2019 MYgration Shorts

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 Having left his native Kazakhstan in 1993 at the age of 18, Eldar Baigabatov saw a lot of the world on his way to Central Florida – – including London, Grenada and the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Along the way, he acquired a med-school degree and certifications that have enabled him to establish a practice as a functional medicine specialist and internist in Winter Garden. His patients include expatriates from Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union. “It’s hard for them to find a Russian speaking physician who also understands their culture,” he says. “I’m also working on building a medical resort that will incorporate elements of my culture.” His heritage is extremely important to him: “We have a long and great history that ties us to Silk Road and Chingiz Khan,” he explains. A recent trip back home allowed Dr. Eldar and his kids to visit his parents and other relatives for the first time in a decade. But he’s quite happy living here, in what he calls a “a civilized paradise. We used to come here to vacation ourselves before we made the move, and every time I come back I feel the same excitement.”

“Tee” Buchin is the daughter of Tahitian-born James Buchin, who came to Orlando by way of Hawaii and Key Largo, his work as a touring cultural musician eventually leading to employment at SeaWorld. Today, Tee and her family thrive as performers who preserve the traditions of their upbringing via music, dance, storytelling and genealogy. Practicing these pursuits at home as well as on the stage allows Tee and her family to celebrate the Mana, or life force, that they are taught connects everything. “Culture brought us here; Aloha is why we stay,” she says, embodying the family tradition of performance and education that extends from generation to generation – and the opportunities Orlando continues to hold for performers and culturalists that keep the family headquartered here.

“Warm weather and golf” drew Joe Choi to Central Florida from northern New Jersey five years ago – a move he paints as fairly quick and unglamorous, with just a carful of belongings and his dog in the front seat. Yet his personal path has been a good deal more colorful and involved: South Korean by parentage, he’s also spent a significant amount of time in Russia and the former Soviet Union. (“I actually speak better Russian than I do Korean,” he says.) Here in Orlando, he keeps his heritage alive by performing in improv shows, stage plays, films and commercials, where the representation of Asians is still running behind society at large. Living in such a tourist Mecca, he feels a responsibility to “pay forward” the kindness he’s encountered on his many travels: “It’s a privilege to live in a place where the rest of the world vacations,” he says.

   Growing up in Northern Ireland in the midst of “the troubles,” Sarah Costello developed a strong sense of national identity that she was to carry with her when she began her career as a touring Irish dancer. Performing as part of a troupe that visited 31 countries in the space of nine years, she eventually made a lonely solo voyage to Orlando to work at Disney. Yet it is here that she has truly thrived, founding the Central Florida Irish Dance school that holds classes in several area locations (and which won the Entertainment grand prize at 2018’s inaugural FusionFest). “I have never felt so at home than I do in Orlando,” she says, thanks to our area’s cultural diversity in general and its strong Irish community, which helps her remain connected to her roots. “I have brought together lots of Irish immigrants and their families,” she says of her work here. “I am now teaching their first-generation American children the culture of Ireland and their heritage.”

   Anna Cuéllar had to learn a lot about the United States when she came to Orlando from Mexico 15 years ago to perform in Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba – including not just our customs and culture, but the English language itself. Now she’s both a proud citizen and an entrenched artist, having spent the years 2004 to 2017 as an aerialist and team captain in the show, then moving on to a position as choreographer and artistic coach for the Cirque du Soleil at Sea cruise venture. In addition, she’s established herself as an independent choreographer and show producer whose works have been performed in locales ranging from New York to Las Vegas to Guatemala to back home in Mexico. Shows she created and produced were among the highlights of the last two editions of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. “Orlando is my home now,” she declares, although she stays in touch with where she came from by eating traditional foods and attending celebrations at the Mexican consulate. “It is important to keep my culture, language, traditions and to preserve my cultural heritage,” she says, “because it keeps my integrity as a person and is a part of my history.”

