Two of CCAD’s senior fashion design students came to the U.S. as toddlers through refugee rescue programs. The ways in which their early experiences with violence and displacement affect their art are as complex and rich as the idea of the American Dream.
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Monday and Kassie Haji has been up for an hour preparing for a 12:30 class at CCAD.
She’s feeling the effects of the jittery cocktail of exhaustion and excitement imbibed by all college seniors in their final days of higher ed. Soon Haji and 20 of her fashion design classmates will send garments they made down the runway in the art college’s annual senior fashion show, a celebration-fueled grand finale the night before graduation.
Haji sweeps away some leaves that have fallen on the porch she tiled outside her front door, folds the blankets in her family’s living room, feeds the pheasant that lives in the basement that doubles as her makeshift design studio, and packs her school bags with the skill of a professional mover.
“People will ask me what I call this,” Haji says, smirking, as she wraps a piece of red silk around her capped curly dark hair. “It’s just a scarf.”
Kassie is a nickname for Keser, which means “sorrow” in Kurdish, she says.
“I think my mother knew she was going to die.”
An hour later, Haji walks to the bus stop outside the Northeast Side subdivision where she lives with two siblings, her father and her stepmother.
For five years Haji has hailed the No. 8 COTA to get Downtown then walked 20 minutes to get to CCAD’s campus. It can take anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours to travel the 11 or so miles from home to school.
She calculated it once: “I spend 20 days being on the bus in one year.”
Her family — six children and her father — is Muslim, refugees from Kurdistan. Haji’s first several years of life were spent fleeing Saddam Hussein’s genocide of Kurds. Her mother passed away about a week after she was born, and her father was solely responsible for looking after Haji, her grandmother and her siblings as they hid for two months in the mountains near their home. They all lived in a small tent in a Turkish camp, where Haji’s first memories are of her carrying water in a small bucket to her grandmother.
They earned refugee status when Haji was 3 years old. The family had a choice to move to the U.S. or Norway.
“‘Amer-di-ca! Amer-di-ca!’ is what I said when my dad would ask where I wanted to go,” Haji says.
There is one family photo in her house’s living room. It is the only photo Haji has of herself as a child. It was taken after the Hajis learned they would be leaving Turkey.
It’s rainy at the bus stop this Monday as Haji, now 24, recounts how her family moved from Texas to Washington to Rhode Island to Columbus.
“Don’t go too close to the road, honey,” she warns. “Some drivers will purposely hit the puddles.
“It’s the scarf.”
Attending Haji’s class of senior fashion design majors on Thursday is Ngockhanh Ngo. He too will showcase garments he designed at Friday’s runway show. He too has traveled a long way for a life in America and, eventually, a career in fashion design.
Ngockhanh, 25, was born in South Vietnam and moved to Columbus in 1991. It wasn’t the first time his father, Hoac Ngo, had been in the United States.
In 1967 Hoac went to Mississippi. There, members of the United States Air Force taught him how to fly a T28 military plane. He then fought alongside American soldiers during the Vietnam War, flying a C-47 plane as a South Vietnamese air-squadron commander.
After the war, Hoac “was a prisoner of war,” Ngockhanh says. Hoac was detained and sent to a Communist re-education camp. There, Hoac says, prisoners were often drugged so they couldn’t resist; he helped himself survive by teaching his captors and fellow prisoners how to farm and plant food.
He was held captive for almost 10 years, forced to leave his wife, Sen Duong, and their growing family to fend for themselves.
Hoac was 28 years old.
“Ngockhanh is a very good artist,” Hoac says, recalling how his son, one of seven children, used to draw while at Buddhist temple services when he was young.
When the Ngos came to the U.S. through a refugee relocation program, adjusting was not easy but it was necessary.
“The language, the food, the culture,” Sen Duong says. “It was hard.”
Hoac enrolled in college, studying electric and automotive technology at Columbus State. They eventually opened their own nail salon. Along the way his parents encouraged Ngockhanh to learn many skills, to have many ways to take care of himself and his family.
“He’s very good at cutting hair,” his mother beams.
Even with the family’s commitment to education and career, Ngockhanh struggled with what to do after high school.
“I never really had a friend that was like ‘What college are you going to?’” Ngockhanh says. “My parents never wanted me to pursue art.”
They admit they preferred he go into a field with a lot of opportunities, such as nursing or engineering, but warmed up to the idea of fashion design after seeing how he excelled. Ngockhanh, a huge Buckeyes fan, has made styles for OSU quarterback Braxton Miller and worked with popular local men’s boutiques, such as Brigade and Sole Classics. Last summer Homage brought him on as its design intern.
“Ngockhanh looks a lot more serious than he is. He’s kind of a goofball,” says Homage design director Shawn Khemsurov. “But he’ll do whatever it takes to get the work done. He’s the American dream, making things happen.”
As a first-generation American, Ngockhanh is really interested in Americana culture. Influences of muscle cars, pin-up girls, vintage American sportswear and shapes of Ohio are woven throughout his designs. His final collection that will be a part of Friday’s fashion show plays on the theme of the American worker throughout history with a particular focus (obsession, perhaps) on the country’s classic clothing — denim.
Ngockhanh has visited Vietnam since moving to the U.S. It’s beautiful and green, he says. He’s also very aware of its relationship with the fashion industry. Buying American-made clothing and showing Americana through his design is very personal to Ngockhanh, a lens through which he expresses his heritage.
“I’ve adopted America as my new home,” he says, “but I also know a lot about and have a lot of pride in Vietnam.”
For Kassie Haji, heritage played less of a role in her final collection’s subject matter than the way it was made. Many of her classmates were surprised that Haji, who according to her religious tradition must be covered at all times, is very versatile in her designs.
“Kassie is really a fun girl,” says CCAD fashion design chair Suzanne Cotton. “She likes to tell it like it is, and she’s always good giving feedback to the other students during our critiques. I think one of her strengths is her sewing skills. Her designs tend to be more sophisticated and, with her really good sewing skills, the final garments always look great.”
Not living on campus presented a unique set of problems, however, preventing Haji from staying late to work with the college’s sewing machines. She often had to hand-sew (Cotton noted a special buttonhole Haji designed under these restrictions) and finish things early.
“I had to learn to work very quickly,” she says.
Haji came up with innovative ways to transport all her materials or make the loads she had to carry on the bus effective and lightweight. Once she made her design’s patterns out of cut-up newspaper.
One winter, CCAD let its students go home early because the temperature was below zero. No one knew Haji would need a ride home and her brother, who owns a pizza shop, couldn’t come and get her. She sat outside at the bus stop for three hours until the bus came.
“I think a lot of people don’t know this is how I got through school. I don’t complain,” Haji says. “I am thankful for everything I have. This is a dream come true. Even though it was hard, I knew, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
Cotton adds, “She always has produced quality work, and she has never missed a deadline.”
Much of the reason Haji couldn’t stay late at school wasn’t because of the bus schedule, though. As the youngest daughter in her household, she is responsible for many chores — cooking for the family and cleaning the house every night. She will live there until she is married, and like her siblings, will give any money she earns to the family until she is married.
“I think we would be the most ungrateful children if we were any other way,” Haji says. “We could give [my dad] millions but that wouldn’t be enough.”
Ngo calls graduation “the prize.” He hopes to work for the denim or outerwear department of a brand with an aesthetic that aligns with his, like Levi’s or Ralph Lauren.
“We are very proud of him,” says Hoac, his father.
Haji hopes to someday start an eponymous fashion label that is all about sophisticated comfort, no matter what the wearer’s clothing requirements.
But in the meantime — “I plan to take six months off,” she laughs, “and learn how to drive.”