Diverse group of speakers share their 'American dream' stories at Ignite@ASU

An Eritrean refugee, a gay rights activist and an activist with PTSD ignited conversation on Thursday

ASU students came together on Thursday night to share varied experiences such as coming out as gay to your parents, treating your neighbors kindly, escaping civil war in Eritrea and conquering PTSD as of means of sparking larger conversation and bringing students closer together. 

Students met Thursday night, Nov. 2 at the Student Pavilion as part of an Ignite@ASU semesterly forum. This forum was especially timely given the rise in hate crimes over the past 2 years around the country. 

"My personal vision as chair is reminding people that stories matter, and particularly your story matters," Joley Hamilton, business junior and chair of Ignite@ASU, said. "I believe we're using the platform to empower voices that might not otherwise be heard." 

One of these voices is a student who came to the United States as a refugee from Eritrea. She and her family had to flee her country because of the alleged human rights violations by her country's leader, whom many call a dictator. She was able to find a home in the U.S., but she still faces challenges. 

"The thing was, we were trying to find a safer place to call home, but even though we're here, there is still times that we are feeling unsafe," said Elena Alsen, a freshman studying marketing who fled Eritrea as a young child. Alsen said she has been verbally threatened with phrases such as, "you're here to steal our jobs" and "you're here to hurt this country." 

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Arizona has 18 hate groups, which include anti-LGBTQ, white supremacist, black separatist and anti-immigrant groups; the majority of which are in the Phoenix metropolitan area. ASU has had it's share of some of these ideologies, students were met with fliers of white nationalist rhetoric during the first days of classes earlier this semester.

Stephanie Christensen, a junior studying global health, wants to not only change opinions of misrepresented groups, but to instill active hospitality to strangers. 

"It's got to be an active desire to want to connect with people and understand other people, because a lot of times, we close ourselves off," Christensen said.

Showing vulnerability to strangers helped Ron Blake find the strength to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder after being assaulted. Ignite@ASU's event came on a special night for Blake.

"Two years ago on this night was that suicidal night for me," Blake said.

Blake was on his couch contemplating ending his life when The Late Show played on his television. Stephen Colbert went through his nightly monologue and in the pits of depression, Blake laughed. He said the laughing at a late night comedian sparked his journey to be a guest on the show that saved his life. 

He now travels the country with cardboard posters and sharpie markers, encouraging people to write inspiring messages on the board and spread awareness about PTSD. Blake's hope is to be invited to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Hundreds of people came out in celebration to hear stories of bravery, activism and perseverance, but Hamilton said they left with a greater resolve to stop hate when they see it.

"It's a lot harder to tell someone that you don't want them in your country when you know their whole story," Hamilton said. "Stories don't allow you to generalize people, and from that we are much more productive in eliminating hate."

Reach the reporter at cbudnies@asu.edu or follow @ChaseHBudnies on Twitter.

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