Arguably the most prominent Iranian-American in Central Florida, Anna Eskamani was elected in 2018 to represent the 47th District in our state House of Representatives. It was quite the accomplishment for a native-born Orlandoan whose parents came here four decades ago to seek the fabled American dream, but Anna had already distinguished herself via several leadership roles within the community, most recently Senior Director at Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. An Orlando booster who praises us as “a young city and so malleable,” she makes it a priority to stay in touch with our Iranian-American community by hosting special cultural events (and by frequenting establishments like Longwood’s Ali Baba restaurant). Her heritage, she says, is “foundational to my lived experiences,” and has been a source of strength in the past when she has faced instances of racism and oppression. But she’s optimistic and enthusiastic about the direction in which already-diverse Central Florida is headed: “We really get to shape our community’s future.”

   Elizabeth Fullington had to give up a lot to escape from Guyana three decades ago, when the country’s political climate became untenable for herself and her family. But after the “punishment” of being forced to surrender her assets, and what she calls a traumatic move to New York and then here, she’s found a new life that retains some of the comforts of the old (like the climate) within a more nurturing environment she has seen develop “beautifully and tremendously. My goodness, we can literally say we saw International Drive in its early stages of growth.” A music teacher since her days in Guyana, Elizabeth is the founder of the Ruby Holland Foundation for the Arts, an undertaking (named for her mother) that opens the doors of music education to students of modest means. Having now lived in Central Florida for longer than she did in the country of her birth, she says she’s very grateful for the heritage that has made her who she is today, and that has enabled her to introduce others to new opportunities and perspectives.

Silvia Huddleston’s love affair with dance began in her native Peru, where she graduated from the prestigious National School of Folklore José María Arguedas in Lima. Since then, she’s traveled the world, representing her home country at events like the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Her migration to the United States in 2013 took her first to Miami and then here to Orlando, where her Raymi Dance Company teaches the traditions of Peru through dance, music, theater and other forms of cultural expression. Lauding Orlando as the first city that truly opened its doors to her, she’s grateful for the people, the weather, and the ability to stay in touch with her Incan heritage: Not only are there authentic restaurants here, she says, but you can even get Peruvian soda at Publix! “It was hard in the beginning,” she says of the adaptation to a new lifestyle and language that every immigrant faces, “but now everything is good.”

Born in South Africa on the day of the famous 1976 Soweto uprising, Walter Jackson grew up poor, and with an Afrikaner/British bloodline that afforded him a keen perspective on the racial division that gripped his country. The end of Apartheid two decades later promised a bright future for the country that he says never really materialized; but by then, he had embarked upon a life as a world traveler that was to take him to 160 countries (and counting). Along the way, he earned five degrees in fields ranging from theology to human resources, and worked in an even more diverse array of industries, including renewable energy and real estate. A Central Florida resident since 2017, he buys homes in “the worst neighborhoods in Orlando” and rehabilitates them, revitalizing portions of a community that he and his family – his wife and two young boys — have come to appreciate deeply. Yet at the same time, they take a hands-on approach to preserving their Afrikaner origins, speaking only Afrikaans at home and making authentic South African delicacies from scratch. “We love the freedom that you have in America to be proud of your heritage, but also feel part of something greater,” he says.

Dr. Usha Jain knew she wanted to be a doctor at the tender age of 6 – not a typical pursuit for girls of the time in her native India, but one she made happen via persistence, hard work and repeated economic accolades. Her 1973 marriage to an engineer took her to Toronto, but job opportunities in her own medical field necessitated moves to Erie, Pa. and then Chicago as their family grew to include two children. The unforgiving winters of the Windy City made it a “blessing” when Dr. Jain was offered an emergency-physician position at Orlando Health (previously Orlando Regional Medical Center). That was in 1979; five years later, she was pursuing her dream of opening a walk-in emergency center in Southwest Orlando. Her Emergi-Care Medical Center is the culmination of that ambition, and even as it serves the community with the fruits of her medical study and practice, she remains close to her Indian roots: Her family participates in numerous cultural activities, hosts Diwali parties and patronizes businesses like New Punjab and House of Spices. She considers herself extremely fortunate to be living in the Central Florida area, part of a first generation that came seeking “better opportunity, freedom and safety” – and found it.

