Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 12, 2022

First-generation Americans find success in real estate, business

They arrived as tourists, ‘fell in love with America’

Americans have rarely been as divided as they are today. Glaring disagreements on the economy, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement and more have forged “deep and bitter divisions in American society,” reads a November 2020 Pew Research Center article titled “America is exceptional in the nature of its political divide.”

But when Indian immigrants Sonny and Laila Punjani regard the U.S. – they have called it home since 2001 – they see only the bonds that unite its people.

“We came to America as tourists,” says Sonny, 52. “We spent three months visiting friends and family in New York, Florida and Texas, and we realized an educated person who knows English can feel comfortable here.”

Sonny and Laila, his wife, first visited the U.S. in 1999. As they experienced the urban sprawl of New York City, the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the High Plains of Texas, their ability to communicate with the people of every state stood in stark contrast to their life in India.

“Back home, when we travel from one state to another, if we don’t know their language, and if they don’t know English, then we feel like a foreigner in our own country.”

Unlike the U.S., where English is the most prominent language, India has 22 official languages, Babbel Magazine report, and a total of 121 languages and 270 mother tongues, says Berlitz, a language education provider. It’s also home to the world’s oldest language – Hindi.

As natives of South India, Sonny and Laila speak Gujarati, the main language of the Indian state of Gujarat. They also speak Hindi, as well as English, which they learned as children.

“We spoke our own language at home, but when we were in school, we spoke English,” Laila, 48, recalls. “If we spoke our mother tongue, then we were penalized. We were asked to stand outside in the sun because we were breaking the rules.”

When Sonny and Laila landed in Mumbai after their trip to the U.S., the people there were speaking Marathi. Sonny says he felt out of place.

“They were talking in their own language and we were not understanding them. We had spent three months in America and never felt like that.”

While the people living in the various regions of India do not dislike each other, Sonny notes, the lingual harmony he and Laila experienced in the U.S. as they traveled from state to state made a deep impression on them.

So did the equality among the American people, Laila adds.

“You are a human being, regardless of race or religion. If I am walking and I pass out, you will rush to assist me. You don’t know me – we have never met – but you will be worried about me. You will call an ambulance to make sure I, Laila, am taken care of.

“Humans are valued here. We don’t see that in India. If I am falling, people will continue to rush through the crowd. But here, there is respect for other people.”

Sonny and Laila are not wearing cultural blinders, they say. They see the jagged fissures among Americans. But where a natural born citizen might see only division, the couple also sees unity and the things they say truly make America great.

“We fell in love with America,” Sonny says. “With its uniformity and its natural beauty, especially its forests and rivers. Here, we can take a dip in a river. Back home, most of the rivers are dry, and if they are not depleted, then they are too polluted for swimming.”

Eager to relocate to the U.S., the Pujanis spent the next two years planning the move. Sonny also applied his education in business and commerce at his family’s company, which involved purchasing goods wholesale and selling them to retailers. This enabled him and his family to acquire the necessary visas.

Sonny and Laila arrived in the U.S. in 2001 with their belongings and a business plan and settled in Vidalia, Georgia, which Laila says was close to family that had emigrated to the U.S.

Vidalia also provided the Punjanis with a small, rural community in which to establish themselves. “We loved our Sweet Onion City,” Laila says with a smile. “We felt at home.”

After settling in, Sonny launched a chain of convenience stores while Laila studied nursing at Southeastern Technical College. But after welcoming their first son into the world in 2004, the couple moved to Chattanooga to take advantage of the public schools.

“We did our research, and the schools here are excellent,” Sonny says.

As Sonny focused on launching a chain of cellular phone outlets and Laila tended to their son, the couple began to search for a home to buy. It was, he says, the final piece of the puzzle that was their American dream.

Finding that piece, however, was more than a little nightmarish.

“We were working with a Realtor we thought would do an excellent job,” Laila begins. “But she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to do. She wouldn’t write the offers we asked her to write.”

Although Laila says she doesn’t believe the agent was stalling because of their race, their exasperation reached its zenith after a year and a-half of working with her. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

While driving through the Belleau Woods subdivision in Chattanooga, the couple were drawn to a home with a “For Sale” sign planted in the front yard. But instead of calling their Realtor to arrange a showing, they called the listing agent, whose number was on the sign.

“We said, ‘We are looking at your sign in a yard. Can you meet us?’” Laila recalls. “He did, and within five minutes, my husband said, ‘This is our first home.’”

Although the Punjanis bought the home, their happy ending came at a steep price, Laila says.

“We would have spent $30,000 less a year and a-half earlier, but by the time we bought our house in 2007, the market was at a peak and the interest rate was 7 or 8%.”

The homebuying process had been painful and costly, Laila continues, but it also provided an education. By the time the Punjanis closed on their Belleau Woods residence, she knew the intricacies of the homebuying process like few consumers do.

With this in mind, her husband suggested she become a Realtor.

“He said I had the ability to communicate well and to understand what people want, and that I would find my clients the perfect match,” Laila says. “Then they would not go through the pain we experienced while looking for a home.”

The time was right, Sonny argued. Laila was no longer studying nursing and their second son was 2 years old, which freed her from constant hands-on care.

“He was worried I would become a luxury home mom, so he pushed me into real estate,” Laila laughs.

Laila became a licensed agent at Crye-Leike’s Gunbarrel Road office in 2011 and began to develop expertise in East Brainerd. Her husband joined her in 2013 to handle commercial listings and sales, which allowed her to focus on residential clients. In 2020, they left Crye-Leike and joined United Real Estate Experts.

Eleven years later, Laila says her job description hasn’t changed.

“When a family wants to buy a home, I imagine I am buying it for myself. As I am showing the house, I step into their shoes and ask myself, ‘Do I like the schools? Do I like the backyard?’”

Laila says the happiness and comfort of her clients are more important than the money she earns in exchange for her services. For that reason, she remains at the beck and call of her buyers and sellers – like the agent who answered the call she and her husband made from Belleau Woods.

In the end, the true payoff is the friends she makes, Laila says.

“When I came to Chattanooga, I had no friends; now I have 1,200-plus friends. And they call me when they are moving to another home or their son or daughter is buying a house because they are happy with what I do.”

Sonny and Laila say their work is more than a service, it’s also an expression of their faith. As Shia Ismaili Muslims, the couple says Islam teaches them the same values as the nation they now call home.

“We are to be kind and caring and share God’s blessings. If we have time and knowledge, then we are to give those things to others,” Laila explains.

“Work is worship. Helping clients is not a business, it’s our duty. We help someone find a home and then continue the relationship. If their kids are sick and they can’t find a pediatrician in the middle of the night, they can call us.”

Although real estate fills their days and evenings – and their weeks and weekends – the Punjanis do set aside time to appreciate life in Chattanooga. As residents of a townhome community located along Chickamauga Lake, they not only enjoy what they say is a spectacular view but also easy access to the water.

When they’re not boating, Laila loves to cook Indian food and serve at Ismaili Community Center, the prayer hall where she and her husband worship.

At various times since moving to Chattanooga, Sonny and Laila have considered moving to a larger city – and have even made exploratory trips. But nothing measures up to what they already have, Sonny says.

“We have everything we need and want. Why would we move? We are very much at home.”