Chance Encounter Leads Northwest Senior to Tell Stories of Refugees

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Karun Prasanna began interviewing refugees for his Facebook page, “The Greensboro Project: Many Voices, Many Stories,” after a chance encounter in a waiting room.

“I saw two kids from Rwanda and Myanmar and I just started having a conversation with them, asking, like, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ and then they started telling me everything about where they’re from, their background, how they’re from refugee camps, the challenges they’ve faced and how they came here,” he said.

That ignited a flame, and since then the Northwest Guilford High School senior has recorded more than 100 video and audio interviews with the help of social worker Emily Wright.

The intention: to show that, deep down, these people are just like us.

Xenophobia — the deep-rooted fear or hatred of foreigners — has existed for centuries, but its prevalence is influenced by the rhetoric of the time.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of assaults reported against Muslims rose from 12 to 93 in one year, according to hate crime reports from the FBI. Anti-Muslim rhetoric was widespread and is blamed for the significant uptick.

From 2002 to 2014, the United States averaged 45 hate crimes against Muslims each year. By 2016, the number had jumped to 127.

The same year, the Pew Research Center reported 65 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 29 said they experienced discrimination or unfair treatment because of their race or ethnicity, and Dictionary.com announced “xenophobia” as its word of the year because of spikes in searches for its definition on the site.

Xenophobia intensifies when citizens are convinced they should fear a certain group of people, and Prasanna is fighting that fear, as well as the stereotypes engrained in the American psyche that perpetuate it, by sharing real stories.

“I think the biggest thing I want people to take away from this is that refugees aren’t any different from you or I,” Prasanna said. “They have the same interests, the same background. They like to go swimming on the weekends, play board games, go to the movies. The only thing different about them is their past, but most of them are very well integrated into the U.S. I’ve met a lot of them who, while they initially struggled with learning English they adapted really quickly, and they’ve really made a life for themselves here.”

Emily Wright, a social worker for Guilford County Schools, has high hopes for the endeavor.

“I think it’s human nature, for self-preservation, to fear the ‘other,’ ” Wright added. “But that can be perpetuated by the thinking of the time, and so, I would love for people in Alamance County and all over North Carolina and the United States to open their minds and think about getting to know someone from somewhere else. I think it’s just lack of exposure, and then when seeds of doubt and fear enter in, they just feeling like immigrants and refugees are taking something away from them, which they are not.”

With 29 years of social work under her belt — 15 in Guilford County — Wright has worked with a number of refugee families, including parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lost all five of their children in a fire earlier this year.

Their townhouse had no sprinklers and no working smoke detectors. The tragedy launched a citywide discussion about living conditions for refugees.

“I think it’s so important for the community to realize that they really are new North Carolinians,” Wright said. “They are our neighbors. And they’re much more like us than different from us, even though the cultural things are different: the food, where they came from, some of circumstances. They’re just like us. They’re parents with children who have hopes and dreams for their kids.”

Culled from News & Records