   Many immigrants wrestle with issues of social displacement, but Japanese-born Masami Koshikawa gets to channel those feelings into her art. She uses her mother’s origami to create new, collaborative works in media that range from painting to sculpture to video and installations, with the challenges of living with a multicultural background as the major theme. Her artistic output is the culmination of a personal journey that began in her native Nagano and encompassed studies in Texas, Miami and finally at UCF. And though her work deals with the difficulties of living in a non-native environment, she speaks positively of her Orlando lifestyle, which allows her to maintain her connection to home via “simple pleasures, like steamed buns and karaoke box” and grocery shopping at 1st Oriental and Woo Sung Oriental. (In addition to her Japanese upbringing, she also claims a Chinese heritage; she pays respect to both countries by cooking each of their cuisines regularly.) In Orlando, she says, “I have created strong relationships with new family members, friends, and a diverse community. In other words, I made myself a home that is beautiful and supportive.”

There are few worse reasons to have to leave your home country than the death of a loved one, and the anguish is multiplied exponentially when that death was a politically motivated murder. Losing a close family member in exactly that way was the impetus for Alla Kourova and her husband to leave their native Russia for Central Florida, yet she’s hardly turned her back on her heritage in the aftermath. Born in Kaliningrad and the holder of three degrees from as many Russian schools, she has been teaching the language at UCF for 11 years now (almost as long as she has been in the United States). In addition, she runs the school’s Russian club, bringing the culture of her native land to students via undertakings like an ongoing Russian Tea Hour. She’s also a vice president of the Russian-American Community Center of Florida. Happy to now call Orlando her home, she makes an effort to support independent Russian-American businesses in the area, including cafés like Lacomka and Ararat. “Unlike money or other property, heritage cannot be stolen or taken from you as long as you are alive,” she says. “It can only be lost or forgotten by a choice that you make. I and my husband want to keep maintaining our heritage because this is the happiest way to keeping in touch with the dead.”

   The death of her father when she was 14 years old wasn’t the first upheaval Katerina Kurbatova was to experience: Shortly thereafter, she moved all the way to Buffalo, New York, from her hometown of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan (then the Uzbek Soviet Republic). But living in the Northeastern U.S. had its drawbacks: “I’ve never seen so much snow in my life,” she says. The offer of a scholarship to study law at Orlando’s Barry University beckoned, and she’s been here ever since. She’s now in her seventh year of running her own firm, which specializes in immigration law. Meanwhile, she stays in touch with her roots, meaning both her birth country of Uzbekistan and her larger heritage, which is Russian. “It is funny because I love both ends of it,” she says. “I love to be Russian and celebrate Russian holidays and eat Russian food. But somewhere deep inside my heart, I have a sense of Uzbek culture, Uzbek traditional, middle eastern hospitality. I guess I am the very definition of a person in love of a melting pot.” Orlando supplies that with Russian/Eastern European stores such as Ararat and Lacomka, as well as “some good cooks of authentic Uzbek food in the community who can make things like Plov, shashlik or manti.” All in all, it’s a welcoming environment to her, her grandmother, her husband and their 1-year-old son. “I also love the fact that there are no dirty salty roads with cars stuck in the snow,” she says. Sounds like she won’t be shuffling off to Buffalo again anytime soon.

Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, Jac LeDoux heard stories of her family’s Croatian roots – particularly a grandfather who was a gypsy. She credits that heritage with her skill at divining the tarot, although her eventual move here sadly had little to do with an inherently wandering spirit: She says she came to Florida to nurse her wounds after a divorce. A stint in Port Orange saw her getting involved with the theatrical arts (hmm, that gypsy blood again?), culminating in another relocation to Orlando to work at the attractions and lead tours for vacationing Britons. These days, she’s an actor for medical simulations, portraying patients with a variety of maladies for teaching purposes. She pays homage to her heritage by baking traditional raisin cinnamon bread whenever she can, and by keeping in touch with a relative who is doing their family tree. Of Central Florida, she says, “It’s so diverse, and the network of family I have grown is my heart. And I am proud of the way Orlando has handled our tribulations.”

   Gizela Maldonado moved from Mexico to Florida for love, and now it’s the love of Mexico she’s teaching us. Having met her future husband back home at age 14, she ended up following him to Orlando to get married 19 years ago. Her day gig here is as head of the Pathology Department at the Bronson Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Kissimmee, where she has worked for the last 17 of those 19 years; but once every week, she teaches Mexican folkloric dance to students, introducing them to the authentic steps and costumes of her country. In both classes and performance, she’s proud to share the beauty of Mexico with our multicultural community. “Passing the skill on to other cultures and generations is my goal and pride,” she says. At the same time, she’s teaching her own children her native language, recipes and traditions, ensuring that her family remains connected to the ways of home.

Haitian-born painter Patrick Noze came to America at the age of 12, but it took Orlando to introduce him to the American dream. Before that, he was living in Brooklyn, studying art at a variety of schools and working odd jobs to pay for his education. (He earned his master’s degree from the Pratt Institute.) Tired of the struggle and frustrated with the New York lifestyle, he spent a few months living in Miami – until a solicitation for Haitian artists to take part in a show brought him to Orlando. He immediately fell in love with the “tranquility” of our city, he says (which reminded him of Haiti), so he just never left. These days, he has his own studio near the Florida Mall, which he calls his “dream come true” and probably Orlando’s “only black-owned studio per se.” Dedicated to volunteerism, he serves on the advisory Council for the Orange County Arts and Cultural Affairs Office. And producing work with a didactic component is part of his mission too: “educating the youth of the richness of their heritage,” as he puts it, through paintings that illustrate the history of Haiti. “It is very important to me,” he says of his enduring connection to home, “because without my heritage I don’t have an identity.”

Pittsburgh might not be the first city you associate with poi, but it was there that Charlene Oloa’s parents met while performing professionally at luaus. Her dad was from Samoa and her mother from Oahu, Hawaii; once they were married and had started a family, job opportunities in Florida beckoned. Now, their daughter Charlene teaches Polynesian dance in Winter Park and designs Polynesian-inspired apparel. She even helps with the marketing of business interests held by relatives who have remained in Hawaii. In fact, a desire to be closer to those relatives led her to move to Hawaii after college — but after three years, she realized she missed the greater job opportunities and friendships that were waiting back in Orlando. She’s been here ever since, taking advantage of everything this community has to offer while holding on tight to her heritage. “It gives me my sense of identity, it keeps me grounded and also inspires me,” she says.

If Joanie Holzer Schirm’s heritage is more well-known than that of most Central Floridians, a large share of the credit goes to her father. A refugee from World War II Czechoslovakia who traversed five continents before settling in Brevard County in the 1950s, his enthralling story – and a treasure trove of documentation he left behind – has given her the material for two books: Adventurers Against Their Will won the 2013 Global Ebook Award for Best Biography; the follow-up, My Dear Boy: A World War II Story of Escape, Exile, and Revelation, was published in March 2019. Her post-retirement career as a celebrated author is just the latest achievement for Joanie, a former CEO who helped bring the World Cup to Orlando in 1994. That’s all in addition to her work as a community activist, public speaker, newspaper columnist and photographer. She’s come quite a way indeed from her childhood on a barrier island on the space coast, but her journey has been informed every step of the way by that of her father: “From a place of profound sadness to a sanctuary of bright hope,” she says, “I’ve learned that if we understand the past, it can guide us forward to a better world.”

