This is our Executive Director, Maryann Sinclair Slutsky’s latest monthly column in the Anton newspapers.
Though Jaiyeola Lasbat, of Great Neck, could have lived a comfortable life in England, or even in his homeland of Nigeria, he chose to embark on a journey that would take him to a destination he was always drawn to: The United States.
Lasbat considers himself a product of a “rosy” upbringing as the son of a father who is an engineer, and a mother who served as a head teacher. Coming from a well-to-do family, Lasbat was educated at Nigeria’s best boarding schools.
Travel always was a theme of his childhood, with his father often having to travel for work, and Lasbat’s grandparents who believed that traveling is a way to understand the world. This helped Lasbat develop a global perspective as he frequently met people from around the world.
He eventually moved to London in 1986, where he continued his studies, met his then-wife Tina, and started a family. In 1994, Lasbat was working as a manager in IT sales, while also pursuing his post-graduate studies. That year, he finally visited the U.S.
“I saw it. I saw it, I was shocked. Americans, they’re ready to help you. They will go out of their way,” Lasbat said. “And, from there on, I realized that, you know what, I need to move. I always loved America, I don’t know why. It’s a challenge in America, but Americans, they don’t care who you are, they’ll help you, they will do that.”
But, it wasn’t easy for his family in Nigeria to let him go. Lasbat is the eldest of his siblings: five sisters. And, being the only son, he would inherit the family’s estate.
He always thought it was odd that his father, a man with seemingly vast freedoms and wealth, would stay in Nigeria. Citing strong family bonds, his father said, “I can’t leave my parents.”
In 1998, Lasbat’s cousin, who worked in the financial industry for Morgan Stanley and lived in the U.S., visited Lasbat, urging him to move to America while opportunity was abundant.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to try. Let me talk to my wife.’ I spoke to her, she said, you go first, go first, settle down and see how it goes,” Lasbat said. “Lo and behold, I came down, everyone was helping. I got to New Jersey. My cousin rented a house for us, we were doing well… everything was just like the way he said.”
Upon arriving, he quickly became captivated by American social values, system of government, and—like many immigrants—was astounded that “everything is big in America!”
Shortly after, Lasbat started working for a hedge fund, and then, shifted to entrepreneurial work, eventually becoming manager for car dealerships at Nissan, Ford, and Mercedes Benz.
However, Lasbat’s wife couldn’t go through with moving to the United States. So she, their son T.J., and twin daughters Tai and Kay, stayed in England. Though they continued visiting each other, Lasbat forged ahead and was determined to build his life here.
“They believe England is their country and America is my country. I said ‘no, I’m still British too, but I adopted America, because I will die for America, because of what America gave me and what I see in Americans,” Lasbat said.
While he was still working at the Mercedes Benz dealership, Lasbat also started working part-time for the family business, international ethnic food distributor Olu Olu Foods. He eventually shifted into that role full-time, coming to lead its North America division as the general manager.
Lasbat’s starry-eyed picture of the U.S. was tempered by realizations including the awareness of his own privilege as an English-speaking person with a British accent and the struggles of building a foundation in a new country.
“We all have that dream, we know that America is the land of opportunity. And, we have that fervent belief, which I don’t have a shadow of a doubt about. Because I believe, I’ve lived it, no matter how tough it is.”
He sees Long Islanders as especially giving people, who provide aid through their congregations, social organizations, and youth groups.
“They’re still doing it, times are tough, but they should keep helping immigrants. They should keep lending that hand to lift people up because that’s what America was built on, and that’s what America is,” Lasbat said.
Despite the tumultuous social and political climate around immigration, Lasbat believes that America, and its embrace of others, still makes it “number one all over the world.”
“They contribute immensely to not only the taxes, to not only employment, to not only shelter and helping and working day and night, and if anyone can do that, we should embrace them, help them,” Lasbat said. “So, they should not let misinformation stop them from helping immigrants because it’s a global world now, it’s a global village. We’re here for each other.”