Children of immigrants make giving back a priority

Parents’ influence as well as their own experiences shape themes for such endeavors
Daniel Brown speaks to customer Angell Foster after preparing her a matcha at Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Brown and Nephthaly Leonidas opened the shop that honors their Caribbean heritage with menu items that are influenced by Caribbean food and culture. (Christine Tannous /

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Daniel Brown speaks to customer Angell Foster after preparing her a matcha at Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Brown and Nephthaly Leonidas opened the shop that honors their Caribbean heritage with menu items that are influenced by Caribbean food and culture. (Christine Tannous /

Stephanie Nadi Olson starts every morning with baba’s voice in her ear.

Their father-daughter chats begin around 5 a.m., and by the time they hang up, Ramadan Nadi has polished off a cup of coffee and Stephanie Nadi Olson is ready to hunker down in her home office.

“I try to keep him posted on what’s happening in my life because I don’t want him to feel disconnected,” she said.

Nadi Olson credits her father with shaping her worldview through long talks centered around his life in Palestine, and lessons he’s learned as a refugee. Those anecdotes have resulted in the Atlanta native developing a sense of community, and a strong desire to give back.

And she’s not alone.

Children of immigrants are often influenced by their parents’ past to contribute to their communities, according to Nicole Guidotti, an English and Latinx studies professor at Emory University.

She said it’s typical for people who’ve lived in places with economic, gender, racial and religious disparities to rely on strong communal ties for survival — and those bonds and those traditions “don’t stop when somebody leaves their home country.”

“I think it’s twofold. One, it’s the dose of privilege like, I have benefited from my parents or my parents’ immigration and therefore I am not just giving back but I am giving back to my parents in a way that honors their legacy,” Guidotti said. “And I also think when we’re talking about Asian and Latinx second generation immigrants, who are the majority, we’re talking about communities that have a strong sense of benevolence and sharing.”

Second generation refers to people with at least one foreign-born parent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while first generation refers to people who are foreign-born.

Some children of immigrants will reflect on their childhoods at some point and recognize the inequalities they personally experienced, along with their families, and realize “it didn’t have to be that way, my family didn’t have to have limited access to resources they experienced,” said Helen Kim, an assistant professor of American religious studies at Emory University.

“So often, I think second generations do try to go back and correct those systems,” Kim said, adding that this can be done through volunteer work, or taking jobs that provide access to resources.

Ensuring dignity for everyone

Stephanie Nadi Olson and her father, Ramadan Nadi, have a close bond. Fueled by lessons of equality and justice from her father, Nadi Olson has created a business that seeks to uplift employees from underserved groups. (Courtesy of Stephanie Nadi Olson)

Credit: Submitted by: Stephanie Nadi Olson

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Credit: Submitted by: Stephanie Nadi Olson

Nadi grew up on an orange and olive farm in Jaffa, Palestine, and was about 5 years old when he became one of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from their homes amid Israel declaring itself an independent country in 1948. The time period is known as Nakba, which translates to catastrophe in Arabic, among Palestinians.

He ended up in a refugee camp.

“And then when my grandmother gave birth to my uncle, she passed away in the camp,” Nadi Olson said. “My dad’s only memory of her was being in bed with her at the camp.”

At the time, everyone thought the camps would be temporary and that they’d be allowed to return to their homes, but that never happened. Nadi ended up dropping out of school when he was 8 years old, and got an apprenticeship as a tailor.

He came to Atlanta when he was about 30, and ended up meeting Nadi Olson’s mom when he ran a red light and totaled her car in the Briarcliff area.

“And that is also something that has shaped my worldview, like this incredibly unexpected meeting of people, who go on to create this beautiful life together,” Nadi Olson said. “I mean, they’ve been married for 47 years, and it’s like, never in a million years would these two people have crossed paths.”

Although Nadi doesn’t talk much about his life prior to immigrating, he made it a point to share the richness of Palestinian culture with his three children and taught them to be proud of their heritage. He also emphasized the importance of giving back and the power of generosity.

Having an immigrant father also taught Nadi Olson about the cruelties of racism.

“Like when we’re out together, I’m very white presenting and he has a very thick Arabic accent, and brown skin, and his name is Ramadan; we’re treated very differently,” she said.

