Distinguished Alumni Challenges Students to Become Humanitarians
By: Nick Santangelo
Robert Berry, CLA ’08, didn’t have it easy growing up. Starting in fifth grade and continuing through high school, he was teased and bullied for his sexual orientation—an orientation he himself didn’t even identify or understand when the taunting began. And yet, as cruel as the treatment the former religion and Asian studies major received as a kid was, he insists it’s nothing compared to what those he now works with have endured.
A U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Officer since 2014, Berry was on campus last Friday to receive the 2019 Temple University Distinguished Alumni Award. After being recognized with the award and before meeting the community for drinks, Berry spoke about his troubled experiences growing up and his work aiding refugees and asylum seekers.
Berry recalled bullies taunting him as a child because of the tone of his voice and what the bullies perceived as feminine mannerisms. Kids cruelly shouted gay slurs at him, put signs on his back and threatened him with physical violence. Berry hadn’t yet identified as gay, but bullies labeled him all the same.
“By making being gay a target on my back while I was still trying to figure out my own sexual orientation, these kids robbed me of years of figuring myself out,” explained Berry.
At this, he looked around the Tuttleman Learning Center auditorium crowd and remarked that he saw gravity and sympathy on students’ faces. He commended students for having those feelings, saying it showed they had hearts.
But he also wanted them to understand that his own troubled experiences growing up in nearby Media, Pa. are not at all comparable to those of the asylum seekers Berry works with today. These refugees are largely fleeing war and threats of violence far more horrific than Berry’s schoolyard experiences.
He shared a story about a girl who once came into his office with a nervous and fearful of admitting she was gay. While Berry could relate on some level, what he learned next was a sobering reminder of how many people from other parts of the world have suffered far worse than he has. The girl handed him a stack of threatening letters from her family back in West Africa, the intention of which was to inflict “total disruption” upon her life in the U.S. because they lack tolerance for her sexual orientation.
Berry didn’t just let his words do the talking, however. He also showed students a harrowing documentary clip. In the video, refugee workers are shown attempting to rescue Syrian asylum seekers floating in the sea near Greece. The alumni then put some hard numbers to the visuals: there are currently 68.5 million individuals estimated to be displaced from their homes. Less than one percent of them are getting the resettlement protections they need.
“What is happening on the world stage is a choice,” said Berry, referring to institutional and governmental systems intentionally restraining what humanitarian workers can do. “It is a collective choice made by many actors on that world stage. However, it is also 2019, and we simply need to do better.”
What choices can students make for themselves? Becoming educated about the problem is a big first step, so Berry thanked everyone who attended for doing so. But he also wants to see them take action. To that end, he mentioned a student he knows who’s creating a refugee documentary and another who developed a way for Philadelphia-based communities to adopt Canada’s refugee sponsorship model.
Berry called both efforts “amazing things” and pleaded with students in attendance to similarly do whatever they could to help overcome the bureaucratic red tape and further the cause of humanitarians.
“Go be the hope and the light that the world needs,” he concluded. “Go save the world.”