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From Teheran to Las Vegas - 2002-11-08

English Feature #7-35036 Broadcast July 16, 2001

The distance from Teheran, the capital of Iran, to Las Vegas, Nevada, the gambling and entertainment capital of the United States, cannot be measured merely in kilometers. In virtually every way, the two cities are worlds apart. Today on New American Voices you’ll meet a young Baha’i refugee from Iran who now works at the Tropicana, one of the largest and best-known gambling casinos in Las Vegas. Here is his story.

The tinkling of slot machines never stops in Las Vegas. It’s a sound that’s heard twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, in all the extravagant, glittering, crowded casinos that line Las Vegas’s neon-bright main street, known as The Strip. The sound is a constant backdrop to Maysam Guran‘s job as a sales clerk at the gift shop of the Tropicana hotel and casino. Maysam, then sixteen, came to Las Vegas three years ago with his family after fleeing Iran and spending nine months in Pakistan. It was, he says, a cultural shock.

“You know, Pakistan, I respect the country and culture, but unfortunately you see a very old-fashioned life over there. You see animals in the street, sometimes you see public restrooms in the street. Well, from that area – you know, it’s a beautiful life, but from that life you come to Las Vegas in the night, and from the sky you see all those lights, and it’s a very big change.”

The Guran family’s arrival in Las Vegas was the end of a long saga. As members of the Baha’i faith, in Teheran they lived modestly and under constant threat of repression. Maysam’s father spent time in jail, and Maysam, after graduating from high school, found the door to higher education closed to him. At first he resisted the idea of leaving Iran.

“I didn’t want to leave my country, because it was my heart. Because I love my country. But when I saw our situation, and I saw we were at the zero bottom and I can’t go any further, I said, ’Well, okay, that is fine. I go and I continue my education. I make a good life and then I go back to my country and save my people’.”

The Gurans - father, mother, Maysam and a little sister - sold almost everything that they had, and with their remaining belongings packed into a couple of suitcases flew to a city near Pakistan. From there, partly by truck and partly on foot, they crossed the mountains and were smuggled across the Pakistani border. Eventually the United Nations office in Pakistan gave them refugee status, and they were brought to Las Vegas by Catholic Charities, one of the ten non-governmental organizations charged with resettling refugees in the United States. Based on what he had heard in Iran about America, Maysam was apprehensive when he arrived in this country.

“You don’t know anyone. They come and pick you up at the airport, you go to a house, there’s no one in the house except you and your family, four of you, you stay there for a night. And actually, we only had bread and soda, we were so hungry, that’s all we had to eat and drink that night. We couldn’t go out, it was dark, we were scared, we had heard, you know, ‘Don’t go out at nighttime, you’ll get shot. People rob you in the United States.’ But well, after a while, you know, you get used to everything.”

Things worked out better than Maysam expected. Three years after arriving in Las Vegas Maysam’s father has opened a carpet cleaning business, and Maysam is enrolled in the university to study dentistry – on his way to realizing an ambition that he was unable to pursue in Teheran. He says that as a Baha’i, he is not tempted by the gambling and night life that goes on in Las Vegas. In his free time he’s helping his little sister, who’s ten years old now, study Persian.

“She speaks very good Persian, and I’m trying to learn her how to write and read Persian. Because I know that we’re living in the United States, we have to get used to the culture. There are very nice people in the United States, but I have to keep my culture, and the United States culture, and get what’s good of both cultures, and try to have a good life for my society and for myself.”

The Gurans are not as isolated from their culture in Las Vegas as they feared they would be. There are two Baha’i centers in Las Vegas, a Baha’i Society, and four or five hundred Baha’is live in the state of Nevada. Although, like most young immigrants, Maysam misses his friends from Teheran, he has acclimatized to life in America.

“I’m not that wealthy right now. I live like a regular person who lives in the United States. But I live ten times better than in Iran, because I have a car, I have a happy family, I have a job, I go to school, which is the most important thing for me, and I hope to finish, because I couldn’t do that in my country. There’s nothing hard in the United States that you can’t do, because you’re free to do whatever you want.”

Next week you’ll meet a new American who came to this country six years ago from war-ravaged Liberia and almost immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy.