American Reality

For most anyone, traveling to a new place to settle down and start a new life is never simple. However, for those who have ventured to immigrate to another country and embark on a new business or career, it is especially no small feat. Over the years, Lakeland has grown into a more diverse culture that has expanded our tastes, our knowledge, and our quality of life in more ways than we can possibly count.

Photography by Daniel Barceló

In this special feature, we share with you three different immigrant success stories of individuals who have crossed the borders to develop their careers here in Lakeland, and who’ve added a great wealth to our businesses and communities through the process.

DÁMARIS AND DANIEL MEDINA

PLACE OF BIRTH: CUBA

TITLE: MEDINA LAW GROUP, P.A.

Daniel and Dámaris Medina have known each other almost their whole lives.

Though Daniel was raised in Union City, New Jersey, and Dámaris came to North Bergen, New Jersey, as a Cuban refugee, the two had paths that led them to each other and eventually to Lakeland. “I did say when I was seven I was going to marry him,” says Dámaris. 

She and her family arrived in the United States in 1966. “It took a while. They sent a boat.” Though, on its way over, that boat sank. “So it took about another year, and on January 27, 1966, we stepped foot in New York.” Only three years old at the time, Dámaris recalls the experience vividly.

Through a tightly knit church, circle of friends, a sweet series of events, and then later into their college years, the two married and moved to Louisiana. In 1991, Daniel studied at University of Florida College of Law in Gainesville and, after graduating, the family moved to Lakeland. “When we came to Lakeland, we didn’t really expect to be here permanently. But we began to build roots,” says Daniel. “So when I sunk myself in the business life in Lakeland in 1996, I never really looked back.”

Currently, Daniel is the only Florida Bar board-certified wills, trust, and estates lawyer in Polk County. When the Medinas first arrived here, Daniel came to work for a local law firm and, after a few years there, in 2000 he launched his own firm, while Dámaris homeschooled their daughter and managed the books at the firm. In 2004, Daniel joined John Stargel and Glenn Shelby, who now both serve as judges. And, in 2012, they moved to their current location on South Kentucky Avenue as the Medina Law Group: Wills, Trust and Estates Attorney, with a total of eight employees and support staff, many of whom are bilingual. “When I was hiring a lawyer,” recalls Daniel of the firm’s lawyer Clara Delgado Rossell, “I wasn’t looking for someone Hispanic, but it turns out she was born in the Dominican Republic to Spanish parents and speaks five languages. So she’s kind of a natural complement.

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“For the most part, it’s been something that’s happened naturally,” says Daniel, regarding the multicultural facets of their office.

“It’s great to have someone who answers the phone and can speak Spanish. Because people will look for a Hispanic attorney if they’re Hispanic,” says Dámaris.

Since the Medinas first moved to Lakeland, in many ways they came at a recent cultural shift in the city, welcoming an all-over more diverse society. Says Daniel, “I remember [in 1996] going into Publix, and while going down an aisle, hearing someone in another aisle speak Spanish, and intentionally going over there just to say hi. Because it was not as common. Nothing like it is today in diversity. It was not as common to hear Spanish being spoken publicly.”

The Medinas also marvel at the recent addition of restaurants and tastes now represented in the city. “I can only think of one Cuban restaurant — Cuban Country — open in 1996,” recalls Daniel. “And the only other place you could get a Cuban sandwich would’ve been at Publix or Silver Ring.”

“And we see it when we walk Lake Hollingsworth,” says Dámaris. “We think, ‘Wow! Lakeland is changing.’”

“In the Hispanic community,” she continues, “the church we grew up in in New Jersey you have Hispanics from all different Spanish-speaking nations. They might be Asian-Hispanic, Black-Hispanic, blonde-blue-eyed-Hispanic. So we grew up with that diversity. Even though we had one common language, we were from all different nations. So, it’s cool to see that happening here.”

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Though, of the two, Dámaris is the one who immigrated to the States, Daniel’s parents had made the move to America before Castro came into power. Although Daniel was born in the States, he’s made several trips back to Cuba. The family of three has held tightly to their traditions, even as they embrace new ones here.

Their daughter, Karis, is now 31 and an artist and curator working at The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Connecticut. “We always made sure that Spanish was going to be her first language,” says Dámaris. Though, having been raised in Lakeland, growing up working at Mitchell’s Coffee House, and quick to call herself a “townie,” Karis has remained very connected to her lineage and even recently went with her father to Cuba. “It’s deeply emotional,” Daniel notes of the trips there.

