Students work to adjust perceptions on refugees


Virginia Gallner

Before the executive order and the election, fear and prejudice tainted many Americans’ perception of immigrants and refugees. The Refugee Perspective started in an Honors Colloquium with the goal of making lasting change on these mindsets. We approached this goal of behavior change by creating a series of short documentary videos showing the stories of UNO students who are also refugees. Our campaign seeks to show the human side of the refugee crisis, the people whose struggle has been so maligned by those who are driven by fear of the unknown.

The focal point of the documentary videos is Paw Htoo, a biology student and refugee. In the documentary she said, “I was born in Thailand, but America is my home.”

When she tells people about her home country, at first they might speak of the beautiful landscapes and delicious food. She never got to experience the beauty of her homeland because the first fourteen years of her life were spent in a refugee camp.

When we launched our social media campaign last semester, we never envisioned the obstacles that would arise in the changing political climate, or the personal growth we would experience through our work. The recent executive order, directed towards immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries, exemplifies many of the xenophobic sentiments we have seen in both the research and implementation phases of our campaign.

As we saw how the events progressed, we became even more passionate about our work. Nick Lauber, a senior in the IT Innovation program who worked on the experimental aspects of our campaign, said, “I grew to care about more than just refugee issues. This campaign allowed me to become more comfortable arguing for what I believe is right.”

We sought to change perspectives on refugees through our social media campaign. In particular, we wanted to see uncommitted populations commit to a stance of understanding towards refugees. In order to achieve this, we created a multi-tiered approach modeled on the recruitment strategies of far-right extremists, because research has shown that these strategies are incredibly successful in influencing the minds of uncommitted populations.

The heart of our campaign was dinner with a refugee family, which we filmed for a short documentary. We brought members of our target population to dinner with a refugee family from Thailand. The family offered them a warm welcome, but when it came time to eat, they did not sit down and join their guests. It is in their culture for the hosts to wait while the guests sit and enjoy their meal. This culture difference astonished our student participants – but it demonstrates the universality of kindness across cultural bounds.

Through our work with the Applied Behavioral Research Lab in the UNO College of Business, we designed a neurophysiological experiment that quantifiably measures our success rate. With eye tracking technologies, we found that participants paid three times more attention to ads regarding refugees after watching our documentary videos.

Similarly, we saw a 13 percent reduction in implicit bias in our participants when asked whether they believed students like them would feel safe knowing refugees are present in every state.

Our campaign was part of a national competition funded by the EdVentures Program and Homeland Security. After huge success, garnering over 76,000 interactions on Facebook and gaining national attention for our efforts, we were selected to present our work in Washington DC. We placed fourth nationally out of the original 250 teams who participated.

As part of our trip to DC, we visited the United States Holocaust Museum. This experience was a fitting finish to the week, as we walked through this devastating history together. One of the newest features in the museum was a portal. We conversed with people in a Iraq refugee camp face-to-face through a webcam and live interpreter. Standing there with Paw, watching her exchange stories with refugees an ocean away from us, was an incredibly moving experience. This moment provided human faces for the people we had come there to support.

We will be continuing our work as student organization The Refugee Perspective by partnering with campus and community organizations. It is more important than ever to transform uncertainty into understanding.