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Catching the American Dream

Five Georgia attorneys tell their immigration stories

Published in 2022 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

Photo by: Stan Kaady

Atlanta attorneys Shirley Cristina Zambrano and Dina Khismatulina both immigrated to the U.S. but in dramatically different ways.

Zambrano was a teenager in Ecuador whose mother had already immigrated to the U.S. Once she remarried, her new stepfather petitioned for Shirley and her three siblings to obtain green cards. She was 15 when she arrived. It was was hard at first. She didn’t know the language; kids bullied her at school.

Khismatulina, born in Siberia, came to the U.S. after literally winning the lottery. Every year, through its Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the Green Card Lottery, the U.S. allows 55,000 green cards to be awarded to countries with “low rates of immigration.” Khismatulina was already a trained attorney in Moscow when her sister encouraged her to apply. She was surprised when she won. 

Two different journeys but with one thing in common: “I love my life in the U.S.,” Khismatulina says. “I really love it here,” Zambrano says. 

Super Lawyers interviewed five Georgia attorneys who have immigrated to the U.S.—from South Korea, India, Jamaica, Ecuador and Russia—about their journeys.

Moving to America 

Shirley Cristina Zambrano, Zambrano & Ruiz, Immigration; Ecuador, 2001: I moved here on September 17, 2001. I was supposed to come a few days after 9/11 but all the planes got canceled so I had to wait another week. It was really crazy [at the airport] when I entered. It took forever for us to go through security. They were checking everything.

Neeli Shah, Law Offices of Neeli Shah, Estate Planning; India, 1996: My biological dad passed away when I was 2, so it was just my mom and I in India. She was an ophthalmologist. The reason we moved was an across-the-seas matchmaking story. My uncle set up my mom and my stepdad to date and eventually get married—which is what brought us from Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, to Hartselle, Alabama. We went straight to the temple from the airport. It was very simple—just family, like a court wedding.

Soo J. Hong, Blevins & Hong, Bankruptcy and Personal Injury; South Korea, 1991: We immigrated here when I was 10. I didn’t know the alphabet, so I learned English when I got here. My parents wanted us to, you know, catch the American dream. When you’re in Korea, the United States is this fascinating, amazing place. When I told my friends, told my teacher, told my class, they were like, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re moving to America.”

Dina Khismatulina, The Manely Firm, Family Law; Russia, 2003: I went to law school when I was 16, and I started working while I was in law school—similar to practicing. I wanted to travel a little bit. My sister urged me to participate in the lottery, and when you win you have to provide documents and do a lot of different things, but it was really not that difficult. When I went to the embassy, they said, “Oh, your documents are in perfect order—did you pay somebody to assist you?” I said, “No, I’m a lawyer.”

Georgetta Glaves-Innis, Meriwether & Tharp, Family Law; Jamaica, 1985: My mom left Jamaica when I was 8. She and my dad were separated, she moved [to the U.S.], and she petitioned for me and my siblings to move when I turned 16 and graduated from high school. But I decided to move to New York and live with my aunt—my father’s sister. That particular aunt was with me for a long time, so I had a really good bond with her.

Culture Shock

Shah: I came from Ahmedabad [with 5.5 million people]. The current population of Hartselle is barely 14,000 people. Culture shock, I don’t think, quite describes the change.

Glaves-Innis: I moved to New York in the height of winter and—oh, my God, I had to do shopping for coats, get winter boots. During my years at community college, I had to work full-time and go to school full-time. I had to get up at 2 in the morning in the Bronx to get to Wendy’s at 4 in Manhattan. After my two years, I got a scholarship to University of Miami, where I got my bachelor’s.

Zambrano: At the beginning, I didn’t know English at all. It was the second or third day, and my mom was going to work, so she gave me and my brother enough money to go to Wendy’s, because it was just on the corner. My mom wrote my order on a piece of paper. I handed the money and the note to the cashier and they gave me everything I wanted. I didn’t know anything, not even “thank you.”

Shah: My stepdad had kids from his prior marriage. We had this big, blended family now. My family was still very traditional. It was always this push and pull between trying to fit in with this new culture, while my parents were feeling this pull to retain their Indian heritage and culture—amongst trying to blend with a new family, and having siblings, as a teenager. It was a lot going on.

Hong: Schools in Korea are very strict—you can’t slouch. When I first walked into a [U.S.] classroom, and kids were talking and slouching, that was more of a relaxed environment than I was used to. It was frustrating. I really liked school when I was in Korea, but coming here, I couldn’t participate or learn, except for one hour where I went to English as a Second Language. But I was very lucky, because kids were willing to read me books during recess. A retired professor in the community volunteered to read me books after school.

Shah: We’re in the middle of the Bible Belt, and I’m not Christian—I’m Hindu. I would get invited to go to church all the time. In India, I went to an international school, so the language was not a problem. It was interesting how shocked people were that I could speak English.

Zambrano: The kids were bullies. People would make fun of my accent, when I was trying to learn English. In high school, that made me self-conscious, so I was always quiet. … Besides that, I liked it right away. Here it’s more advanced, there’s more technology. It’s not one thing I can point out. It’s everything. It’s opportunities. And everything’s cleaner. 

The Quest for Citizenship

Hong: I remember sitting down with my parents and helping them study for the citizenship test around 2001. My mom still remembers the three branches of the government and the word “Constitution,” because she couldn’t say it and had to repeat it several times.

Shah: When my parents got married, my mom applied for the spousal citizen paperwork. She had to wait two years for citizenship and I had to wait five years. I remember driving up to Atlanta and I got my naturalization certificate.

Glaves-Innis: My mom petitioned for me and my siblings to leave. It was easy for us to get our Social Security card and our temporary green card, and then, eventually, a permanent green card.

