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'You Can Be Anything You Want to Be'

Attorneys tell their stories of immigrating to the U.S.

Photo by Luke Copping

Published in 2023 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on August 18, 2023


The four attorneys on these pages arrived in America for different reasons. Two were lawyers who immigrated as adults and had to reorient themselves to U.S. law. Two left their homes with every intention of coming back, but dangerous circumstances forced them to change course.

All navigated obstacles—language, employment, acceptance, housing—as they laid their roots here, while remaining romanced by the notion that, in this country, they could do anything. Be anyone. Build something.

“We are shaped by our experiences,” says Buffalo mediator Krista Gottlieb, who arrived from Prague at 11. “Growing up under communism, there was trauma all the time. You can get a knock on the door in the middle of the night and get dragged to a prison camp because your kid told someone, ‘My mom likes American music.’ Experiencing something like that leads to two outcomes: You become sensitive to those who are suffering, or you harden. My experience made me more thoughtful, sensitive and protective. As refugee, an immigrant, I’ve come out on the side of, ‘I want to make the world a better, safer place.’ I helped build a legal system that does that.”

These are their journeys.

Origin Stories

Awujoola after passing the Bar.

Bola O. Awujoola, Vaughan Baio & Partners; Workers’ Compensation; Nigeria: My wife, who is Nigerian, was living in America while I was still living in Nigeria. In 2018, we had to decide between Nigeria or here. We chose here. It was very difficult to spend my entire adult life in one world and then start all over, but it’s working.

Krista Gottlieb, ADR Center & Law Office; Alternative Dispute Resolution; Prague: First, some history. On one side of my family, many people died in the camps in World War II. On the other side, we had family that were, prior to communism, quite wealthy capitalists. That was all taken away, overnight, when the communists came. For my family, it became a question of, “How did you survive in order to make opportunities available for your kid—me?” Because, as people with capitalist backgrounds, we had a black mark against us.

In 1965, we went on vacation. Usually, when you leave the country, they make you leave one family member behind, but they let all three of us go. We traveled to France and met up with my aunt, uncle and cousin, who informed us that they were escaping. Once a member of your family escapes, then all your opportunities implode when you return home. My parents had to make an almost on-the-spot decision: escape, or return. It was gut-wrenchingly difficult for my parents to make this decision, particularly since my paternal grandmother, a widow who lost her husband in Auschwitz, was left behind, alone. But we fled. We were in a German refugee camp for a year. When we came to New York in 1966, the only thing I could say is, “My name is Krista Gottlieb, and I don’t speak English.”

Jose Perez, Law Offices of Jose Perez; Immigration, Workers’ Compensation; Venezuela: My father is Venezuelan but did his Ph.D. at Cornell. I was born when he was in Ithaca. I returned to Venezuela at 8 months old. When my wife was pregnant with our first baby in 2002, I wanted to have him where I was born. We rented an apartment in the same complex where my father lived.

The goal was always to go home. But at the time, Hugo Chávez was president, and there was a coup before we left. Before the U.S., I was an attorney in Venezuela for some governmental entities. My wife was also a lawyer in Venezuela, and she was working for the opposition. When we saw what was happening in Venezuela, it felt too dangerous to return.

Josephine Yang-Patyi, Yang-Patyi Law Firm; Business Litigation; Taiwan: My father was offered a diplomatic position in Honolulu when I was 14. He said yes, even though it was a demotion. One of the reasons was he found himself “more American” in the sense that his father was an American citizen. He had pictures of my grandfather riding a Harley. My father grew up drinking Coke. He did his post-doc at Cornell. I remember he would have picnics on the beach—something that the Chinese didn’t do. I think he felt like he was already raising us differently, so why not? He told me, “I see something in you that tells me you won’t fulfill your potential in Taiwan.”

First Impressions

Perez: I remember desperation: We had a newborn, no English, no money and no plan.

Yang-Patyi: Before I left, one of my classmates was like, “Can you get some blonde hair and send it to me?” That’s what people thought of America: blonde hair, blue eyes. Then I get to Hawaii, and all we saw were Asian faces! And everybody spoke funny—they didn’t speak the kind of English we heard in movies; they spoke Hawaiian Pidgin English, which made learning English even more difficult.

