Meghan O’Sullivan ’15 Helps Give Voice to Refugee Women

Meghan O'Sullivan '15, center, works with refugees Hnin Ko, from Thailand, left, and Pawser Soe, from Burma, in Kirner-Johnson.
Meghan O'Sullivan '15, center, works with refugees Hnin Ko, from Thailand, left, and Pawser Soe, from Burma, in Kirner-Johnson.

For Meghan O’Sullivan ’15, immigration is not just an abstract policy issue. This summer, as part of the Kirkland Summer Associates Program, she is pursuing a research project, “Oral Expression of Refugee Women.” Her goal is to create a podcast that gives some insight into the first-hand experience of the refugee women who have come to Utica, N.Y.

A comparative literature and public policy double major, O’Sullivan is looking at refugee resettlement from multiple angles. “I’m interested in both the policies behind resettlement—how resources are being used—and also the narratives behind moving to a new country,” she explained. O’Sullivan has found that resettlement encompasses many other policy issues, including immigration, healthcare, education and welfare. She believes that, in part because it is so complex, resettlement policy requires some reexamination.

“We need to look closely at how we’re best able to help the people we allow in. We want their quality of life to be truly better here,” said O’Sullivan.  Particularly locally, she fears that perhaps issues refugees face go overlooked, commenting that “Many people in Oneida County know that there are refugees in Utica, but understanding what obstacles they face in their day-to- day lives when they arrive here is a dimension that many are unfamiliar with.” In order to really understand the situations of refugees in America, O’Sullivan believes we should hear some first-hand accounts.

O’Sullivan began her project by spending a lot of time at the Refugee Center, hoping to meet refugee women and hear their stories. She volunteered for English classes, attended weekly arts and crafts meetings with a group of women from Somalia, and offered workshops in public speaking and poetry. Through her workshops, she has worked primarily with one exceptional young woman, Paw, who is a Karen refugee from Burma. O’Sullivan is working with Paw to help her develop a polished narrative and improve her public speaking, and in turn, Paw is sharing her remarkable story.

Paw was born in the jungle in Burma. In the ongoing Burmese civil war, the government has persecuted the Karen minority, and Paw’s family was often on the move as she grew up. When she was six, she and her family moved to a refugee camp in Thailand, where she lived for 13 years. Her older sister, who was sick with leukemia, was flown to the United States to seek medical treatment. Then, at age 19, Paw was able to join her sister in America. Once here, she began learning English and studied at Mohawk Valley Community College, where she earned her associate’s degree. She excelled in her coursework and earned a private scholarship to attend Hartwick College this fall. She hopes to go on to earn a Ph.D. and possibly work for the United Nations.

O’Sullivan has found Paw’s story and her achievements to be absolutely inspiring. She commented, “It’s very humbling. We’re about the same age, and she’s been through so much. It makes me think about how fortunate I am.” Hoping to share Paw’s story with more people, O’Sullivan is creating a podcast. She has also spoken with other volunteers at the Refugee Center, hospital interpreters and others who have close contact with Utica’s refugees. She hopes that these interviews will provide some context for Paw’s story and create multiple angles within the podcast. O’Sullivan plans to broadcast her podcast to as wide of an audience as possible, helping to spread an understanding of refugee resettlement and share the inspiration from refugees’ stories with others.

Meghan O’Sullivan is a graduate of Daniel Hand High School, Madison, Conn.

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