A World of Welcome

Immigrants share how they’ve made a home in Western Wake

One of the great things about Western Wake County is the diversity of its population. Immigrants bring their traditions and enrich our community in countless ways.

According to the latest U.S. Census, 27 percent of Morrisville residents, 19 percent of Cary residents, 10 percent of Apex residents, nearly 9 percent of Fuquay-Varina residents, and almost 8 percent of Holly Springs residents are foreign born. They settle here for the same reasons other transplants do: the mild climate, top-notch education and abundant jobs.

Once here, many immigrants also start businesses. We invited three immigrant entrepreneurs to share how they have found a home and a livelihood here.  

Hannah Chan
Real estate agent Hannah Chan wants to make sure all her clients feel welcome in Cary.

Hannah and her husband, Leo, met in Hong Kong, and she followed him to the United States – first to San Jose, Calif., and then to North Carolina when IBM transferred Leo here. At first Hannah was uneasy about living in the South.

Hannah Chan loves Cary, but she still has a hard time finding her way around. “Here the signs are green and hidden by the trees,” she said. “I drive slow, but the good thing is the people in North Carolina don’t honk. They are very good.”

“When I first moved here, I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere,” said Hannah. “Even the movers, when they came to our house in California, asked, ‘Where are you moving?’ North Carolina. ‘Oh, then you don’t need your TV.’  Twelve years ago they told me there was no TV in North Carolina!”

Hannah was pleasantly surprised by her warm welcome.

“In the subdivision, people don’t know us, but they wave at us. I said, ‘Leo, you must be very popular. Why is everybody waving at you?’”

Still, she struggled to make friends until she, Leo and their baby daughter went to the Raleigh Chinese Christian Church located in Cary. By the end of their first visit, Hannah had connected with another mom who advised her on the area’s best schools and neighborhoods.  

That experience, as a newcomer who so desperately needed information, convinced Hannah to go into real estate. Now at Cary Raleigh Realty, she and her team of agents serve mostly Chinese-speaking clients, whether they are looking for investment property or a new home.

She is often the first person to welcome new families to the area, so Hannah helps however she can.

“I want to help them succeed, because this is a place of abundance,” said Hannah. “This is a place that I feel everyone can succeed if you do business with integrity, you take care of your clients, and you have a serving heart.”


Azeb Mekonnen, Matheos
Geblemedhin and Eden Mekonen

Azeb Mekonnen followed her heart to Cary, but then she followed her passion.

Azeb had been living in Toronto, working for a restaurant, when she met and fell in love with Matheos Geblemedhin, a fellow Ethiopian refugee. The couple married in 2006, and they moved to Cary where Matheos had a job with Tekelec, now Oracle.  

At first Azeb worked as a lab tech, but always there was this idea in the back of her head: She wanted to open a restaurant.

Matheos Geblemedhin, from left, Eden Mekonen, Azeb Mekonnen and kitchen assistant Laura Bautista eat at Awaze Ethiopian restaurant in Cary. “What makes us happy is when people come here to eat, when we see their smiles, their happy faces, then we’re happy too,” said Azeb.

“My dream was for a long, long, long time,” Azeb said. “I used to say, ‘I have to do it, I have to do it.’”

With the support of her coworkers who loved the Ethiopian food she brought  to potlucks, Azeb started a catering business. Then a restaurant space opened in Cary, and with the support of her husband and family, she opened Awaze earlier this year.

“Azeb’s got a lot of passion for cooking,” said Matheos. “So when the chance opened to buy this restaurant, we jumped on it.”

Azeb’s sister Eden Mekonen, who was living in Maryland, came to Cary to help with the restaurant.

“We are a very close family; we cannot live without one another,” said Eden.

The family enjoys tremendous support from fellow immigrants and the wider community, all three say.

“When you come as a newcomer, you might feel like you’re not supported by anybody, that you’re alone,” said Eden. “But everybody I see is very friendly.”

Azeb agrees and tells how when she got lost in Cary, a police officer helped her find her way.
“I thought he was going to give me a ticket,” she said. “He asked me, ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘I’m going the wrong way. I’m lost.’ He said, ‘Follow me.’ And he took me where I was going!”

She laughs at the story, as if she still can’t believe her luck that day. But the sisters don’t spend  much time looking back. The future is much too bright.

“The only thing I miss is friends and some family,” said Azeb. “Other than that, I got everything here.”


Priya Chellani
Priya Chellani wants to build bridges with dance and music.

When she first arrived in Cary in 2011, she noticed that Indian dance was restricted to the ethnic communities here. But as a lifelong dancer, Priya wanted to share her passion with bigger audiences.

Priya Chellani leads a Bollywood-style “flash mob” on April 2 at Cisco to celebrate Holi, the Indian festival of color.

“I can offer this to the wider community,” she said. “I don’t want to restrict it just to my own, because that’s boring. When you come to a foreign country, you don’t come there to go from your little Indian village to a little Indian ghetto. You want to be out there in the world, sharing your skills.”

Priya studied classical Indian dance as a child in Bandra, India, a suburb of Mumbai. She has been teaching since 1986, first in India, then in Dubai and New Zealand. With the support of her husband, Anis Roshan, she started Indigo Dance Evolution Academy about 18 months ago in Cary. She now leads classes at area community centers and for corporate clients that include Cisco and NetApp.

“Dance has been my life since the age of 3,” she said. “I’ve dabbled in many different dance forms in India, but Bollywood seems to have captured the imagination of the world.”

She offers classes for all ages, from elementary school to seniors. She also offers “workout style” routines, combining aerobic moves of Indian classical and folk dances with Zumba set to up-tempo Bollywood music. Cultural lessons are mixed with choreography to help her students understand and master the moves.

 Priya Chellani offers about 14 to 15 dance classes a week, including this one at the Morrisville Aquatic and Fitness Center.

The camaraderie of dance and music has helped Priya make friends and promote connections among her students.

“Being a teacher in this community, there has been nothing like it. This has opened up everything for me,” she said.

With interest in her classes blossoming, Priya is pleased with where she has finally landed. The laid-back pace of life in Cary, its abundant natural beauty, and the community’s acceptance of foreign cultures have her feeling at home. “After all the boxes I’ve packed and unpacked, all the containers that have carried my cargo from one country to another, this is the end of the road for me,” she said. “This is the end of the journey. This is where I will call home.”


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