Building roots in Lakeland while conserving the culture of their heritage, the Medinas solidified deep connections to the community through Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Lakeland and involvement in public organizations, such as Kiwanis, Parker Street Ministries, and the Children’s Exploration V Museum, where Daniel served on the board before the museum settled in its current building.

“Not being from Lakeland has always been a bit of a challenge,” says Daniel. “So, we’ve just become part of the community and let the community know we’re here to stay. When people realized we were here and committed to the community, then they just embraced us over time.”

FAEZA KAZMIER

PLACE OF BIRTH: ENGLAND

TITLE: PLASTIC SURGEON AT WATSON CLINIC WOMEN’S CENTER

At a young age, Faeza Kazmier knew she wanted to enter the field of plastic surgery, where currently only 12 percent of professionals are women.

“When I [was pregnant with] my oldest, I was in my last year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and I was so nervous thinking how am I going to explain this to my boss?’” says Kazmier. “I had to make sure I was on top of everything every single day. I didn’t have time to think about morning sickness. I didn’t have time to think about aches and pains. I went into labor when I was performing a breast reduction surgery.”

Kazmier’s parents raised her to know that if she wanted to achieve her dreams, it would take nothing less than hard work and pure dedication. Though, granted, her ravenous appetite for knowledge of science and reconstructive surgery no doubt propelled her efforts. 

Kazmier’s parents Drs. Muhammad and Fatema Rashid came to the U.S. from the small country of Bangladesh.

Though it’s a very modern and pro-Western country, Kazmier says her parents “were raised in the Third World country you’d imagine — a small hut with a tin roof. That was their home. But their families knew that education was the ticket to help them to be able to get out of that.”

A top student in the country at the time, Kazmier’s father received an engineering scholarship. Shortly after her parents’ marriage, the couple moved to England, where Kazmier was born. As an academician, Muhammad furthered his education from an undergraduate degree to a master’s and a PhD in England. Later, the family made many moves: to Malta, several smaller countries in Africa, Connecticut (where Kazmier attended preschool), and then Canada, before the family immigrated to the United States. Also highly educated, coming through poverty, Fatema had been a practicing physician and chose to set aside her practice for the time being when the family arrived to Canada, to invest first in her children.  “I didn’t realize the implications of that sacrifice my mom made for us, until I became a physician and surgeon,” Kazmier says.

Kazmier was in the fifth grade when the family arrived to the town of Munster in northwest Indiana. But it was shortly thereafter, when her father accepted a position to teach at Purdue and the family moved to Fort Wayne, that Kazmier’s career was set in motion.

As a freshman in high school, she was exposed to the possibilities of careers in the medical field. “I was very blessed to have a biology teacher at that time,” Kazmier remembers, “who said, ‘Faeza, I really think you’re great at sciences. I think you should consider something in the science background.’” Volunteering at the local hospital shortly thereafter, by the ninth grade Kazmier had seen her first surgery, a cardiothoracic operation. “This was when they had glass windows that you could watch through,” she recalls. “So I watched, and thought, ‘Ah, that looks so neat!’ But I had no idea what it meant to become a doctor.”

After volunteering in a hospital, Kazmier had seen enough surgeries to know the medical field was the one she was ready to embark upon. At the time, equipped with college credits having attended classes for free at Purdue, she applied to several medical programs receiving students straight from high school and ultimately landed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and then Albany Medical College.

“That’s when I became exposed to plastic surgery,” says Kazmier, “and it was a surprise because I thought I was going to be an internal medicine doctor. That’s who you get to interact with the first year. And I didn’t see my first plastic surgery until my third year.” It was, in fact, when Kazmier saw her first three plastic surgeries — a baby with a cleft lip, a woman’s breast augmentation, and a reconstruction — that she knew this was the field for her. “Same surgeon, same date,” notes Kazmier. “But, not only did I know they were going to feel better, but they were going to see that [change] as well. And that’s when I realized this is what I want to do.”

 Traditionally, general, orthopedic, or ENT surgery schools are precursors to enroll in a plastic surgery program. But a new model was in place to propel students from their four years at medical school and on their way to become plastic surgeons. With only 15 programs available at the time, Kazmier applied to all and ended up at her choice school, the University of Missouri in Columbia. One of the youngest in her class, Kazmier completed the six-year program and agreed to become the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon at Watson Clinic Women’s Center. She and her family moved to Lakeland just months before the Center’s grand opening in 2006.