Amara Siegel and her siblings came to America from Indonesia when their mother decided her children deserved a better education and future. And when you put three kids ages 8, 6 and 4 on an intercontinental journey that involves switching planes three times, you know you’re committed! As an adult, Amara respects her mother country through her work with VIDA Florida, a nonprofit that promotes the Indonesian culture and identity via educational initiatives, charitable events, exhibitions and other projects. She says she has performed countless dances and participated in numerous musical performances in the four years she’s been part of the organization. “I love the fact that Indonesia has so much to offer when it comes to learning the different traditions that each tribe still carries to this day,” she says. Yet their return visits there have reinforced for the family how good they have it in Orlando, where hot water can be summoned from a shower head at the turn of a knob, among other creature comforts. Plus, Amara believes, our city is a great place to build a successful future: “You just have to put the work ethic behind it and the doors will open.”

As a student at Bethune-Cookman University in nearby Daytona, Detroit-born Kyle Steele considered the Orlando of the mid-1990s a nice place to visit but nowhere he would ever want to live. Ten years later, he was to change his tune: The collapse of his economic foundation back home in Detroit and the lure of a relationship with a woman who had been hired by Disney combined to bring him here after all. The City Beautiful, he recognized, was small but on the rise, in the process of building its own identity. Bluntly, “It wasn’t Omaha.” Now, he says, living in Orlando means everything to him, having allowed him to discover his faith, start a family and forge a community of friendship and support. “I discovered my ‘why’ in Orlando, he says. Here, he has become the shepherd of numerous forward-thinking enterprises that innovate in areas ranging from elementary education to entrepreneurship to the arts. It’s this ongoing process of nurturing that he considers his heritage more than any ethnicity or nationality: “Being black, it’s hard to authentically connect to things that derive from some distant land,” he explains. “Keeping my heritage alive is more of a forward-looking and honoring exercise than backwards-looking and reflecting for me.”

Long-distance relationships aren’t for everybody, but it’s to Orlando’s benefit that Hernan Tagliani decided to turn his into a whole new life. Having met his future wife in his native Buenos Aires, he ultimately decided to follow her here to start a family. “It was the best decision I‘ve made in my life,” he says. Just as he’s grateful to his Italian ancestors for having emigrated to Argentina in search of a better future, he’s using his experience to improve the lot of Hispanic Americans: A business speaker and author, he teaches Anglo firms to reach out effectively to the Hispanic consumer, as laid out in his book, “The Hispanic Market for Corporate America: How to Make Your Brand Culturally Relevant.” Appearances in publications like Entrepreneur and Forbes, and on networks including Univision and Telemundo, have further helped him preach that message. He says he won’t forget the vital role Orlando has played in giving him his platform: “I made my successful career here and I am forever thankful!”

Born in Beijing, China, Wei Xue came to America at the age of 23, to pursue a master’s in economics at the City College of New York. Ultimately, she landed in Tampa, which she now enthusiastically calls home. It’s doubtful, though, that many folks in Central Florida can claim as diverse a CV as hers, which includes work as a paralegal, flight attendant, certified public accountant, realtor and reporter. Her extracurricular activities are equally far-ranging: In addition to having filled leadership roles with several Chinese-American organizations, she enjoys dancing, singing and playing tennis with her USTA women’s team, the Power Flowers (which has won at the District level and moved up to compete in the Sectionals). Over the years, she says, “I have met many different people, and learned about things in different ways, and these things are very special because I couldn’t learn [them] at school. On the other hand, people learned about Chinese culture through me.”

Palestinian by heritage, Yasmeen Zayed was born in Kuwait just four years before the start of the first Gulf War. When that conflagration broke out, it kick-started a pattern of displacement of the sort her people know all too well: There was a year in strife-torn Jordan, then a few years in California, then back to Jordan again, then on to Michigan. By the time whiplash could set in, she had earned her degree in pharmacology and started a family of her own. The desire to be near her cousins brought her to Orlando in 2017; here, she works as a clinical logistic pharmacist at a specialty pharmacy while always striving to maintain her Islamic ways and values. She takes her daughter to the local mosque on Sunday for education and fellowship, and consults with the Arab-American Community Center of Florida to stay abreast of important festivals and other cultural events. And she makes it a point to always be available for conversations with strangers about her culture and its emphasis on family and respect. “I consider Florida home,” she says, “and being part of this community and this continuous developing city gives me hope for a better future.”