When Nadi Olson was planning out her business, We are Rosie, she made sure to incorporate those life lessons she learned from her father into her business model. We are Rosie matches employers with independent marketing experts of diverse backgrounds ― including refugees, members of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.

“The theme I talk about so much with We are Rosie is dignity,” said Nadi Olson, adding her personal experiences helping refugee families assimilate to life in America helped shape that view.

Nadi Olson’s goal through her business is to create a sense of community, and to make sure everyone feels welcomed and respected while working.

“So many times, and particularly in corporate America, so many people are treated poorly and marginalized and overlooked and underestimated. I’ve seen that happen within my own family, and that cannot happen here,” she said.

‘Therapy and coffee’

Daniel Brown (left) and Nephthaly Leonidas (right) pose for a portrait outside Gilly Brew Bar in Stone Mountain on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Brown and Leonidas opened the shop that honors their Caribbean heritage with menu items influenced by Caribbean food and culture. (Christine Tannous /

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When friends Daniel Brown and Nephthaly Leonidas decided to open up a coffee bar, Gilly Brew Bar, they were both well-equipped with the lessons of their Caribbean family members, and knew giving back was nonnegotiable.

“I think what we bring to the beverage industry stems from our cultural backgrounds, from the ingredients we use to the different names of the drinks,” Brown said. “It’s just valuing our customers and how we have brought them into our space and make them feel a part of what we’re cultivating.”

Traces of Brown’s Jamaican and Leonidas’ Haitian lineage are felt throughout the entire downtown Stone Mountain shop, starting with the island-friendly “welcome home” greeting customers get when they walk through the door.

At Gilly, there are tote bags on sale with a portion of proceeds going to nonprofits, such as the Free 99 Fridge, which focuses on combating food insecurity. The business owners also host mental health awareness nights, when customers can come by and learn about the resources available to them.

“We hold what we call therapy and coffee,” Leonidas said. “It’s very important to us to break down barriers between Black and brown communities in their pursuit of therapy.”

This desire to give back is rooted in both Brown’s and Leonidas’ upbringings, which were peppered with lessons in giving.

Leonidas watched her parents go to Haiti to help take medical and dental aid to people living in the mountainside. Being a student athlete, her schedule didn’t always give her time to go on these trips, but by her senior year of college, she was able to join her family on the trips.

“My mother and me, we go back and forth between Haiti doing medical visits in the mountains,” she said, adding that the closest hospital in some spots was about five hours away, making their work even more critical. “A lot of folks in the mountainside really don’t have easy access and often choose not to go to the hospital or to see a doctor because they don’t have the money to.”

After graduation, Leonidas, alongside her family, co-founded an initiative, W3PV Inc., which provides Haitians living in rural areas access to medical and dental care. The organization is currently working to help those impacted by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck the island on Aug. 14.

Brown’s family has a similar story in Jamaica. His grandfather, whom the coffee shop is named after, is a carpenter and uses his skills to help restore homes.

“Going back home, you see a lot of shacks with zinc roofs and a storm passes by and it’ll completely demolish a lot of the homes,” he said. “Just being able to build better structured dwellings for neighbors or family has always been a need.”

After witnessing that type of generosity, it seemed fitting for Gilly Brew Bars owners to put an emphasis on community and giving.

“And so that same mentality, it’s so embedded into who I am and I can say that’s embedded in Daniel, it didn’t make sense not to give,” Leonidas said. “... Just watching our parents trailblaze for us, I think, in many ways is why we trailblaze for our communities now. It’s just showing them an example of hard work or what it means to sacrifice.”

And both their parents are proud of all that they’ve accomplished.

“They’re honored,” Brown said. “Coffee, tea has always been embedded in our culture, and to have them see how we’re doing it is really something to be proud of.”

Leonidas agrees.

“More than anything, I think they’re happy that we try and deal (with business) with the utmost integrity,” she said.

Being the person they needed

Ana Mijares immigrated to the United States when she was in the second grade. Wanting to spare new arrivals from the same growing pains she went through, the 16-year-old volunteers with local nonprofits aimed at helping immigrant communities. (Courtesy of Ana Mijares)

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Ana Mijares remembers arriving in Atlanta as a second grader, and deeply missing her hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico.

“My dad had already lived here for a while, so it was just me and my sister who were new to America, and it was a lot,” Ana, 16, said. “In Mexico, I lived with my grandparents and my sister and a bunch of my cousins, so it was a change in living situations.”

