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We Just Had to Ask: Now Arriving

Biar Atem
Christopher Smith
Christopher Smith

Some were reaching for the brass ring. Others were running for their lives. Whatever reason they came here, these Las Vegans from around the globe have fascinating origin stories.


Lost and found in Las Vegas

Biar Atem
Assistant manager of in-suite dining, Venetian/Palazzo

It’s said that Las Vegas is a city of second chances. Biar Atem, a food and beverage manager at the Venetian/Palazzo, is dramatic proof of that adage. At age 7, he fled his rural home in South Sudan as fighter jets bombed the nearby village. The long-brewing civil war between the Arabic north and African south had come to his family’s doorstep:

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If you didn’t leave the country as a young man, chances are you’re going to be a child soldier or be killed by the Arabs. They don’t care about the age. If you’re taller than an AK-47, chances are you’re going to get adapted to become a child soldier.

(The refugee caravan was) people from different villages, it just kept getting larger and larger, it was at least a group of a thousand or more. You would walk all day, and at night catch up on your sleep. You’re just worried about keeping up with the group, not knowing where you’re going, getting scared and then thinking about your family being left behind.

We would eat whatever we could find, mostly antelope, fish and then wild fruits. I remember some villages where we would have to sell our clothes to get food from them. What you normally do at night, people take turns and act as a security guard in case something is coming. Because hyenas or lions would come and grab young kids and run away with them.

Barefoot, he made the nearly month-long journey to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. After three years there, the Sudanese refugees were ejected by the Ethiopian government. They left for Kenya, where Atem spent another nine years living in Kakuma refugee camp, a U.N.-supported site with schools and a steady food supply. With the assistance of Catholic Charities, he eventually qualified for refugee status. On the relocation roster, one day he saw the name of a strange city next to his name.

When I saw my name, I was like wow. ... You had 48 hours to get ready, but you were ready to go anytime, because we didn’t have anything to bring with us.

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It was my first time on a plane, actually. We left the camp to Nairobi, then to Brussels, to New York to St. Louis. We arrived in Las Vegas around 10:30. It was crazy getting to see the light of Las Vegas for the first time. The only reliable light we had in the camp was just the daylight and the moonlight, so you had to get your homework done during the day.

He arrived in April 2001 at age 21. His first job was as a janitor at the Venetian, where his 6-foot, 7-inch stature made him the guy who’d dust the chandeliers. He climbed the ladder fast, ultimately earning an MBA. Today he’s the assistant manager of in-suite dining at the Venetian/Palazzo. He’s also raising an infant son with his wife and has launched the nonprofit South Sudan Center of America to help other Lost Boys displaced by the war.

I’m almost at a point where it felt like a dream. Am I really living this kind of life compared to what I used to go through at camp? When I came to Las Vegas, I had a sweatshirt and pants. Now I have a house, the degrees, the job with a Fortune 500 company, the family. Life can change so fast. I appreciate all the opportunities given to me. Being here, I feel like I have too much in this country and I feel the need to give back. — Andrew Kiraly


Discovering the art of freedom

Ali Fathollahi & Nanda Sharifpour

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“They want to censor everything over there,” Nanda Sharifpour says of her native country, Iran. For an artist — and the daughter of a prominent philosophy professor — Iran’s climate of theocratic control and government suspicion made it inevitable that she and her husband, Ali Fathollahi, also an artist, would join the exodus out:

Nanda: Because of the social and political unrest in 2008, 2009, lots of people had to leave our country and go to other countries, either as an immigrant or refugee. Indirect pressure is on everyone’s shoulders over there; you can never feel like super-comfortable. You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of the way you think. We had the (direct) pressure of being art professors not only teaching art but also philosophy of life — the philosophy behind your art, whatever you think that makes you create something different, to express yourself, to express your pressures that you have in your society through your art. These are the things that some governments do not like.

So in 2009, they fled to Turkey. “That’s one of the only countries you can travel to without a visa, for Persian people,” Ali says. “There are only two or three counties that will let you in, and Turkey is the closest one.”

Nanda: We stayed there for three years, trying to get the refugee status approved and get the permission to go to another country and start our lives over, from zero, again. We brought very little with us (to Las Vegas).

Ali: Because we spent all of our savings in Turkey for three years.

Nanda: You have no right to work.

Ali: Exactly. Nothing. We were trying to have shows and exhibitions, but we only got one, in Istanbul, and that’s it, in three years. You have to spend your time and your money. And everything for you, as a refugee, is more expensive than for the normal citizens.

