Senior Reflects on Working with Refugees in Italy

The most recent installment of the ZSR Library Lecture Series featured senior Rose O’Brien, a Politics and International Affairs major from Winston-Salem. In addition to being a Carswell Scholar and a Richter Scholarship recipient, O’Brien was awarded the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Building the Dream Award” for her dedicated involvement with refugees.

According to Wake Forest University Events, O’Brien discussed “her experience working with refugees in both Italy and the US, and the life-multiplying and gratifying experience of creating friendships across religion, race, class, and nation.”

Throughout her presentation, O’Brien spoke about an enriching lesson she learned from teaching Italian to refugees in Italy. She learned to avoid the judgement of others based on their “single story.” According to O’Brien, we as a society must see others as “three-dimensional rather than flat,” meaning having more than just one identity.

Viewing people based on just one element of their identity, such as their background, encourages dangerous and incorrect stereotypes, according to O’Brien. She told the audience that while stereotypes often describe refugees as sexist or dangerous, those she met were “generous, funny and kind.”

O’Brien noted the unbreakable bonds that she formed in Italy; she still keeps in touch with a 15-year-old boy she met. They remain in contact through Facetime and by exchanging gifts.

She also recounted a time in the Italian school when she complimented a man’s shirt. To her surprise, he left the room and brought his shirt back in a bag to give it to her. This Middle Eastern tradition of “Pishkesh” depicts the kind-heartedness of so many of these refugees, a trait that so many people ignore when viewing refugees through a lens of a single story, O’Brien said.

O’Brien’s work with refugees did not stop when she left Italy. Back at Wake Forest, O’Brien started Wake Refugee Day, which celebrates the successes of many refugees with the hope to spread “unity and diversity.”

She started Student Association For Advancement of Refugees (SAFAR), an on-campus organization aiding the abundant refugees in the local area. In addition, O’Brien taught English at the World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency in Winston-Salem.

Her organization, SAFAR, has had an impact on its members and the greater Winston-Salem community.

“My friend and I regularly visit two local teenage twin girls from Syria, along with their six other siblings,” freshman Meghan Pressimone, a member of SAFAR, said.

O’Brien believes her efforts have not only helped other people, but they have alsohelped herself.

“In the process of making people feel welcomed, I felt welcomed in my own city,” she said.

While her speech displayed her desire for people to eliminate the dangers of a single story, she stated that it is difficult to get people to listen to those who are different than themselves, such as refugees.

There is a worldwide “fear of the other,” O’Brien said.

According to O’Brien, people are more inclined towards order in society than justice, so the prevalent rejection of refugees may root from fear of the changes it would make.

“In order to eliminate judgement from a single story, we can work harder to get to know each person’s story, rather than basing our opinions on stereotypes and generalizations,” freshman Caroline Fatemi said.