Finding My America

Six immigrants share their journeys to become Michigan attorneys

Published in 2018 Michigan Super Lawyers magazine

By Steve Knopper on September 7, 2018


For many immigrant attorneys in Michigan, the hard part was getting out.

The titular owner of George P. Mann & Associates in Farmington Hills was a teenager in Romania in 1964 when his family, after 15 years of planning, finally escaped. Mani Khavajian, principal attorney at his solo firm in Birmingham, fled Iran with his brother and parents after the 1979 revolution. “We were watching, basically, the country burn before our eyes,” he says. And while Carrie Pastor-Cardinale, owner of Pastor and Associates in Troy, was born in New York, her father arrived from Cuba after fleeing Fidel Castro’s new regime, on a boat with no navigator.

All were inspired to take up the law. A few drifted into immigration law. “Immigration was a natural fit,” Mann says. “In 1980, there were only six or eight lawyers in the whole state of Michigan making a living doing immigration work. But I saw the future. I understood movement of people across borders [was] just going to be more and more of an important phenomenon.”

Here are the stories of attorneys who journeyed from Romania, Iran, Poland, Zimbabwe and Israel for a new life in the United States.


Coming to America

George P. Mann, owner, George P. Mann & Associates: I was born in Romania on New Year’s Day 1948. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and my grandparents were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz—except for my mother’s father, who died a year before they took them. My parents went back [to Romania after the war] and they got married after they found each other, then they found themselves behind the Iron Curtain a couple years later. 


Takura Nyamfukudza, partner, Chartier & Nyamfukudza: I came from Zimbabwe when I was 16, the day after I finished high school.


Carrie Pastor-Cardinale, owner, Pastor and Associates: My mom came in 1954 and went to Brooklyn. She was sponsored on a work visa, then eventually became a U.S. citizen. My father was part of the secret police under [former Cuban President Fulgencio] Batista, right before the revolution. When Fidel Castro took power, all the people who were part of the former government either had to escape or they were going to be killed before a firing squad. … My father purchased a boat for him and his team members. Somebody said, “I can navigate.” When they get out and can no longer see land, the guy fesses up: “I just wanted to get out; I’m not really a navigator.” My dad, being quite upset, knelt down and prayed. He did float to Key West and was placed in detention and he applied for asylum. 


Mani Khavajian, principal attorney, Law Office of Mani Khavajian: My father used to work for the Ministry of Health under the Shah’s government. … The streets were covered in protests. We were watching, basically, the country burn before our eyes. Also, there was the Iran-Iraq War. My parents were really afraid, if we stayed in Iran, eventually we were going to be drafted. They were sending 10- to 12-year-old kids to the front lines to die. My dad got out of the country first. We followed.


Lukas Sikorski, co-owner, The Sikorski Law Firm: I was born in 1980 and we left Poland in 1987. My parents told me we were going on vacation.


Michal Terebelo, senior attorney, Fakhoury Global Immigration: My mom is originally from the Detroit area. She moved to Israel when she was 9 years old. My dad is originally from Argentina and his family decided to move to Israel when he was 14. My parents met in Israel, got married, and I was born there. The move to Michigan was supposed to be a temporary situation. It was supposed to be for my dad to go to school. Plans just changed. Thirty-four years later, we’re all still here. 


Mann (Romania): Romania needed to have [money] to buy medicine and equipment in the west, and they didn’t have anything that the west produced. It appears the only sure thing they could get money for was the Jews. Rumor was the communist government of Romania was paid a substantial sum in hard currency for each Jew allowed to emigrate to Israel. The flights were from Bucharest to Vienna, and from Vienna we would wait in a camp that was set up by the Israelis. … There was another American organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; they picked our luggage up from the camp and put us on a train to Italy. In Genoa, they housed us and helped us apply for a refugee visa to come to the U.S. We stayed there for six months and took English classes. Six months later, we were on board a ship coming to America. It was a very memorable trip for a 16-year-old. It took about 10 days.


Khavajian (Iran): My father first came to the United States. My brother, my mother and I followed. We went to Turkey, which was the closest U.S. consulate to Iran. When my dad came to Turkey to pick me and my brother up, the oddest thing was, we didn’t remember my father. He had left when we were young and we just didn’t know what he looked like. He had brought some presents for us from the U.S.—some toys. I remember my mom called us out from our bedroom and said, “Your dad is here!” We came out, we looked at him, we grabbed the toys and ran back into the bedroom. Eventually, we boarded a plane to the U.S. I remember that flight was just horrific. It was literally the first time we were on an airplane, and we’re on a long international flight, and we were just vomiting the entire trip. My dad was trying to wake us up as we’re flying over the Statue of Liberty, and we were so sick we didn’t even want to look out of the window. 


