City of Dreams

Finding Home a World Away: Europe

Five European immigrants share their stories.

By Gwendolyn Knapp, Jeff Balke, Timothy Malcolm, and Dianna Wray March 2, 2020 Published in the March 2020 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Chaja Verveer

Chaja Verveer


When she arrived here in 1973, Houston made the other places Verveer had lived—her native Holland, Israel, Brazil—seem claustrophobic by comparison. “It was everything,” she says now. “The opportunities, the openness of it. You can see the sky, the horizon. The place is open, and the people are open too.”

Verveer is a child of the Holocaust. At age 1 she was in hiding in German-occupied Holland, and subsequently became one of the few children who managed to survive in the concentration camps. By age 5 she’d made it through World War II, but what was left of her family—her father had been executed for working with the Dutch Resistance—never managed to knit itself back together.

When she moved from Israel to Houston, she was looking for a place where she could just be herself. “Identity was rigid where I was born. It was something you were born into, and it determined everything about your life,” she says. “It defined you.” She never expected to find it here, though. “If you’d told me I would end up living most of my life here, I wouldn’t have believed it, but life has strange moments,” she says. “When I first got here, I couldn’t even find good bread!”

Free to make and remake her life as she saw fit, Verveer became a business consultant. She's now retired. “Here it doesn’t matter what family you were born into, or where you went to school, nobody cares,” she says. “If you want to reinvent yourself any day, you can do it. There’s no one here who will try and stop you.” —DW

Hans Sitter at one of his restaurants. 

Image: Thomas Shea

Hans Sitter 


Before 2011, when Sitter became the lederhosen-clad king of King’s Biergarten in Pearland, he’d left his bucolic Austrian village, Osaip, for Vienna, opened 17 restaurants throughout Europe, plus three discos, a hotel, and a car dealership, gone bankrupt, and moved to Monte Carlo, where he flipped properties, ran an empire of gas station gaming machines, and lost everything again, at which time his wife left him for his best friend. In 1996 Sitter ended up in a friend’s spare bedroom in Kingwood, heartbroken, with $300 in his pocket. “I couldn’t understand one word,” he remembers. “I got so depressed. I thought, how can I find anything? What is a mall? Where do people meet each other? Where can I meet a lady?”

A lady he met—Megan, his friend’s secretary—and the two have now been married for 22 years. They opened a short-lived restaurant called Schmatz (“latkes” in Austrian) in 1998 before trying their luck with a Pearland carwash, where the free bratwurst Sitter cooked up on a little grill for customers soon morphed into the beloved King’s Biergarten. And though Sitter did go bankrupt one more time in America—“flipping properties, here we go again,” he says—those days are in the past.

In 2016 he opened a second restaurant in the Heights, King’s BierHaus, with his son Philipp, who’d joined him in America back in 1997. Today Sitter is proud to have achieved the success he’d always dreamed about. “On the weekends when I’m running around with my lederhosen, people get a laugh out of it, I guess. But I’m very proud we came this far.” —GK 

Samir Becic

Samir Becic


Becic was born in the town of Kljuc. In 1992, when he was a small child, he and his family were forced to move to Germany, driven out of their home country by the Bosnian War. The experience had a lasting effect on him: Now a fitness expert, Becic traces his career back to what he witnessed. “I really got focused on fitness because as a child I could not help those people killed in the war,” Becic says. “The more I help people be healthier, the more I’m neutralizing the 250-plus people killed from my town when I was a child.”

Growing up in Germany, Becic loved Westerns and all things Texas. “I was probably one of the few Europeans who had cowboy boots when I was 6 years old,” he says. “I always wanted to be like a sheriff.” Two decades ago he made the move to Houston, where he became a prominent trainer, working with Bally’s. Soon he was collaborating with the city’s leadership to promote fitness, helping develop a workout program for Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, and publishing an annual list of the country’s fittest political, religious, and business leaders. In 2018 Mayor Sylvester Turner named Becic the city’s ceremonial “Fitness Czar.”

Of course, Becic doesn’t just talk about health; he’s also a very muscular walking example, routinely engaging in remarkable challenges like running miles with heavy weights or wearing a 200-pound body suit for six weeks to learn what it is like to be morbidly obese. “I want to show Houstonians,” he says, “how to lead a healthier lifestyle.”—JB

Andrzej Szpak

Andrzej Szpak


Szpak owns Polonia in Spring Branch, the only Polish food store and restaurant in Houston, with his wife, Sharon. How they met? That’s a story: “My sister is married to my wife’s brother,” he says, laughing. While Andzrej, a cook and professional soccer referee, met American Sharon in 1997 at their siblings’ wedding in Poland, they fell in love after he moved to the U.S. to be closer to his sister.

Today the Szpaks fulfill Houstonians’ hankerings for bigos (meaty Polish stew) and rosól (chicken noodle soup) at the restaurant while operating food stalls at the Texas Renaissance Festival. It’s a life, he says, he never could’ve imagined. “What did America give me? It extended my life,” he says, offering him opportunities he wouldn’t have had in Poland. “I come here and get married. I’m happy.” —TM

Alan B. Lumsden

Alan B. Lumsden


Lumsden's desire to move to America became abundantly clear in an autopsy room filled with fellow medical students in Edinburgh. “I met a girl from Louisville,” he says. Originally from Whitburn, he arrived in Atlanta in 1989, completing his cardiovascular surgery training at Emory, where he was offered a vascular faculty position. “For surgeons who want to do academic jobs, not private practice,” he says, “that’s all she wrote.”

But of course, it’s not. Lumsden became one of the best endovascular surgeons on the planet, treating problems with blood vessels, such as aneurysms. He joined famed cardiac and vascular surgeon Michael DeBakey at Baylor in 2002. Six years later he was named the Walter W. Fondren III Distinguished Endowed Chair of the DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center at Houston Methodist, where he’s been a driving force in building the hospital’s cardiovascular program into one of the best in the country. His hopes for the future? “I believe Methodist has the capability of getting recognition like Mayo, the upper echelon of cardiovascular.” Also: “It’s time Houston was recognized as the international city it is.” —GK


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