Living the Dream: Immigrants of the Charlottesville Food Community Share Their American Dream
“The American Dream” can mean different things to different people. To some, it is a myth: a term whose Hollywood gloss serves to whitewash the obstacles that American immigrants face. To others, including many immigrants themselves, The American Dream is real: what first inspired them to come to the United States and what now makes them so grateful that they did.
Here in Charlottesville, Jen Naylor, Myriam Hernandez, Charanjeet Ghotra, Deniz Dikmen, Mirahmad Mirzai, and Nancy and Sing Yu are just a few Americans by Choice who believe in The American Dream. Since coming to the United States, decades of hard work and persistence have yielded rewards beyond what they dreamed. Their successes do not forgive societal failures to address genuine inequalities of opportunity. But, as the United States of America reaches its 245th birthday, their stories warrant celebration.
In their own words, The American Dream.
Photos by Justin Ide.
Born in South Korea, Jen Naylor came to the United States on October 21, 1976. With little opportunity for advancement in South Korea, her parents thought the journey across the world to the U.S. would give Naylor, 14, and her three younger siblings the best chance to reach their potential.
Naylor’s father had come to the U.S. three years earlier, working two jobs and devoting his earnings towards bringing the rest of his family to the country. When that day came, Naylor recalls her mother packing some Korean chili peppers and a tub for making kimchi. “That was pretty much all we brought with us,” said Naylor. “We had almost nothing but we were so happy to be together as a family.”
The Naylors lived in a boarded-up corner store building in the inner city of Baltimore, where Naylor attended public high school. Knowing no English, Naylor would copy what she saw on the classroom board as if it were a picture, and then translate it at home with her dictionary. If Naylor ever complained, her father would tell her: “I brought you to U.S. so that you can have better future. You are going to learn English and speak fluently!”
That she did, and, decades later, she cites the happiness of herself and her siblings as the marks of her parents’ success in reaching their goal. “All have happy families, advanced degrees, own a home, and much more,” Naylor said.
Known as Mama Bird, Naylor runs Sussex Farm, the beloved stand that sells produce from the farm on which she and her husband live, as well as Korean foods her mother taught her to make. With Naylor’s own children, the benefits of her parents’ decision to come to the U.S. extend another generation. A year after Naylor’s Sussex Farm won Best Food Truck/Stand in 2020, the 2021 award went to her daughter’s truck.
Jen Naylor, The American Dream to Me:
To be able to fulfill your pursuit of happiness – whatever it may be. Just like my mother used to tell us: In America, you have room to grow as big as you are willing.
Born in Mexico, Myriam Hernandez first came to the United States in 1989, to improve her English for work as a teacher. In 2001, a job at Frost Montessori brought her to Charlottesville, where she has been ever since.
All the while, her dream was to open a business showcasing her native culture. From her earliest days in the U.S., food at Mexican restaurants disappointed her, paling in comparison to her grandmother’s cooking. “I always had in the back of my mind to find a way to share our culture and food in this wonderful country,” said Hernandez. “It started through my teaching as I noticed how students learn better through exposure to experiences and food. Now with a restaurant I continue to share.”
That restaurant, Al Carbon, opened in 2014. Not only did she give up her teaching job for it, she and her husband used virtually all of their savings. Initially, the plan was for Hernandez to run the restaurant herself, while Claudio continued his career in construction. They quickly realized, however, that the work of running the restaurant would require Claudio to work full-time as well, which he has done ever since. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Hernandez, who blames attention to detail for days that can run 14-16 hours. “I always thought that since I am not going to be cooking at home for my family and we will be eating at the restaurant, I should prepare food as if I was at home cooking for my family,” said Hernandez.
Featuring street foods from Hernandez’s native region of Morelos and Claudio’s region of Puebla, Al Carbon’s ever-growing popularity continues to outsize its space, culminating with this year’s opening of a second location.
When asked what The American Dream means to her, Hernandez invited her family to answer as well.
Myriam Hernandez and Family, The American Dream to Us:
Freedom, hope, prosperity, and feeling safe. My state in Mexico was one of the first states to become unsafe, and many of the classmates I grew up with were killed. In America, I have found resources and support that help me achieve my dreams, and I feel that I have control over the path I choose. This country has always offered me opportunities, and I have learned that by working hard, with passion and sacrifice, success is waiting for me. – Myriam
Many people wish to be in America. To be here, I am very, very lucky. But, when you come here, you have to work. Help yourself and help the economy. America is an opportunity to have a new life, and a good life, as long as you are prepared to work and respect one another. – Claudio
I am very proud to grow in a successful immigrant family and live The American Dream, as many wish for. The down side for me is that we are not a normal family that spends afternoons and weekends together like other families, but at the end we make work come together as a family. – Christopher, 18
The American Dream is not always perfect. It’s a process until you find a path. I am grateful that my parents found their own path and are successful, because it’s a gift to me. – Andrew, 12
Milan Indian Cuisine, Kanak Indian Kitchen
Born in India, Charanjeet Ghotra arrived in the United States in May 1993. 20 years old and with nothing to his name, Ghotra went to New York in search of a better future. By day he worked various jobs, and by night he attended school for a G.E.D. Among the jobs — gas station attendant, retail store, dishwasher at McDonald’s — one stood out: working at a restaurant owned by a family friend, Ashok Arora, who immigrated from India years earlier.
Ghotra saw how hard Arora worked, spending day and night at his several restaurants, doing everything from washing dishes to cleaning floors to administrative tasks. And, something else struck Ghotra: as grueling as the work was, Arora was happy doing it. That experience left a lasting impression on Ghotra, who drew from it two keys to success in life: “work hard and do what you like to do.” By following Arora’s example, Ghotra thought, he might one day enjoy similar success.
By 1997, Ghotra had become such a reliable employee that Aurora asked him and a co-worker, Jaswinder Singh, to move to Norfolk, Virginia to manage Aurora’s Indian restaurant there. Simultaneously employees and on-the-job students of restaurant operations, Ghotra and Singh soaked it all up, hoping one day to open a restaurant of their own. That opportunity came in 2002, when Ghotra and Singh found an affordable property in Lynchburg, a part of Virginia which they thought could use an Indian restaurant.
The long-abandoned former Chinese restaurant needed so much work that the money they cobbled together from their own funds and loans from family and friends could not begin to cover it. So, they did it themselves. For two months, they worked every day from 7 am until midnight, demolishing walls, cleaning, scrubbing, and restoring.
When it finally came time to open, Ghotra recalls being scared. If his restaurant did not succeed, he would be bankrupt and unable to repay his loans. To minimize costs, they hired as little staff as possible. Ghotra and his wife handled the front of the house while Singh manned the kitchen. Day and night. Fortunately, the restaurant was a success – so much so that Ghotra moved to Charlottesville the following year to open a second Milan Indian Cuisine.
Ghotra has been in Charlottesville ever since, and now also owns Kanak and Richmond’s Anokha. Twenty-eight years after arriving in the U.S. with nothing, Ghotra owns three restaurants and has the life he was working towards. “The family is happy. The kids are happy,” said Ghotra, whose daughter is going to UVa. “When you have worked so hard, and see it works for you, it feels great.”
Charanjeet Ghotra, The American Dream to Me:
America is the land of opportunity. If one works hard, they can succeed and have a good life here. If I were to do what I am doing here in India I would be struggling in day to day life, with success far away. I have many friends in India who are still working very hard and barely making a living.
For Deniz Dikmen, the I-64 shoulder has been a life-saver. “Many, many times,” said Dikmen.
Born in Turkey, Dikmen came to the United States on April 29, 2006 as part of a work program at Clifton Inn. He became such a valued employee that, after just one year, the inn’s owners sponsored him for a Green Card.
Meanwhile, Dikmen began pursuit of what he says is a common dream among Turkish children: a degree from an American university. While working more than seventy hours a week at Clifton, Dikmen enrolled as a full-time student in the M.B.A. program of Strayer University, using his Clifton pay for tuition. Several days a week, he would drive from Charlottesville to Richmond for class. “If you are a real dream chaser, you know what it takes to be a hard worker, especially in the U.S.,” said Dikmen. “You devote your life.” Sometimes a streak of sixteen hour shifts for events at the inn would leave him short on sleep. On the drive to Richmond for class, more than once he recalls the shoulder of I-64 jolting him awake and preventing him from veering off the road.
At Clifton, Dikmen met another employee from Turkey, with whom he became close friends. They lamented the lack of Turkish food in Charlottesville, and, with their background in hospitality and Dikmen’s business degree, dreamed of opening their own restaurant. In March 2012, that became a reality. Despite its hidden location in a strip mall off 29, Sultan Kebab grew such a large following that, in 2016, they moved to a larger location downtown. Some chefs now call it the best restaurant in Charlottesville.
