GREENSBORO — 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.

 

Fear of the ‘other’

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 9/11 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 ingrained 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 [are] 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 the 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. They want to earn a decent income. They want to live in decent housing.”

 

Working at welcoming

Though Greensboro has its challenges, both Wright and Prasanna consider it to be a welcoming city.

In fact, North Carolina is among the top 10 states for resettled refugees.

In 2017, the state took in 1,280, according to data from U.S. News & World Report. About 20 percent were from Congo.

Greensboro alone has become a hub for those escaping violent nations since accepting the Montagnards — mountain people from the central highlands of Vietnam — who were resettled in the city by the U.S. government after they aided the American military during the Vietnam War.

Prasanna shared a series of interviews titled “The Montagnards of Greensboro” in August, to shed light on their stories.

“Greensboro is a really welcoming city,” he said. “You might look around and think, ‘Oh, this is just like any other Southern city in the United States with no diversity to it,’ but if you actually look around, there [are] so many people from all over the world who come here. I think it’s a really welcoming community. We have very good programs and resources for refugees [to] utilize.”

One of those resources is the Doris Henderson Newcomers School on Friendway Road, which serves more than 300 children from more than 20 countries.

Instructors specialize in teaching English as a Second Language — a barrier that can cause new arrivals to be left behind in public schools — and field trips are built around helping students and their families integrate into their new community.

Another is the New Arrivals Institute, established in the 1990s as “a place where families could come together to learn English and participate in employment readiness and cultural orientation programs.”

Child care was a major obstacle for many refugee mothers in need of ESL courses, so the Institute provides classes for children in tandem with the adult sessions.

There is also a 12-week summer program where children can practice English, math and art, and bond through recreational activities like sports.

Prasanna has volunteered as a counselor.

“There was this one kid. He’s nine years old and he’s from Southeast Asia. His name is Peter,” he said. “So, one day I was with him inside, … and he was interested in math. And I think he’s a really bright kid. I was teaching him math that was incredibly advanced for someone his age. We were doing trigonometry, Pythagorean theorem, and then he was really interested in it, so I started explaining even more complex concepts like vectors in relation to special relativity and physics and he actually understood it.”

The knowledge that people from other cultures can offer is a major theme of The Greensboro Project, and it doesn’t stop with mathematics.

“You can really learn things from people from other places,” Wright said. “They will take you out of your own narrow thinking on a lot of things: how to solve problems, thinking about death and dying.”

 

Learning from each other

Since beginning his interviews, Prasanna has learned new recipes, music, dances, and traditions.

He’s also become a better journalist, asking questions that draw out deeper, and sometimes painful, answers which get to the heart of the tragedy, loss and anger that led his sources to resettlement.

Vandy Chhum-Sou and her niece Sokcheat Chiep may not have first-hand memories of the genocide that forced their family to flee to America, but they still live with it every day.

The Cambodian genocide carried out by the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime that reigned over the country — then called “Kampuchea” — from 1975 to 1979 is estimated to have killed 2.5 million citizens.

Anyone considered an intellectual or professional was sentenced to death. That included doctors, teachers, artists, and monks. Their children were killed, soon after, to ensure they wouldn’t grow up and seek vengeance for their parents’ deaths.

In September, Prasanna interviewed Chhum-Sou and Chiep at the Khmer Buddhist Temple on Liberty Road — a safe haven for Cambodians living in the city.

“In Greensboro, itself, it’s very diverse,” Chhum-Sou told Prasanna. “There [are] so many different communities living around here and it’s nice if we have conversations like this, more often, so we can learn from each other.”

The pair teaches Classical Cambodian dance each Sunday at the temple, hoping to preserve the art form by passing it on. During the Khmer Rouge’s reign, nearly 95 percent of the dancers and teachers were killed.

The trauma caused by the regime is what brought another of Prasanna’s interviewees, the Buddhist Monk Phramaha Somsak Sambimb, to Greensboro in 1988.

The community believed the monk could help heal genocide survivors that had gathered there beginning in 1982. And, since he hadn’t experienced the violence of the Khmer Rouge, he could aid victims without having to relive his own trauma.

But Sambimb has just as much to offer Americans as he does refugees.

“Human beings are very selfish, very selfish … greedy, greedy,” the monk says during one of Prasanna’s video-recorded interviews. “But Buddhism tries to stop three things: stop greed, hatred, delusion … that make you or anybody from the good people to be the bad people. This world is burning now. Burning by what? Not burning by fire. Burning by [greed], hatred, delusion. Burns your mind, burns your body.”

Buddhism prescribes five solutions for inner peace: no stealing, no cheating, no killing, no lying and no alcohol. While religion can aid the quest for peace, he says, it is not the catalyst.

“Religion is good,” he continued. “Hinduism: good. Buddhism: good. Christianity: good. … But first you have to start from yourself. You cannot request from religion, from Buddha, from whatever. God cannot help you with anything. You have to help yourself first and then everything will be good. … You [make] God for yourself. You do good and you get good by yourself.”

His wisdom not only applies to Greensboro, but to the word at large, which is one reason Prasanna’s page has a worldwide following after only a few months of activity.

Wright said it’s become a resource for the world to learn about the world, and joked that she’s disappointed she didn’t start it herself.

Prasanna plans to reach out to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to see about getting his work archived, and Wright plans to continue connecting him with refugees who are willing to share their stories.

She is one of his biggest cheerleaders.

“I’m really glad that he’s done this and I hope that it has some far-reaching effects,” Wright said.

 

Reporter Jessica Williams can be reached at jessica.williams@thetimesnews.com or at 336-506-3046. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicawtn.