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From Sudan To Las Vegas: One Man's Journey

biar atem
Christopher Smith/Desert Companion

Biar Atem

People come to Las Vegas for all kinds of reasons.

Some come for a new start.

Some come to get married.

And some come to flee a civil war.

Biar Atem is one of the so-called Lost Boys.

He was just 7 years old when his village was attacked during the Sudanese Civil War, and he was forced to flee. He left his family and traveled with some of his cousins and other young boys to Ethiopia. 

He stayed at a refugee camp there, which he describes as more of "a nice piece of land where you could stay."

The boys fended for themselves living off the land for three years. When the Ethiopian government forced them off the land, they made their way to a United Nations' refugee camp where they stayed for nine years.

“The camp gave us a sense of security,” Atem said.

The U.N. provided some basic needs and the boys could go to school. Atem said, "it started to feel like home."

The boys were given refugee status in 2001. Catholic Charities brought 47 of the boys to Las Vegas. A total of 4,000 Lost Boys were brought to the U.S.

Atem arrived in Southern Nevada at 10:30 p.m., and like most people, was overwhelmed by the lights.

“With the lights and everything it was something I couldn't’t comprehend,” Atem said.

He and the other boys got jobs, mostly at the Venetian and Palazzo hotels. 

But a job wasn't enough for Atem. He worked nights as a janitor and went to school during the day. He now has a masters of business administration and is the assistant manager of in-suite dining at the Venetian and Palazzo.

Twenty years after he was forced to flee his home, he was able to contact his family who had made it through the war. He returned for a month-long celebration. 

He has also started a non-profit to help those left in the refugee camps. 

“In the camp, there is nothing to work hard for,” Atem said, “But to get ahead in the U.S., you just have to work hard.”

Atem arrived in Las Vegas with nothing but the clothes on his back and now he has an advanced degree, a career and a family.

He is also the subject of a profile piece in the June issue of Desert Companion, a publication of Nevada Public Radio.

Biar Atem, 'lost boy' of Sudan

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)