Dikmen remains very close with his family in Turkey, and sometimes it is hard for him to be so far away. But, with a wife and toddler son, his home is now the United States, of which he became in citizen on July 4, 2017. Among the most striking things about his new home country is what he calls “respect.” “From a young age, children here are taught to treat others with respect,” Dikmen said. That fundamental value, Dikmen says, is a key part of why small businesses like his have a chance to succeed.
But, the biggest reason he chose to stay here? That’s easy, Dikmen says. “Love.”
Deniz Dikmen, The American Dream to Me:
My life right now is The American Dream to me. Happy, strong, hard working, healthy, respectful, full of family, full of love, and a free life.
Afghan Kabob House
Born in Afghanistan, Mirahmad Mirzai came to the United States on Christmas Eve, 1984. Living in the the United States had been his dream ever since his father returned from a business trip there with photographs of it. That dream came true when Mirzai’s family was granted Visas as refugees from Afghanistan, and immigrated to New York.
Initially, life in the U.S. was far from a dream. With no family or connections in the U.S., Mirzai’s family relied on the help of a non-profit organization just to survive. Once settled, Mirzai,17, began high school while also working full time for minimum wage, $3.35 per hour, at an Afghan owned diner. At school, his classmates gave him the nickname “Dad” because he was so much older than them all.
While in college pursuing a business degree, he had the opportunity to buy a struggling Syrian kabob shop, where he had been a regular. Soon, he left college altogether to focus on his restaurant, which he turned into a great success. That success ended abruptly, however, on 9/11, after which business dropped sixty percent. “I was struggling to make ends meet,” said Mirzai.
So, Mirzai sold his restaurant and moved with his wife and two boys to Northern Virginia, where he worked as a taxi driver. In 2009, a friend in Charlottesville told him of the growing Afghan community in the area, and persuaded him to come fill a void in the Charlottesville restaurant scene: Afghan food. So, Mirzai moved to Charlottesville and, with a business partner, opened a restaurant called Ariana. The partnership lasted until 2011, when Mirzai sold his interest and moved on to open his own restaurant.
In May, Afghan Kabob House celebrated its ten anniversary, a rare feat for any restaurant. “We have been very fortunate to have the city support us,” said Mirzai.
Mirahmad Mirzai, The American Dream to Me:
The American Dream to me is basically the story of my life. Me and my family came to the United States as refugees, with nothing to our names. I worked hard to save enough money to take over a failing business. Once the business took off, I sacrificed finishing my education to ensure the business continued to be successful. As a result, I managed to buy a house for me and my family. We were truly blessed and I am forever grateful that we got to come here.
Nancy and Sing Yu
After growing up in poor neighboring villages in Southeast China, Nancy and Sing Yu came to the United States on May 17, 1985 to build a family and give their children the best chance at success. For more than three decades, they typically worked 7 days a week, 12-14 hours per day, with that one goal in mind. “We never graduated high school, and have always worked hard so our children would not have the type of lifestyle we have experienced,” said Sing. “It was our ultimate motivation.”
For most of that 30 years, the Yus have run Szechuan, which they bought from their employer in 1996 and turned into one of Charlottesville’s most successful restaurants. As at many family-run Chinese-American restaurants, the Yus’ three daughters spent much of their childhoods there. “Through our children and shared love of food, we were able to establish a community,” said Nancy.
As much pride as the Yus take in the success of their restaurant, the greatest reward from their hard work is the well-being of their daughters. Their oldest, Victoria, is the first ever doctor in the Yu family and even helped raise her sisters, who are also studying for careers in health. “Aside from their careers, our daughters are caring, loving and happy,” said Sing. “They bring joy not only to us, but to everyone around them. That is most important to us.”
It was the Yus’ daughters, in fact, who inspired them to become U.S. Citizens. “We fell in love with America and when we had our daughters, who were born U.S. citizens, we felt like it was important to identify with our children,” said Sing. “Sure, we look Chinese, but we are American. We love this country and what it stands for. It raised our children and our family.”
Nancy and Sing Yu, The American Dream to Us:
When we first came to the US, we knew we wanted to start our own small business, so we could have a family and support it with our own business. Nancy did not work, so that she could study the English language, which was the backbone to not only survival, but to start a small business. Meanwhile, I worked hard at restaurants and studied under chefs. That is The American Dream. We arrived to the states with very little, including not knowing a lick of English, but with so much heart to learn, study and build.