Posts tagged "Astoria"

"I feel this is my country now"

When John Arvanitis, 56, moved to Astoria, Queens in 1974 he found that the area was filled with coffee shops and diners, but devoid of the type of cafes ubiquitous in his native Greece. So, he opened his own. “Omonia Cafe” initially only sold coffee and pastries; today it has two pastry shops and a large restaurant — they even baked the wedding cake for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”!

Courtney: Why did you move to America, and to New York?

John: “To be honest to you, I came to see America, what it’s all about; like the ‘American Dream.’ Everybody wants to see America. I have a sister here who’s married with a couple of kids, so I came to see my nephews. Then I decided this is a good country, a strong country, there are good things here. To compare to my country — I’m from Greece — there’s a big difference in the business way, life wise, but I see everything with more opportunities here. A  lot of opportunities. So I decided to stay here for a little more, then a little more, and then I started to love it. And then I decided, in 1974, 1975, when I was here, that it was missing a cafe like this. Back then they had diners and coffee shops, that’s all they had. So I had the idea, but I didn’t have the money to do it right away. I started in 1977, with a small amount of money, I started with $19,000. That was the amount of money I had. And then the cafe got bigger and bigger and bigger. Thank God today I’m okay, you know?”

Courtney: What does the work immigrant, or migrant, mean to you?

John: “Immigrant means people from different countries. I’m an immigrant too; I came here from a different country.”

Courtney: Is there any way that you bring your home with you?

John: “Of course, always I think about my life in Greece, how I grew up, and everything. I miss it, I go there once a year and see it, but always come back here. I feel this is my country now.”

Courtney: Is being an American, or living in America, different from what you expected it would be?

John: “America, no, when I came back then, I loved the way it is. I love the roots in this country, I love the opportunities, of course it’s not the European style of life, it’s different, but it’s much better here. More opportunities, more things to do here. My country, like a lot of other countries, is very conservative, very small, the opportunities are much less than here. Here, if you’re smart and you know what you want to do, you can do it in this country.”

Courtney: What has your greatest challenge as an immigrant been?

John: “I see the opportunities for business, doing business. You can grow and go very high here, go as high as you want. You can be anybody you want to be in this country. You can be a doctor, you can be a businessman, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything you want. They give you all the opportunities to be high in life. No other country gives you this opportunity. I love America. I do love America. I’m here, I have family here, everything is here. “

"I was looking for a better life, like anybody else."


Mohamed Bayomi, 49, owns a cafe in Astoria, Queens. He moved to New York in 1989 in search of a better life, and managed a sandwich shop for 20 years before opening Bagel Nosh in November of 2010.

Courtney:  Why did you move to New York?

Mohamed:  I was working in Egypt, and the economy over there was bad. I couldn’t make a living over there. I was working at a good job, and the job gave me a chance to get a visa. I got the visa and adjusted my status over here. Of course I was looking for a better life, like anybody else.”

Courtney:  What does the word immigrant, or migrant, mean to you?

Mohamed:  I don’t think about it that much. I have a different opinion than the other people. you know. Even between the Arabic countries it’s the same thing, it’s very hard to get a visa. I have a bachelor’s degree in economics. Egyptian people are very educated, engineers, etc. People should move all around the world freely, as long as they are needed. If you don’t need me, and you’re not going to hire me, and I’m not going to find a job, I’ll go back to my country. If you need me, I’ll get paid — and that’s it.”

Courtney:  How do you bring your home with you?

Mohamed:  There’s no way to… but over here in New York, on Steinway, the whole block between 25th avenue and 20th avenue is Egyptian stores. You go there at night, you feel a little of Egypt, you know? Coffee shops, hookah, the food smell. Egyptian people all around, walking, so you feel like a little of Egypt, but it’s not like Egypt, of course. [There’s] nowhere like home.”

Courtney:  Is living in America and being an American different from what you expected it would be?

Mohamed:  Over here, this country has a system. It’s very important and it makes everybody’s life easy. You forget to put a quarter in when you park? You get a ticket. This is the rule. Nobody argues because everybody works in the same like everybody else. A governor is like a regular person. In our country, it’s not that way. You treat people differently. If you have power, you have different laws than the other regular people. Here everybody adheres to the law. You break the law, you pay the penalty. So when you do something you know what to expect. In our country, you might do something very good, and they treat you like nothing. If two people applying for a job, and the other guy is the son of somebody — even if you know 100 percent that you’re better then him, your degree is better than his degree, your score is better than his score — he will get the job. Over here, everything has a system… That’s what’s good about it.”

Courtney:  What has your greatest challenge been as an immigrant?

Mohamed:  I was trying to — like anybody else — I was trying to prove myself. I’m an accountant… I had a lot of responsibility in Egypt. I had to pay money for my family, I had to do this, I had to do that. And so I didn’t study, I worked right away. [And in New York] I worked as a sandwich man, but it’s not my type of work. After six months I was managing one of the biggest stores and was with the people for 20 years. I never changed the job, they liked me, and then I became a part of the company. So that was the challenge — I had to prove myself in a different kind of job, I had never worked it before. But of course accounting helped me a lot.”

Voices Beyond Borders documents the experiences of immigrants and migrants from all walks of life in New York City and Chicago. Our central aim is to foster a greater understanding of these communities in our two cities.

We want to foster a democratic exchange of storytelling — open, honest and sincere.

We encourage submissions from anywhere in the U.S, as well as abroad. Please contact us if you would like to contribute: borderlessvoices@gmail.com.

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