This is a way of seeking comfort and refuge in a constantly changing, unstable world.”
Judge M. Nawaz Wahla
Superior Court Judge from Pakistan
From a very young age, M. Nawaz Wahla had big dreams. Growing up on a farm in a small Pakistan village, he was inspired by his father who instilled the belief that anything was possible with hard work and ambition.
“I had a very close connection with my father who taught me things,” says Wahla. “He was very wise and he taught me things, all day long, and would say, ‘Do this, and do this, but never give up. Ever.’”
With that in mind, Wahla left when he was 17, attending a local university before being accepted at the prestigious Pakistan Military Academy, where he graduated and became an officer in the Pakistani army.
While participating in an operation to prevent smugglers from bringing arms and ammunition over the Iranian border, he was critically injured.
“I had lost two of my soldiers, and I was wounded very, very seriously. I was hospitalized for a very long period of time,” he says.
A dark period in his life, it was also a turning point.
Having worked to obtain his law degree at night while serving in the army, Wahla decided to recalibrate and applied to law school in Austin, Texas. When he was accepted, he emigrated from Pakistan in 1988 with his wife, an army nurse, and their three small children, in a decision he called fate.
“Why did I choose [America]? The answer is destiny,” he says.
“I could have never chosen any other country. Even now, never any other country over America. It is one of the best countries on the planet.”
When the time came to take the bar exam, a technicality prevented Wahla from taking it in Texas, so he took the test in Connecticut instead, and stayed.
For 11 years he practiced as a lawyer before one of his colleagues, a federal judge, sat him down and asked if he’d ever considered becoming a judge.
“That day was Sept. 8, 2008, around 10 o’clock. I will never forget that moment,” he recalls. “He said to me, ‘You have all the attributes to be a wonderful judge.’ And I just couldn’t stop crying.”
Two years later, Wahla took the judicial oath.
“This is the amazing strength of my adopted country,” he says, “that you can do anything if you have the temperament, if you have the desire to work hard.”
For five years he presided over court in Hartford, before recently becoming a Superior Court judge in New Haven.
He says being a judge is an honor as it often enables him to help people at a time when they need it most.
“You listen to people and try to do the right thing, and you are in position to make a difference in someone’s life,” he says. “That’s the beauty.”
Though he’s accomplished much in the 30 years he’s been here, Wahla said that his work is far from over.
In July, he graduated with a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a program that routinely sees its graduates move on to serve as heads of state, diplomats, and political leaders.
While he’s more than pleased with where he is in life, he also feels compelled to do more for Pakistan – his birthplace, and a country still struggling with shortfalls in education, opportunity, and many other basic necessities.
“My diplomatic dream, maybe it comes in somewhere, so that I can probably make a little difference in that realm of affairs,” he says.
“Will I be able to do that? I don’t know. But I also know that if you can dream this, you can do it.”
Having never imagined that he’d end up as a Superior Court judge in America, Wahla said that, as his father instilled, anything is possible.
“I am a living example,” he says.
He continues by saying that it has taken both passion and perseverance for him, a farm boy from a tiny Pakistani village, whose parents never attended a single day of school, to get to where he is now.
But more than that, he says, it’s the opportunities he’s been afforded in America, which have made all the difference.
“That’s the beauty, also, of this country,” he says. “It gives you those avenues – you don’t have to stop, you continue, wherever you want to be.”
Annie Thu Migliore,
fashion designer and business owner from Vietnam
After the fall of Saigon, thousands of South Vietnamese military officers were seized and sent to “re-education camps,” where they were indoctrinated with communist ideals while performing hard, physical labor.
Abused and tortured, many detainees remained captive for years, often dying from starvation and disease.
A lieutenant who’d served in the American Air Force, Annie Migliore’s father simply didn’t come home one day, and when her mother went to find him, she learned that he was among those captured.
Within days, the communist army stripped Migliore’s mother and siblings of their home and possessions, forcing them to take refuge with family until they could locate where her father had been taken.
Once he had been found, Migliore’s mother moved to be closer to her husband, but due to lack of money and the isolated location, her only choice was to live in the woods outside the prison camp.
“My mother, my sister and brother, they literally chopped down trees, and they built a house by hand,” Migliore says.
Allowed sporadic visits with her father, they lived in the makeshift home until his eventual release, six years later.
After her parents were reunited, Migliore was conceived. However, the years her father spent suffering in the prison camp had changed him, and the parents separated soon after.
Stigmatized as the family of a South Vietnamese sympathizer, Migliore’s mother and siblings were unable to attend school or find sustainable work, and they struggled to make ends meet.
Because her husband had served in the U.S. military, Migliore’s mother applied to come to America and was granted permission.
But when the time came to leave, Migliore’s mother was informed that she could only bring three of her eight children.
The others, all over the age of 18, would have to stay behind.
Ten at the time, Migliore recalls the trauma of having her family broken apart.
“Every night, I do not want to go. I cry so much, and my sister cry, my brother cry, my mom cry,” she remembers.
“Imagine a family; we bonded so much, because they took all our money – we live together, we sleep in one bed, we sleep on the floor, and finally we got a passport to come to America, to have a better life, to be treated like humans again …”
Only to learn that not all of them would get the chance.
Too painful to separate, they decided to stay in Vietnam. But Migliore’s brother implored them to reconsider.
“My older brother said, ‘Mom, it’s better than here, because over here we can never get up, because they’ll never let us be what we want to be.’”
In hopes of providing the three youngest children with opportunities they’d undoubtedly be denied in Vietnam, they immigrated to Bridgeport in 1989.
With very little money, a 12-year-old Migliore found work washing dishes to help support the family.
But it was in sorting through donated clothes, provided by the state, that she found her calling.
“We would go into that room, and it was all old clothes, clothes already used, and I looked at it; some I liked, some I don’t, and I bring home and I would cut off the sleeves,” she says, “and I’m making clothes, different clothes, for myself.”
What began as a childhood hobby turned into a dream, and when she was 22, Migliore enrolled in fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, where she excelled.
“I graduated, and I win Critic’s Award,” she says. “There was [only] four of us out of 2,000-something students, and it was pretty big.”
From there, her career took off and she accepted a job as an assistant designer for fashion giant Liz Claiborne before moving on to work for several other high-profile design companies, using her success to help her siblings back home.
“All the money I have, I give it to my family, to make their lives better – they were still in Vietnam at that time,” she says.
Vowing to change that, Migliore began the lengthy, and expensive, process of bringing them to America.
In 2010, they were finally reunited, after having spent more than 25 years apart.
“I always believed,” she says. “I just feel that there’s somebody protecting me, and protecting my family.”
Anticipating that they would need employment upon arriving to the U.S., Migliore left her fashion career to open a nail salon in West Haven, where they could earn a living.
Now, eight years later, her family established, Migliore, who lives in Hamden, has a family of her own, having recently married and become a mother.
In September of 2017, she returned to fashion design and launched her own women’s apparel line, Marco Migliore, named for her son.
Much like the company name, her designs, which include dresses, coats and jackets, are named for the various people who have had an impact on her life, including her mom, who she says made so many sacrifices for the sake of her children.
“My mom is amazing, the most beautiful woman on Earth,” she says.
Migliore also says she’s grateful that she was able come to the United States, her home of nearly 30 years.
“I’m so proud to be an American,” she says. “I love America, and I think it’s the best country in the world. It’s the land of opportunities.”