Everything from learning to speak English to navigating through a new school came with its own set of culture shocks, including getting lunch in the school cafeteria.

“I didn’t have lunch money because I didn’t think you needed lunch money. They gave me this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and it was just the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said, laughing. “In my school in Mexico, it was a private school, so you’d have all of the food available to you without having to pay.”

Having adjusted to American life, Ana has made it her mission to give back to other children of immigrants, and is driven by a quote from journalist and author Ayesha Siddiqi: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

“That always really stuck with me in the sense that I came here and I was trying so hard to distance myself from my culture and just like fit in with American culture, so it’s nice to see that these kids have an outlet they can come to after school,” she said.

In her spare time, the North Atlanta High School junior volunteers with various local organizations, including Operation Feed and LaAmistad, which are both committed to aiding immigrant communities.

“I think it’s important to give back because I see myself in these kids that I’m helping,” Ana said.

With LaAmistad, she will help children from first to sixth grade with their homework, talk to them about lifestyle changes and be a listening ear. When working with Operation Feed, she’d help package food boxes for children and their families.

Ana says she understands the pressure immigrant children are sometimes under to be successful, and wants the children she helps to know that she is there to provide any kind of support they need.

“I was an immigrant. I know people have higher expectations of you,” Ana said.

One of the lessons she passes down to the children she works with is that they don’t need to give up their heritage in order to live in America.

“I like to remind them that their culture is not something worth hiding,” Ana said. “America is a melting pot. People can’t expect everybody to just fit into a certain mold. That’s just unrealistic.”

As for her future plans, Ana wants to study political science and continue to give back to her community.

Juan Mejia and his mother, Beatriz Gaitan, immigrated to metro Atlanta from Colombia. Mejia credits a strong sense of community for helping his family adjust to life in America, and now pays that kindness forward by working with area nonprofits. (Courtesy of Juan Mejia)

Credit: Summitted by: Juan Mejia

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Credit: Summitted by: Juan Mejia

That same mantra drives Juan Mejia, who has a similar immigration story as Ana. They both arrived in metro Atlanta in the second grade and have each made giving back to their community their main priority.

Mejia and his mother left Medellín, Colombia, in August 2001 to escape political unrest in the country.

“It was just my mother and I. I think there was a suitcase and $1,000,” Mejia said. “We moved straight to Atlanta. I had some of my dad’s side of the family that lives here, and they encouraged my mom to stay here in the land of opportunities.”

Life in the United States didn’t come with the same comforts of Colombia in the early years. Mejia and his mother, Beatriz Gaitan, lived in a middle-class community in Colombia where she owned a hair salon. Here, Gaitan made the decision not to reestablish her business because it would mean working nights and weekends, and leave her with less time with her son.

Instead, Gaitan took on a job as a nanny and lived with the families she worked with in the Braselton area.

“My mom has this saying of ‘only be afraid of being afraid,’” Mejia said. “I applaud her. She made it very clear that I was her priority.”

All of these experiences shaped Mejia’s outlook on life.

“I saw that life can change in a blink of an eye,” he said. “I literally left school, left our whole culture, left our whole family, and we just came to a new land. So, to me, change isn’t as intimidating as it may be to others. I also saw how the dollar is earned.”

These days, Mejia is an entrepreneur, working primarily in the real estate industry, and he also makes it a point to volunteer with several nonprofits, such as the United Way.

“I am a product of community organizations,” he said. “I am where I am today because of programs and community leaders. Now, it is my turn to help the next Juan get to a place even better than I did.”

One organization that had the biggest impact on Mejia is Ser Familia, a nonprofit that is focused on providing aid to Latino families in the Atlanta area. He started volunteering with the organization at about 11 years old. Now 28, he still gives his time to Ser Familia by volunteering on the development committee, helping with fundraising.

He credits the organization and its volunteers for giving a “young immigrant kid (the) time, talent and treasure” to become the person he is today.

And his mom is proud of that effort.

“It is a way of showing your true colors, of who you are to the community,” Gaitan said. “You have to be ready to serve where/when it is needed. It is the best way to spend your life.”

She then quoted Mother Teresa: “el que no vive para servir, no sirve para vivir,” which translates to “he who does not live to serve, does not deserve to live.”

Paradise Afshar is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.