"As much as we plan, it's really a life by faith. These unknown factors come and change our lives," Nick Arriaga says.
Hajer Serag Eldin Shahin was an "unknown factor" when Nick walked into an entrepreneurship seminar in West Haven on February 2011.
For Hajer falling on the ice was an "unknown" last December, when Nick took her to Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and convinced her to try ice skating. After a few laps around the rink together, Nick left Hajer to skate a loop on his own. Gliding back beside her, Nick said, "Hajer, I have something for you."
"I didn't really care. I was really concentrating on not falling," says Hajer, who ignored him.
But Nick, a Bridgeport native, has been unable to ignore Hajer from the moment they met at the seminar. "I noticed her as soon as I walked in," Nick says.
At the end of the seminar, he learned she was half Egyptian. Nick had recently been to Egypt and told Hajer about his travels. Wanting to make an impression the next day, Nick, who was 28 at the time, gave Hajer, 22, a souvenir pen he'd brought back from Egypt.
Hajer assumed Nick gave the pens to everyone. "I was pretty naive," Hajer says. Over the next several weeks, she went with Nick to Junior Achievement meetings and for coffee and pizza. "At that point I thought of him as a good friend."
Hajer was "scared," however, when Nick texted her after church a few weeks later and said he was interested in her.
Hajer grew up in the Philippines and was in the United States to earn her M.B.A. "At home there is a courtship phase…The way I understood it, he wanted to marry me," she says.
"I can't believe this is happening to me," she thought. The next morning she reconsidered. "I was taking it way too seriously."
"We decided to date and see what happens," Nick says.
After a few months, "I knew I was falling in love," but "I was resisting," Hajer says. "Since I was a kid, I had this feeling I would never get married…I just didn't believe it could happen." Her parents divorced when Hajer was 3 years old and she has never seen her Egyptian father or been to Egypt.
Hajer was also wrestling with a stereotype people have at home, she says. "People felt if you came to the U.S., you came to get married. I did not want my family to say that about me, but I was beginning to love him."
When Hajer's mother came for her graduation from the University of New Haven in May 2011, Hajer was surprised how much her mother liked Nick. "That helped me a lot," Hajer said.
Nick had worked five years as a financial analyst at Sikorsky Aircraft and earned his M.B.A. at night, but was laid off shortly before he met Hajer. He dreamed of starting his own business, and "I was trying to make my dream happen" while dating Hajer. She spent her internship helping Nick launch his own consulting company, TRU Leadership Consulting, LLC, which they jointly manage in addition to their fulltime jobs.. "It is a dream I'll hold onto forever," he says.
Nick took Hajer to New York City on Dec. 23, 2011, to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show and to have lunch at Jollibee, a Philippine fast-food eatery, which has a shop in Queens. They later stood in line three hours to skate at Rockefeller Center. When Nick persisted in telling Hajer he had something for her, she found him on his knee handing her a Christmas present.
"I didn't get what was happening," Hajer says, but a few skaters passing by did and fell over each other staring. "I was shocked. Skaters began clapping and cheering when Nick proposed. A newlywed couple offered advice on planning their wedding. "I was just really overwhelmed."
Hajer's mother requested they marry in the Catholic Church when Nick called her before proposing, but concentrating on their business Hajer and Nick postponed wedding plans.
Nick was offered a job in a health care company early this year, and they decided it was pragmatic for them to marry and move to Guilford for his work. On February 26, 2012, their pastor administered vows in Hajer's apartment, which her roommate decorated. A friend brought a wedding cake and flowers, and Hajer's mother, aunt and cousin shared the moment through a Skype computer connection.
With Hajer's family having a reunion this Christmas, her mother has arranged for Hajer and Nick to have a formal wedding on Dec. 23, in a church in Manila. Over a dozen cousins are serving as Hajer's bridesmaids and her male cousins will be Nick's groomsmen. After Christmas, they will celebrate at the family reunion.
"Hajer is not typical," which is what intrigued Nick, he says. "I call her my First Lady …She can blend in with everyone and make them feel comfortable…She's just genuine. I trusted that pure heart, her pure spirit."
"He's been through fire and is very resilient…Nick is very passionate about life. He always has new ideas. Once he believes in something, he's very persistent 'til it works out," Hajer says.
Hajer and Nick expect they may move in the future, but as in their love, they embrace the unknown in their "life by faith."