Her husband, Peter Kazmier, an orthopedic surgeon, works at Watson Clinic as well.

“We’re both able to do the kind of work we want to do,” she says, gratefully, “and I’m able to work with incredible staff members. And, I get to spend time with my family at the times I think I’m going to spend time with my family, which is not always the case, unfortunately, with a lot of places. We’re very fortunate that we found a place that works for both of us.”

Peter is also an immigrant to the U.S. Originally from Poland, he arrived to the States at 10 years old. The two met on their first day in residency.

“Watson Clinic has been such a great place for us to be able to have the independence to be a part of milestones in our kids’ lives,” says Kazmier.

As for her home country, she says, “It is good to go [back to Bangladesh] because it reminds us of where we came from and how great our opportunities are here. For instance, grade school is mandatory up to fifth grade. After fifth grade, if your parents have the money or the ability to be able send you to school and they don’t need you to work at home, then you’re able to go to school. If you don’t have those, then you’re not able to go beyond fifth grade. We want our children to learn that life doesn’t just happen; you work hard for it. So we want them to learn to work hard for their life and appreciate what they have.”

The value of education Kazmier was raised with, that she continues to pour into her children, is also shared among her siblings: Kazmier’s brother is a patent attorney with an engineer’s degree, and her sister is a gastroenterologist at UPenn.

Kazmier adds, “Lakeland doesn’t look like it’s diverse from the outside, but it actually is. Here we have so many opportunities, I never feel like there’s a glass ceiling. I do think that is the case in other places, but I think, in our country here, I’ve never felt limited. If I’m willing to work hard and aim high, I’ve been able to achieve goals that I’ve been aiming for. Nobody else has kept me from it. And that is a blessing, to be here.”

MICK PUGLIESE

PLACE OF BIRTH: NAPLES, ITALY

TITLE: OWNER OF IL FORNO ITALIAN RESTAURANT

With Italian blood running through his veins, Mick Pugliese always knew he would one day open an Italian restaurant of his own.

While most American culinary schools have programs that turn around chefs in as short as 12 months, Pugliese spent five years in culinary school near Rome, Italy, his hometown.

Upon graduating the course, Pugliese lived in Switzerland, then in England before arriving to the States. “I was a supervisor for the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Heathrow, United Kingdom,” he says. “I was mainly at the front of the house. But I always knew I wanted to open up a restaurant one day.”

When Pugliese decided to move to Lakeland in 2001, he knew this was where his restaurant would soon open. He spent a few years working in other restaurants and businesses to familiarize himself with the city.

In the beginning, Lakeland was a chain restaurant-oriented, or very mom and pop,” recalls Pugliese. But, upon opening his restaurant, Il Forno, in 2004 and bringing the authentic Italian cuisine from his background and culinary training, he quickly realized what many in the city expected when seeking out a so-called “classic” Italian dinner.

At the time, the only other Italian restaurants in Lakeland (outside of the commercial Olive Garden) were Scarpa’s and Palace Pizza — one known for its fine dining cuisine and the other a dependable, fast-paced pizza joint. “The difficulty was to cook with an Italian-American flair,” says Pugliese, “because there are a lot of dishes that don’t exist in Europe. “Alfredo sauce,” he notes, for instance, “is not Italian. But, you’ve got different dishes that aren’t really Italian, so you’ve got to make it.

“Small example,” explains Pugliese, “on the menu we have pasta pomodoro, and then you can add the meatballs or the sausage. But people are like, ‘What kind of Italian restaurant are you? You don’t even have spaghetti and meatballs.’ But often people come and say, “Yes, I want spaghetti and meatballs. But I want angel hair.’” The American palate can be quite picky. But Pugliese learned his customer base quickly. So, yes, at Il Forno you will be sure to find linguine alfredo, spaghetti and meatballs, and other varieties of pastas.

Pugliese knew he wanted to bring the people of Lakeland classic Italian family-style meals, but he also became educated with Americans’ expectations and anticipations of a certain kind of Italian meal. Along with traditional recipes, Pugliese brought with him a culinary background and classic taste grounded in his Naples heritage, to create a menu that keeps customers coming back for more. Even if more spaghetti and meatballs.