What was left behind

Khavajian (Iran): My mother was, and still is, an incredibly liberal intellectual. She was a librarian back in Iran. Before we left, she had gotten into trouble on several things that seemed rather minor, but were pretty intense as far as the Iranian government was concerned. She was actually called into a government office and questioned why she named me Mani and my brother Mazdak. “Why didn’t you name them Muhammad or Hussein or Ali or one of those great Islamic names?” She can’t hold her tongue back—I guess maybe that’s why I became a lawyer; it has a lot to do with my mother—and she basically told the guy, “You think you’re so smart, you think you’re so great because of your beard. But I know a billy goat that has a better beard than you and is more intelligent than you.” They put an arrest warrant out for her. So Iran was definitely not a country well suited for us after the revolution.


Sikorski (Poland): Pay was very, very low [in Poland]. Even if you’re a professional, it was very difficult. My father was an engineer, my mother was a principal of a school and we didn’t have a car. Things were economically pretty hard. You had ration cards that you had to use. Even though you had money, there were certain things you could not purchase. My mom’s sister lived in the U.S., and life for them was very different than what it was for my parents. A lot of Poles, especially educated Poles, were choosing to leave to go to the U.S. 


Nyamfukudza (Zimbabwe): I think my mother is clairvoyant a little bit. In the ’90s, Zimbabwe went through what’s called an “economic structural adjustment program.” Initially, people were happy with [prime minister] Robert Mugabe and the way he governed, but she felt, as a single mother raising two children, the way the economy was going, it would probably be best to leave. She just didn’t feel like the social economics made sense for us to stick around there. I don’t know how she figured it out. She doesn’t have a degree in economics or anything. She just said, “Boy, let’s get out of here.” Ultimately, late last year, there was a coup in Zimbabwe.


Culture shock

Nyamfukudza (Zimbabwe): I had one view of America: Beverly Hills, 90210. “Oh, my goodness, look at these people, the way they live!” Then you watch movies like Boyz n the Hood or Menace II Society. I wasn’t quite clear which America I was coming to. 


Sikorski (Poland): We were supposed to arrive in Spain, and then have a visa application that would [take] about three months or so. Through some kind of immigration problem, we ended up staying in Spain for three and a half years. Finally, in 1991, we came to Illinois—the suburbs of Chicago. We didn’t speak English, but it wasn’t so bad. There were plenty of Spanish kids in Chicago, but there were Polish kids, too. 


Mann (Romania): I was in awe of the abundance. I was in awe of the freedom. I was in awe of the opportunity that people had here. It was exhilarating. But I had left childhood friends behind. I felt isolated. Until I adapted, I felt lonely. It was difficult for me to make friends.


Pastor-Cardinale (Cuba): Even though I was born in New York City, I didn’t learn English till kindergarten. My mom always tells the story of how the teacher would call her in—and of course there was no ESL in those days—[and say], “She’s trying to tell us something, but I have no idea what it is.”


Sikorski (Poland): Here in the U.S., they put me in an ESL program. We had Polish kids and Hispanic kids in there and I was kind of the liaison, because our teacher spoke Spanish but she didn’t speak Polish. She would give instructions in Spanish and I would translate to the Polish kids. 


Khavajian (Iran): My dad [was] a professional from Iran, working for the government—a great job, where he opened up a lot of pro bono medical centers. We came here and my dad worked in an industrial bakery making Middle-Eastern-style bread, pitas and lavash.


Nyamfukudza (Zimbabwe): I came off the plane, and the seasons are opposite, so winter here is summer in Zimbabwe. My mother told my aunt, “Hey, make sure that he wears warm clothes, because it’s winter.” My aunt had me put on several layers. I get on the plane, I say, “Look, this is nonsense.” I peeled all those layers and ultimately I ended up wearing shorts. I get to Heathrow and people asked me, “Are you going to Florida or Arizona?” “What? No.” So we get to Newark: “Oh, sir, you going down south?” “No.” Everybody’s looking at me; I’m the only one in shorts. Ultimately we went to Chicago, then Indianapolis. As soon as the doors open, I said, “Whoa, OK, this is what the fuss was about.” 