Awujoola: Why do Americans think they can ask for your whole life history when they’ve known you five minutes? Nigerians are private. Here, you meet someone, and it’s, “Where are you from? What do you do? Tell me about your parents.” I think I’ve loosened up a bit by now.

Gottlieb: I just remember the romance of, “You can be anything you want to be.”

Early Obstacles

Yang-Patyi: I tried very hard to not speak Pidgin English. Instead, I tried to speak like Peter Jennings. I’d watch ABC World News Tonight and repeat what he said and how he said it. I also got into it with some of my teachers, who were teaching us a version of history that I did not agree with. To their credit, I didn’t get into any real trouble.

Hawaiians were nice, but just content to have the water and the sun—and do the minimum—when I wanted more. My sister got beat up a bit by people who looked like us, which made it worse. We weren’t fully accepted by the Chinese communities in which my dad worked, mostly because we were from Taiwan. My mother struggled the most: She was an educated woman who gave up her career and had to find a new identity as a “First Lady.”

Awujoola with his family.

Awujoola: I missed my family and friends. When you’ve grown up somewhere as an adult, you’ve formed your circle. I know what to expect when I’m having a conversation with my friends. Here, I don’t know what is acceptable and what isn’t. I’m simultaneously trying to learn, unlearn and relearn things. My parents and some of my siblings are still in Nigeria, and we talk every single day.

The good thing about Nigerian people is that we are everywhere. I would not be surprised to go to the moon and find Nigerians. When I told people I was going to Albany, they were like, “Why? Go where there are Nigerians!” But we’re here in Albany.

Perez: When we came to have our baby, we brought $30,000 for our 10-month stay. I paid the delivery in cash. We bought a car in cash. We rented an apartment in cash. When we were ready to go home, we had zero money, but we were going back to jobs as lawyers. And then we weren’t. I needed a job, and I thought I could work as a paralegal. I applied to 93—I’ll never forget the number—law firms, and didn’t get a single opportunity. 

Perez in Thailand for an international law summer program with his professors and a classmate.

I told my story to a guy I met in church. He drove me to a pizza shop called Mama Teresa’s, and they offered me a job as a driver for $3.50 an hour, which was what they paid immigrants. Even though I was a U.S citizen, I didn’t speak the language, so I was one more immigrant that they could get cheap. I was at Mama T’s from 5 p.m. to 3 in the morning, and then I went to school to learn English from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Gottlieb: I didn’t speak for almost a year because I was so afraid of using the wrong word and having the wrong accent. I wasn’t mute, exactly, but I was very hesitant to talk because I was terrified I’d be made fun of. I suppose I’ve been making up for it ever since.

The Things They Loved

Awujoola: When I became a United States citizen last September, one of my colleagues bought me whiskey. It was the best. They were shocked: “Finally! We got you on something American!” I love American whiskey. And cheese. I’m not sure if I ever tasted cheese before coming here. I’m now the “extra cheese” guy with my pizza.

Gottlieb: Thanksgiving. We loved everything about it, particularly the concept of giving thanks. We spent our first Thanksgiving with my aunt, uncle and cousin, who ended up in Baltimore. They loved it so much that they had a mini-Thanksgiving one day a month for about a year. We kind of did the same, expressing our thanks for being here and the freedom it brought.

Yang-Patyi: The opportunities for upward mobility. With hard work, perseverance, tenacity and ingenuity, one is not stuck in the class—as defined by the socioeconomic or educational background or family legacy—into which one was born, and can make a better life.

Paths to the Law

Gottlieb at her law school graduation.

Gottlieb: I became a lawyer because I wanted to make the world a better place. Litigation is the next-best alternative to outright war. Instead of walking 10 paces, turning around, and shooting each other, we hire lawyers to do it. And not with bullets, but with words, with laws.

When I took my first mediation training, I was like, “This is good stuff. This is how to actually fix stuff.” I dove into it. I won an award for mediation and hung it in the conference room. My partner told me that, whenever he was using that conference room, I needed to take it down because it would give the wrong impression to our [non-ADR] clients. There were a few of us who literally created the mediation culture locally by starting the programs in the federal court, which is now a cutting-edge program in the Western District. We built it from the ground up.

Perez: While I was taking my English classes, I was advancing so well that I sat for the LSAT, then got into Syracuse. Soon, I was failing civil procedure because I was trying to compare things, which didn’t work: Venezuela is a civil law country; even though the concepts and definitions are the same, procedurally, it was totally different.