Zambrano: I did my mom’s citizenship. I was 18. Then I did my own citizenship. Then I did my dad’s green card, because my dad went back and stayed there for years. I became a citizen and petitioned for him. That’s what I thought immigration was: “Oh, this is so easy, I want something harder.” But immigration is not easy at all. It’s very complicated. With Trump, everything got harder—oh, my God. With this new administration, finally, people are able to have a shot and get legalized in this country.

Why Law?

Glaves-Innis: My father had a friend, a female attorney in Jamaica. She would come to my dad’s house. I would listen to her about the cases she took care of and how she made a difference in people’s lives. I thought it was such an empowering position that I wanted to be that person. We would have attorneys in Jamaica, [but] it was a male-dominated profession when I was a kid. I wanted to be that other female attorney in our community.

Zambrano: Since I was little, my grandpa used to tell me all the time that I should be a lawyer. I used to like fighting and defending my point. 

Khismatulina: I’m the first lawyer in my family. I always liked to read and write.

Shah: My biological dad, as well as my stepdad and my mom, they were all physicians. It was this dream of my mom for me to become a physician. But I literally faint at the sight of blood. I love numbers. I was either going to go into business or the legal field. I went to get my LLM in taxation. Once I went to my LLM program, it was clear to me, this was it. I liked the families and the numbers and the planning and how it came together.

Hong: My dad was very into politics and nudged me into going into law. I took two years off between college and law school, and had different jobs, just to see whether or not this was something I wanted to do. After working at a few law firms, and talking to other lawyers—lawyers usually try to talk you out of it—I decided that’s the route I wanted to go.

Zambrano: I wanted to take a corporate management position. I worked at JPMorgan Chase and Co. I worked at Bank of America. My last job in the banking industry was managing a group of 30 people. I registered [for law school] late, because I wanted to be a chiropractor at first, and there were no classes available. One of the classes that was available was business law and I was like, “I have no choice, I have to take that.” And the first day, I left that class saying, “I want to be a lawyer.”

Memorable Legal Work

Khismatulina: For about three years, I worked in Moscow. I was in-house lawyer for a subsidiary of the number one natural-gas company in the world. We dealt with civil litigation, corporate, antitrust. In Russia, we have black-letter law. It’s not law created through precedents, like in the U.S. So that’s a huge difference—it affects how you write, how you prove your case.

Zambrano: I had a pro bono case of a lady that had 18 kids. She was detained [for driving without a license, then for being an undocumented immigrant] and I got her out. It took almost two years. That was in 2018—the Trump years. The judges in Atlanta denied her bond. But we never gave up. We kept appealing. The client has to be willing to fight. Many people who are detained, they just want to give up, but that client never gave up, because she had a lot to lose—her kids would go to foster care. We tried everything, and on one of those tries, she got relief.

Hong: I had a gentleman that came to file bankruptcy. He had a daughter around my age who suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide several times, and for the last decade he put all his money into trying to save her. That’s why he had to file for bankruptcy. He just couldn’t keep up with it anymore. Last I heard, she was doing better. The reason I like my job and being a lawyer is people come to me at one of the lowest points in their lives, and I’m able to see them get back on their feet.

Shah: I had a client who’s a single individual, never married. He has two sisters and nieces and nephews. We developed this estate plan for him where he’s going to leave significant assets to two nonprofits while having an annuity stream for his lifetime as well as providing significant benefits for his nieces and nephews and his sisters.

Khismatulina: We do a lot of international divorces and custody cases, including child abduction cases. We just won a big federal case at the Hague Abduction Convention. The family was from Chile. We represented the mom. Even though the father initially brought the child to the U.S., he filed the petition for the children, stating that the mom was, against his will, keeping the children in the U.S. The U.S. decided the children were not going to be returned to Chile. We ended up doing trial prep during COVID, and Chile was on such lockdown—courts didn’t work, nothing was happening.

Maintaining Traditions

Hong: I can’t go a week without Korean food. My mom cooks Korean food all the time and we have amazing restaurants here now. We still observe Korean holidays. We have our own lunar new year, our own fall harvest—it’s kind of Thanksgiving for Korea, where we set up tables for our ancestors, and go through this traditional bowing, and have family over.

Shah: I cook Indian food at least twice a week. We have this tradition of weekly prayers. It started before the pandemic, but the families come together every Sunday and we do our Zoom.

Glaves-Innis: We have a pretty good Jamaican community here in Atlanta; I have a lot of friends from high school. You’d be surprised how many people are here. We have a high school chapter in South Florida. We have a get-together every September. Sometimes we have 200 or 300 people come to that event, to raise funds for Glenmuir High School in Jamaica. And we play reggae. 

Hong: You go to Gwinnett County, which is where I live, and there are so many Korean restaurants and so many Korean things and Korean people. When I first came, we literally knew every Korean person in Atlanta because the community was so small. 

Zambrano: Whenever we go to New Jersey, we always go to Ecuadorian restaurants, because they have the best Ecuadorian restaurants over there. They don’t have any in Georgia. My mom goes to Ecuador all the time, and my sister, and they always bring us humitas, a dish with corn, like tamales. Or Ecuadorian chocolate! I guess we keep the tradition with the chocolate Ecuadorian cookies.

Khismatulina: There is an Atlanta Balalaika Society—they just canceled a concert because of COVID, but normally they do large concerts in October. There is Russian food you can buy here. We have the Georgia Symphony Orchestra. They have Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers. I’m not one of those people, “Everything was terrible before and everything’s awesome now.” I kind of liked my life before the U.S., and I love my life in the U.S. as well.

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