After Sonja Fink immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Maryland, she found the American dream right at the tips of her fingers.
The Dorsey's Search woman worked her way from manicurist to owner of a chain of three nail salons -- all in Howard County. And her business has provided jobs to other immigrants.
"Immigrant people always want to work," said Mrs. Fink, 42. "The first generation of immigrants are willing to do what it takes."
Her work ethic is fueled by her determination to carve out a better life than the one she and her husband, Sam -- a manager in an emblem factory -- left in Baku, Azerbaijan. There, she said, "you had to stand in long lines for everything, and the living conditions were horrible."
Her brother-in-law, who had moved to Randallstown in 1975, encouraged them to move to Maryland.
The Finks and their two young daughters, Marina and Dina, left their cramped one-room apartment in 1980 for the uncertainty of a new life, leaving everything behind.
"We didn't know what to expect," said Mrs. Fink. "When we were on the train, our 2-year-old daughter said, 'I want to go home.' How was I to tell her, 'You don't have a home to go to anymore'?"
Still, Mrs. Fink was optimistic. When her family arrived in the United States, she said, one of her first impressions was that "everybody was smiling here." Shortly after moving to an apartment in Randallstown, the couple found jobs. Mr. Fink, now 52, worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. packaging groceries. Then he went to another eight-hour shift at his second job as a maintenance worker.
His wife -- who studied bookkeeping and industrial engineering in her homeland -- got a job as a manicurist in a beauty salon in Oakland Mills.
Mrs. Fink said her first hurdle was driving the Beltway from Randallstown to Columbia. "I closed my eyes and drove," she said. "You do what you have to do."
Language was also a barrier, but she said she used smiles to bridge the gap when she didn't understand conversations. "I was always smiling," she said, laughing.
Even when at home, Mrs. Fink continued to smile. "I would just look out the window and be glad to be here. When you don't have anything, it doesn't matter. I knew I would make it. All you need to do is work, pay your taxes, and you will be fine."
After two years of living that philosophy, Mrs. Fink's clientele began to increase, and she decided to start her own business. In 1982, she opened Creative Nails in historic Ellicott City. With no employees, she worked up to nine hours a day, six days a week. Two months later, she hired and trained three manicurists who were also Russian immigrants.
A year later, she moved her business to a larger area in the Bethany Center in Ellicott City, where she hired an additional manicurist, an aesthetician -- one who provides skin care such as facials -- and a masseuse.
With a steady influx of customers, she expanded again in 1985 with Creative Nails & Hair in a larger space on the second level of the Bethany Center. She has since opened salons in Laurel and Dorsey's Search.
Mrs. Fink hasn't forgotten her immigrant roots -- she has hired 16 Russian immigrants at her salons. Four employees -- Marcia Buchwald, Alan Naylor, Terri Wiggins and Russian immigrant Masha Leder -- have worked for Mrs. Fink since the opening of the Bethany Salon 10 years ago.
"I don't consider her a boss," said Mrs. Wiggins, a 33-year-old hairstylist. "We try to make it more like a family business. I don't think of her as the owner of the shop; she's one of us."
Also working with her are her husband, who takes care of the bookkeeping and also drives a cab, and the couple's daughters -- now 21 and 17 -- who work as receptionists when needed.
The entrepreneur still drives from her four-bedroom home in Glenelg to work at the Bethany shop six days a week, from 9 a.m. until "whenever we're finished."
Asked whether she misses her homeland, she replied, "I am an American now. Four years ago, I became a citizen. This is my country, and I am living the American dream."