Around this time, my wife needed to become a U.S. resident. Because I was a U.S. citizen, I could petition for her. We were not able to find a lawyer who spoke Spanish in Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo—not anywhere. We had to go to New York City, miss a day of work, and meet with someone who charged $500 an hour. When I got my first job, I said, “I know you guys do insurance defense, but I want to do immigration. This is who I am.” … The sad thing is, 20 years after I couldn’t find a Spanish-speaking immigration lawyer, now, in the region, we’re only up to eight.

Yang-Patyi graduating from the University of Denver in 1992.

Yang-Patyi: I wanted to be a professor of religious studies, so I went to Harvard Divinity School. I thought it’d be a steppingstone to my Ph.D., but I found that tenured professors weren’t retiring. [Then] I thought I should do something practical, so I moved to New York City to find out what. I sent out literally 200 resumes and got a paralegal job. The lawyers liked me, but, more important, they taught me. They took me to trial. Of course, I got paid crap. I liked the job so much that I went to law school.

I stayed away from immigration law because that was expected of me. My dad said, “So you’re going to do immigration law and open an office in the Chinese community, right?” And I said, “No.” I wanted to do business law. … As a non-white lawyer, the measure of your success is often, “Will white people rely on you and trust you?” And now, I spend my time breaking up businesses for white people.

Awujoola: I studied law to help people who cannot afford legal services. There are a lot of people like that in Nigeria, and I’ve seen how people suffer because they didn’t have someone to speak on their behalf. I wanted to be that person. I was already partner in a top litigation firm in Nigeria. Thinking about moving to the States, I thought, “Where do I start?” I’d talked to people who had made a similar move, and they’re like, “It’s difficult. We’ve been here 10 years, we still aren’t where we want to be.” These are brilliant people. … I had to learn everything all over, and I had so many concerns about my accent: When I’m cross-examining a witness, would they understand what I’m saying? Would the judge? Would my clients? How many times will I have to repeat things?

On the first try, I passed the bar. I found a mentor who helped me secure a job. Nigeria is a common-law jurisdiction, like the U.S., so the basic principles of law are the same.

The “Made It” Moments

Yang-Patyi: Opening up my own firm, on my terms.

Gottlieb’s house in Flushing that “was the signal that we had ‘made it’ in America.”

Gottlieb: When my parents bought our first house. It was in Queens, on the 7 line. We furnished it with everything off the street because, on trash day, oh my God, the treasures. Except for the bed, we literally furnished the place from trash day. For years and years, all I ever wanted was to own something that had not been previously owned, that was mine. Of course, I’ve come full circle, and my husband and I love antiquing.

Awujoola: I’m not yet living the American dream, but it’s very much within sight.

Perez: That baby whose birth I paid for in cash—who I couldn’t figure out how to feed? He’s at Cornell. Another of my children is at Yale. We have a younger daughter who’s not in school yet. Maybe she’ll end up at Harvard. All of this is for them.

Advice They Wished They’d Heard

Awujoola: That it will happen. I was afraid of not achieving all the things I hoped to, but as long as you are great at what you do, you will rise in this country. Not by favoritism or nepotism, but by sheer hard work and being excellent. One thing about America that I appreciate is that people accept you for your expertise. And, with consistency, focus and hard work, you’ll achieve.

Yang-Patyi: “You will master English. In fact, you will someday make your living by writing and arguing and yelling in English, by editing other people’s English.” I was so desperate at 14 to overcome this hurdle. It was the key to everything.

Perez, with his wife and eldest son, at the Rockefeller Center days after arriving in the U.S.

Perez: “Jose, don’t listen to them.” When I was in English school, one of my teachers said, “You’re crazy. You cannot go to law school here. You’re not going to succeed. Do some other things, Jose, as immigrants do.” Then I have other people telling me, “Law school is expensive, and you don’t have credit.” Just a wall of “You can’t.”

But, Jose: You are here. You’re in the United States! You can do anything you want as long as you have the heart. I had five tickets for my law school graduation, and I sent one to that professor—even though I knew he wouldn’t come. I hoped it would change his perspective.

Gottlieb: “You go, girl.” I wouldn’t have put it precisely that way, as that phrasing wouldn’t have existed at the time. But you can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want to be. Go do it. Go build something that’s going to make the world a better place. I like to think I’ve done precisely that.

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