The Freedom Seekers

Five refugees, the worlds they left behind and the lives they’re building in Las Vegas

Their freedom was threatened, their rights, their lives—sometimes it was what they said or wrote, or how they worshipped; sometimes it was the ethnicity they were born into. They were forced to flee their homes, their countries, and in the past four years more than 2,000 of them have come to Las Vegas.

These are the refugees. They are no ordinary immigrants; they must prove that they were persecuted in their home country in order to come to the United States, and many cannot return to their homelands for fear of retribution. Many have lived through unspeakable situations, surrounded by death, poverty, hunger and chaos. But all come with similar goals in mind, at once modest and grand—to find a job, to be free and to live and work in a community that accepts them.

During the boom years, refugees were resettled in Las Vegas because of the abundant job opportunities. Today, they are coming in smaller numbers, but casinos and other businesses continue to consider refugees to be a great asset because of their work ethic and the diversity of culture and language they add to the company, says Carisa Lopez-Ramirez, the director of immigrant services at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.

Refugees come in waves—from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Cuba—depending on spikes in government repression and civil strife. In some cases, they spend years in refugee camps abroad before they are able to come to the U.S. Once they arrive in Las Vegas, many refugees find supportive ethnic communities. They also turn to support centers such as Catholic Charities or the African Community Center of Las Vegas, where they learn about U.S. currency, the language, the culture and, in some cases, basics such as shopping at an American supermarket. They also learn how to apply their professional skills in a new cultural context. “Many of them have gone on to community college and get student loans to study,” says Nita Russell Latham, who runs the English as a Second Language program at Catholic Charities. “They have big goals.” Some adjust to American life swiftly; for others the learning curve is steep. “The stories are different,” says Berihun Teserra, who came to Las Vegas as an asylum-seeker from Ethiopia and is now the managing director of the African Community Center. “Traumas and hardships may be different for a Cuban or a Somalian, but in the end they are all persecuted, and all [proved] persecution by their government, and that is their basis for being defined as a refugee.”

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