Winston-Salem Monthly | LOCAL HERO: Rose O’Brien

On Friday mornings, Rose O’Brien, a senior at Wake Forest University, can be found teaching English to anywhere from five to 15 refugees from such countries as the Congo, Syria, and Somalia in the World Relief offices in downtown Winston-Salem.

“There are refugees in our community who are positively contributing,” she says, “but they need support, especially their first year.”

O’Brien, who’s majoring in politics and international affairs at WFU, has made reaching out to Winston-Salem’s estimated 400 refugees her passion over the past few years. She organized Wake Refugee Day in November 2016 as a way to engage refugee families and community members interested in learning more about refugees’ lives. About 400 people attended the event on the Wake Forest campus, which included a panel discussion with local refugees, a film screening, ethnic foods, and soccer. This year a similar event will take place on the campus Nov. 11.

That event, as well as last year’s day to honor refugees, is sponsored by the WFU Student Association for the Advancement of Refugees (SAFAR). O’Brien created the organization to help with planning events and supporting refugees. About 40 Wake students are active in helping refugees with tutoring, transportation, and other services.

Earlier this year O’Brien’s efforts on campus earned her a “Martin Luther King Building the Dream” award. The award is given to Wake Forest students and staff who exemplify King’s qualities and work to promote diversity within the community.

Teaching Italian and English in Trieste, Italy, in June and July 2016 was a formative experience for O’Brien. She worked with male refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of whom had been goat and camel herders in their home countries. When she wasn’t teaching, she accompanied men to medical appointments and helped them with other daily tasks. Some of her friends worried about her being on her own with men from other cultures, but she had a wonderful time. “They brought me ice cream,” she says. “We laughed at the same things.”

She was also inspired by the warmth and openness her Italian hosts showed to refugees. They were willing to invite refugees into their homes and become friends, she says. That’s the model she’d like to see Winston-Salem follow.

“Our city was founded by refugees. It’s in our history,” says the Winston-Salem native. “There are families here who want a good education for their kids. They want American friends. After years of struggle, they just want to start their lives.”

Read more at LOCAL HERO: Rose O’Brien.