Nanda: You have no rights.

Ali: You don’t have any idea what it’s like.

In 2012, Fathollahi and Sharifpour were finally allowed to come to America because she had relatives in California. The couple heard about the lower cost of living in Nevada, and a friend suggested Las Vegas, where they set about getting their bearings.

Nanda: We started to seek out and search around —

Ali: Walking around in the hot summer —

Nanda: — in the art community, the 18B. We had no idea. We just knew there was something, some galleries around, so we started walking. I remember that we had our backpacks on our backs, water and some food, and we were searching for hours. We ended up meeting (artist) Alex Huerta at Arts Factory. He opened up his heart and his knowledge to help us. He gave us more information: Go to this place, meet this person …

Ali: Go to Blackbird Studios, find Gina (Quaranto, Blackbird’s operator) …

Nanda: He gave us our first show in his studio. A month after that, we had a show at Blackbird, and everything rolled after that one.

That show found them reveling in their newfound freedom.

Ali: The first show in Blackbird Studios, I had most of my pieces based on the political problems in my country. I know it wasn’t good for a show in the U.S., I don’t know, but it happened.

Nanda: You had to express yourself.

Ali: Exactly. Because I was free. I was really free: Okay, let’s do this.

Las Vegas, with its melting-pot mix of cultures, languages and cuisines, reminds them of the crossroads feel of Tehran. Not surprisingly, they still miss aspects of their native country, especially the small things …

Nanda: … like the smell of weather after the rain ...

Ali: The taste of the tea in the afternoon …

Nanda: … talking to friends. Of course, not the bad things, like the authorities.

… but they seem genuinely content here.

Nanda: We may want to work in other states, but for living? I feel safe here, and I don’t want to put my foot out of the safe zone. We were in chaotic situations for a very long time. And after arriving here, I feel like I’ve come out of a battle. I want to take a break and just be with my art and people that I love. I don’t know where the future takes us, but here, in Vegas, with these people, it’s good. — Scott Dickensheets

A home for everyone

Beli Andaluz
Owner, Pico Madama

Beli Andaluz, the youngest of 10 children, remembers little about her childhood in Guatemala — her mother never stayed anyplace for long. But Andaluz applied herself as a student, and that helped her find her own stability:

I went to boarding school in Quetzaltenango, and when I was 17 I did an internship at a real estate office. I started as an apprentice, but my bosses could see that I took things very seriously, so they put a lot of faith in me. Soon, I was showing and selling houses. I put some money together and moved to Antigua. … I got a job as a bartender there, and a week later, I was the manager. A few months later, I heard from the owners of the hostel where my ex, Felix, and I were staying that hostels were opening in Nicaragua because tourists were starting to go there. So, we bought a car and drove to Nicaragua. And they were right! Our business was so successful that we sold it in two years for three times as much money as we put into it.

She and Felix moved back to Antigua and opened an Internet café. After a bad haircut, Andaluz complained to a friend, whose uncle happened to be an accomplished Guatemalan stylist. He gave the young women private lessons, once again spurring Andaluz’s entrepreneurial spirit.

He was a tough teacher. We didn’t train on mannequins, just real people. And he would let us make mistakes so that we could learn from them. He was aggressive, but I lost all my inhibitions when it comes to explaining things to clients. After about six months, I bought a salon where I could practice before opening my own big, beautiful spa, Skin Deep. … That’s where I met (my husband) Scott (Seidewitz). I had everything: a hair salon and spa,, an Internet café, a house in the mountains, a beautiful son, but I felt like it was not enough. I searched my head and heart, and I decided to move to Las Vegas. My sister lived here and she had a lot of property Downtown that she had sold to Tony Hsieh.

Before Long, Seidewitz left New York to join Andaluz in Las Vegas. But even after building a successful salon business here, she still felt something was missing. One evening after a charity gala, Seidewitz suggested to his wife that she explore philanthropy.

I wanted to support the community, I think, just because I once had so little. We were very poor, and now that I can give, it feels nice. I go to Shade Tree, and I think, “Oh my gosh, I could be one of these women.” I joined the board about 10 months ago, and now I’m the second vice chair. Last year, in November, it was their 25th anniversary, and they weren’t planning a celebration. I thought I could do something, even though I only had three weeks. So, I bought out Vintner Grill, invited all my friends and clients, and they invited all theirs, and we raised $55,000. People said it would be hard, but everybody helped me. When you do good, good comes back to you, and you have to keep it going. — Heidi Kyser


Perseverance, luck and one $8 job after another

Mike Smith
Editorial cartoonist, Las Vegas Sun

Mike Smith began his journey to Vegas in 1982, during his senior year at Loyola-Marymount University in Los Angeles, though finally getting here would require the help of a major figure in Nevada history. We pick up Smith’s story not long after the inveterate doodler had begun drawing editorial cartoons for the campus paper and had a life-changing realization:

Once I saw how much trouble I was getting into, I thought, Wow, this is a lot of fun! People get mad, they’re talking about what you have to say. I need to try to do this for a living. So I started sending cartoons to newspapers across the country, asking editors to give me a job. For a while I had a box of rejection letters. I could’ve wallpapered a room with them. If you’re going to be an artist, you learn to have a thick skin.

I had a film noir class, and one of the films we studied was One From the Heart, the Francis Ford Coppola film about Las Vegas. I was intrigued by it, and I thought, I need to send letters to the papers in Las Vegas. So I sent letters to Mary Hausch at the Review-Journal and to Hank Greenspun at the Sun. I got a very nice rejection letter from Mary Hausch. A few days later, someone from the campus newspaper ran up to me and said, “Some guy from the Las Vegas Sun is trying to reach you. He said his name is Mike O’Callaghan, and you need to call him immediately.”

Arguably among the state’s greatest governors, O’Callaghan had taken a post-gubernatorial position as the Sun’s executive editor. He made Smith a deal: “I’ll pay you eight bucks for each cartoon I print.” Smith agreed.

I thought, I need to milk this for all it’s worth, and I started drawing a cartoon every day and sending it off to Mike O’Callaghan. And he kept running the cartoons. At one point I figured, I need to go see Mike. By this time I had graduated from college. I got a job working for National Car Rental at LAX, working the night shift. I’d draw cartoons in the morning, send ’em to O’Callaghan, pump gas at night.

So I called up Mike, and I made up this story about how I was driving through Vegas and would like to see him, and he said, Yeah, sure, come on out. So I got my free rental car and drove to Las Vegas. I ended up spending the whole day with him, finishing up with a steak dinner at his house. So we kind of hit it off.

Still, the Sun wasn’t hiring. After a year of pumping gas and drawing $8 cartoons, Smith decided he needed a real job. About then he was offered a position in Hertz’s management-training program.

I called O’Callaghan and said I had this job offer from Hertz, and I think I’m gonna take it. And Mike said, “You tell Hertz to stick it up their ass! You’re too talented to be doing that.” And the next day the Sun hired me.

At last, vindication! Now Smith had to find a place to live. He wound up looking at a new apartment complex near Valley View and Spring Mountain.

There were these two very statuesque, attractive young women who were also there to look at the same apartment. So the manager took all three of us. I heard one woman say to her, “I don’t have all the money right now, but I can give you half the deposit now and half later …” I could see the manager wasn’t too impressed. Once the two women were out of earshot, I told the manager, “Look, I’ll give you the money right now if you give me the place.”

She said, “Do you have a job?”

“Yeah, I’m working at the Las Vegas Sun.”

“Do you know Mike O’Callaghan?”

“Yeah, I know Mike O’Callaghan,”

“Well, I worked on his campaign when he ran for governor.” (Laughs.) Then she said, “Okay, the apartment’s yours. I wasn’t going to rent to those women, anyway; they’re prostitutes.” I was like, Really?! I had no clue. — SD


Helping others is in her blood

Beata Kwiatkowska
Director of CSL Plasma

The first movement in Beata Kwiatkowska’s three-part life symphony sounds sunny and hopeful. Born on a mid-century June day in Warsaw to a lawyer mother and civil engineer father, the fair child was groomed for great things:

In high school, I was thinking about art. Art conservation is a very important and popular profession in Poland. Then, when I was 17, I had a boyfriend, Andrew, who was invited for a family dinner. After dinner, we were sent to the kitchen to wash dishes, and he fainted in front of me. He was a basketball player, tall and strong — so I was shocked; I started screaming. Fortunately, my aunt Teresa, who was a pediatrician, ran in and said, “Pull him out of the kitchen,” which was very small. In the living room she did CPR, and she revived him. For me, it was horrible to feel that someone I loved was dying in front of me and there was nothing I could do. I said to myself, “I don’t want to experience that helplessness again for the rest of my life.” So, I told my mom I would like to go to medical school. She was upset about that choice, because your salary as a doctor in a country with socialized medicine was terribly low.

