The American Red Cross held its annual Everyday Hero Awards ceremony honoring local heroes for their service to the community. The Venetian and The Palazzo’s Biar Atem was honored with the award for Community Impact through his efforts with The South Sudan Center of America, which he founded as a resource for South Sudanese people in Nevada.
“I started the Center in June 2014 as a way that I could formally give back to the community and help fellow refugees,” Atem said. “It’s an organization where people can get involved and also find resources. The long-term goal is for our organization to offer scholarships to refugees so that they can become self-sustainable in their new community.”
Atem became a refugee when he fled Sudan at the age of 7, becoming a part of “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of over 20,000 boys who were displaced and orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He fled to a refugee camp, separating from his family.
“I left Sudan and walked all the way to Ethiopia,” he said. “My family and I all ended up in separate refugee camps in different areas and I didn’t get to see them until 20 years later. Everything was very different when I did make it back. I didn’t know anyone anymore.”
With Las Vegas being an ideal relocation for refugees due to its employment opportunities, Catholic Charities took him in and helped him attain legal documentation and get a job. Atem started working at The Venetian in 2001 while going to school at College of Southern Nevada to get his Associates degree. In 2007 he became a US Citizen. During a trip home visiting his family, he told his father all that he had accomplished, but his father’s disappointment was motivation to do more.
“I transferred to UNLV and got my Bachelors degree in 2009,” he said. “I continued working for the company, moving up as much as I could. I also started the South Sudan Center. I think my dad just thought since I was in the United States with so much opportunity, I should be able to make a much bigger impact than I was. ”
The South Sudan Center assists the South Sudanese that currently live in Las Vegas, but also provides uniforms, school supplies and backpacks to students back in Kenya. With 150-200 students per classroom in the same refugee camp Atem lived in as a young boy, students are unable to learn properly. Through the center, Atem aims to empower and provide skills to students to succeed, while inspiring and encouraging them.
“I want to help them integrate into American society and eventually for them to give back to the community that they are now a part of,” Atem said. “The ultimate goal for the center is to build a school in South Sudan, recruit former students to become the teachers and offer scholarships to those in need. You don’t know the impact you can make until you go out and do it.”