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Architect Ayla Abiad: Redefining her environment

Ayla Abiad arrived in Buffalo from Syria in 2009, hoping to earn her master’s degree in architecture and return home to teach. Two years later civil war broke out and it wasn’t safe to go back. Overwhelmed but undeterred, she completed her degree at UB and began building her life here and working to help her family escape the violence.

“[Syria] was the place I wanted to raise my child. It’s home,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s surreal. What I saw on TV, I wasn’t able to process it until I went last year and was able to see it.”

Today, Abiad lives in Amherst with her husband and young son, and serves as an architect at Wendel, a design, construction and energy services company. After nearly five years with the firm, she’s worked on a mix of projects, including the BlackRock data center in Getzville, the ongoing redevelopment of the former Women & Children’s Hospital site and the new Dash’s Market on Hertel.

“That’s my baby,” she said of the two-story brick market, which will have a café, concrete flooring, oversized fireplaces and massive arched windows, among other features. “It’s not just a grocery store — it’s a beautiful building that is going to be a catalyst for a lot of new projects in that area. It’s going to be the type of building where you walk around and take pictures.”

With each project, she draws inspiration from the centuries-old architecture she grew up around, as well as the brickwork and traditional style she encountered studying abroad in Italy.

“My design is driven by the area I was raised in, where the architecture is super rich with details and colors,” she said. “In a very benign way, I try to bring in elements from the architecture
I grew up with.”

Outside the office, Abiad has devoted countless hours to helping other newcomers assimilate. Eight years ago, she began volunteering with the International Institute of Buffalo, teaching English to immigrants from Burma, Cuba, Iraq and other nations. As Abiad introduced herself to more families, requests for help poured in. She needed to organize her efforts, so launched the Build a Bridge (BAB) Foundation with a mission of connecting refugees and immigrants with locals willing to lend a hand.

So far, BAB volunteers have helped more than 55 families with transportation, translations, applying for jobs, schools and driver’s licenses, and other nuances of American culture. Abiad has also partnered with the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to create a mobile app that will allow BAB to expand its work.

“It’s devastating to watch your country being destroyed. I felt like my balance was off, that I had to do something,” she said. “Most people are like me — they’re looking for ways to help. They just need a tool to find that person in need.

“It’s the most rewarding thing you can ever experience when you help someone,” she continued. “It can take a long time to see a building built and see the impact, but when you teach or volunteer or do nonprofit work, you feel the impact right away. I have to feel that to feel like my day is complete.”

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