Khavajian (Iran): When we arrived into the U.S., it was New Year’s Eve 1987. We were coming to stay at my dad’s sister’s house, but they were out of town in Florida. Their kids, who were in high school at the time, had thrown a New Year’s party. We walk into this house and a bunch of kids with mohawks, different-colored hair, are having a party. I was under the impression, “This was my family from America,” when it was just a bunch of my cousins’ friends. … I thought it was unique that I had a lot of relatives with purple mohawks.


Nyamfukudza (Zimbabwe): I spoke English, because Zimbabwe is a former British colony. But there was still a learning curve. For example, an eraser, we called a rubber. But the first time I said “a rubber” in a classroom, I turned to my classmate, I asked her for a rubber and she looked at me like I had, you know, four eyes and horns growing out of my head.


Finding law

Mann (Romania): I have an engineering degree. I felt that I needed to go for a technical type of engineering to have a marketable degree right out of college. I even worked at two places in engineering, briefly. Then I realized I wasn’t happy and people were saying, “You seem to have a gift for language and expression and you have kind of a personality for [the law].” So I decided to go to law school.


Sikorski (Poland): I went into immigration law because it was something I was familiar with. In Chicago, there was such a high population of Poles, and immigrants in general, and I spoke Polish and Spanish, and I thought that would’ve been very helpful.


Nyamfukudza (Zimbabwe): My first semester of college, I was a biology major. So while I passed the classes, the physics, the chemistry and all of that, I did not like it at all, so I switched to political science. Later, I spoke with a counselor, [who said], “OK, after talking to you, I think criminal justice might be a good fit.” Immediately, I fell in love with the stuff. But I knew I did not want to be a probation officer or a police officer. I enlisted in the Army when I was a sophomore in college. I served 12 years, six as an enlisted man in the infantry. My entire career I was in combat arms. While I was defending the Constitution using a rifle, I thought, “Boy, law school is a way to use the Constitution also.” Some of it was based on watching shows. Johnnie Cochran—I was fascinated by him. I thought I could do something similar. So going to law school checked all those blocks.


Khavajian (Iran): I went into law school thinking I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. After taking some immigration courses and learning more about the brutal nature of immigration law, I thought, “These are the people I want to fight for. These are the people who need legal representation more than almost anyone else. These are the people that are forgotten.”


Keeping the traditions

Pastor-Cardinale (Cuba): We lived in an area that was Cuban, densely populated, so it was all around us. For Thanksgiving, my mom would stuff the turkey with rice and black beans. We always had music in the house and, in high school, one of the professors said, “Are you people just born with, like, a boombox attached to you?” Which was funny at the time—I’m sure people get insulted by that. The only time we didn’t have music was when we were watching novellas.


Terebelo (Israel): We speak Hebrew with my parents in our house. They really kept up those Jewish and Israeli customs and traditions—holidays, food and just visiting and traveling back to Israel.


Sikorski (Poland): We celebrate Christmas the Polish way. We have our Wigilia, which is the Christmas Eve dinner. You have 12 dishes; there’s no meat, so you have different types of fish. We spoke Polish at home, and I’ll do that with my kids now. Cartoons or whatever, we make them watch them in Polish.


The state of immigration today

Khavajian (Iran): It’s absolutely insane what’s going on. This country was built by immigrants, and it was built on the backs of slaves, and people have forgotten that. They have this notion that this is a white Christian country, which it has never been. The people in power right now seem to cling to that and they’re trying to whitewash the entire country. This country is based on diversity; it’s based on inclusion. We have all these great things because immigrants brought them to this country.


Terebelo (Israel): As a whole, the immigration system is really broken, so that really hasn’t changed. There are a lot of reforms that need to happen to fix it. The H1B visa is the most common employment visa that companies use to hire foreign workers. There’s a drastic change over the last year, I would say, just in the level of difficulty in getting those types of visas approved.


Mann (Romania): Progressively, the law has gotten more and more strict to try to restrain or reduce illegal immigration. This is long before the current administration. That has created a lot of work. We have become frantically busy [with the new administration], but it’s not a happy busy. It’s a situation where we’ve seen a lot of sadness [and] trauma for families and children. There is a harsh environment in which we are working—especially those of us who are doing deportation defense work, and dealing and helping the undocumented. So it is a grim business these days to practice immigration law. It’s very disheartening and unfortunate. But there’ve been six presidents since I’ve been doing this work, and this too shall pass. As far as I’m concerned, the character of this country cannot be changed. It’s a country of immigrants and their descendants. No president can change that. 

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