Several years later, on a medical school vacation to Scotland, Kwiatkowska fell for an Argentine doctor, who eventually married her and took her to his home country. Cue an exuberant intermezzo.

I loved Buenos Aires. I didn’t speak any Spanish at that time, but I very much liked my ex-husband’s family. They were Jewish, very warm, and received me well. A military junta was in power there at that time, the end of Peron’s period. … For me, this was worse than living in a communist country. In front of the Casa Rosada (presidential palace), I saw women who had lost children putting on white scarves and demonstrating. To me, this was shocking and very, very sad. But the reaction of other people was also shocking — they were saying, “Go home. What do you want?” I remember thinking how naïve they were; they would rather think about futbol than protest.

After two years in Argentina, Kwiatkowska moved to California, where an aunt lived, to pass equivalency licensure exams and pursue her medical career. She and her first husband ultimately separated to pursue their respective internships, and Kwiatkowska eventually landed in Sacramento with a pathology specialization, second husband and two sons. The finale of her composition — still in progress — is set in Las Vegas, where she moved in 2000 to become the director of a blood bank.

The first year, the boys would cry and say, “Mommy what are we doing here?” And I’d say we moved for my job. I told them to give it at least three years. But after that time, I asked what they wanted to do and they said, “Stay!” They were in a good school (in Summerlin), and we were part of the community. But, you never get something for nothing. My career was going well and I was able to create a nice nest for my children, but my husband decided not to move from Sacramento, so I filed for divorce. … The U.S. is definitely my home now, and I’m happy where I am. When I retire, I’d like to write a book called Three Lives. — HK


The dancing never stops

Mary Scott
Boulder Station cocktail server

Bingo players at Boulder Station know her as Mary Scott, 63, a smiling cocktail waitress who’s curiously graceful on her feet. That’s because, in a previous life, she was an aspiring ballet dancer. At 17, she was in New York, studying under a scholarship at the American Ballet Theatre. But the enticements of the big city proved perhaps too strong:

I found out about food and sex, and gained a lot of weight. I’d never really eaten in my life. When you’re a ballet dancer, you don’t eat. You know that movie, Black Swan? That’s how you live.

What kind of food? Any food! Oh, the hot dogs in the street with the red onion sauce. My boyfriend, he was also in the entertainment business, and a lot of performers would play at Greek restaurants, so we’d go to all the Greek restaurants.

What happens when you weigh too much? You lose your scholarship. You come in and it’s like, “Sorry, you’ve gained too much weight.”

After losing her scholarship, Scott did dancing stints at Radio City Music Hall, and the go-go circuit in New Jersey. The pay was good, but the Southwest beckoned: Her mother had moved to Las Vegas from Phoenix. Scott thought she might continue a dancing career in some form in Las Vegas. The topless clubs turned her off. (“Twenty-five dollars for eight hours? They’re nuts. I went to the Aladdin and was a pit clerk.”) But the pay at all-nude joints was tempting. Twenty-six year-old Scott — dancing under the stage name Brandi Duran — did her best to keep it classy.

After the Aladdin, I went into working at the Palomino — when Paul Perry owned it — The Cabaret, The Jokers Club, stripping totally nude. Back then you’d practice bending over, so you thought you might see something, but you never did. ... We were used to being true striptease, where you had an act — everything from Cleopatra to something with a beach ball. I did a can-can on pointe, we did a bit where the girls dressed as kitty-cats came out of garbage cans, a Halloween production where we did the Monster Mash.

Then it started to get raunchy. Girls started doing spreads and everything, and guys would go, “Let me see some pink!” I’d go (sticking out her tongue and pointing at it), “It’s pink!” The guys were really good at not grabbing, until the last couple of years, because, I’m sorry, you can’t spread your crotch in front of a guy and not have him want to grab it. By then, I had been stripping for 15 years.

In 1989, she took a cocktail-waitressing job at Palace Station — a different kind of stage.

I was terrified. Because I only danced all my life. For the first two months, when walking from the parking lot to the casino, I had such stage fright I thought I would puke. When you’re on stage, there’s a distance between you and the audience. It’s more of a claustrophobic thing when you’re right next to all the people.

She got over that stage fright, however, and has been a cocktail server for 26 years — but still makes the occasional move.

Ballet is still my first love. I still go upstairs, where I have a barre, and do plies, tondues. I never stopped dancing. If a certain song comes on at work, I get dancing. The eye in the sky could probably tell you.  — AK

(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)
As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.
Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.