"Mama! You are going to the White House?" Fatima Said's exuberant grandchildren burst out when she told them the news.
Said's mother was puzzled. "What are you going to do there?"
President Barack Obama's White House honored Said and nine others as "Champions of Change" last Thursday. The award celebrates local heroes who "work tirelessly to effectively integrate immigrants" and bring "all residents together to create welcoming communities."
"We are a proud nation of immigrants," Obama said in a recent proclamation, "home to a long line of aspiring citizens" who struggled "so they could pass a brighter future on to their children."
Said has had quite the journey to the White House herself. She came to America in 1994 as a refugee from the Bosnian war and genocide. Now, as director of Project FINE, when she tells new immigrants and refugees that she did not speak a word of English when she came to this country, they often do not believe her.
"I see the light in their eyes when I share my story and they see it's possible" to succeed as a newcomer to America, Said commented. "That is a joy for me."
Project FINE partners with various local governments, schools, businesses, and organizations to provide services to immigrants and refugees. Said was nominated for the presidential award by the national immigrant advocacy organization Welcoming America. Project FINE's gardening and art fair programs caught the national group's attention because of the unique opportunity they give immigrants to share their talents and culture with their community and the chance the programs give American-born people to learn about and interact with their new neighbors.
Said was moved by the same spirit when she and her diverse staff were recently invited to a Project FINE client's quinceañera, a Mexican coming-of-age celebration. "I was so touched," Said said of the opportunity to experience a real Mexican get-together and the family's willingness to share that important moment in their child's life with her. "We all have a fear of the unknown, but the only way to overcome that is interaction," she added.
Said understands what can happen when people close their hearts to neighbors. As her homeland disintegrated in political turmoil, ideals of ethnic superiority became dominant, and Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, who had lived together, eaten together, and even married each other for years, turned on one other. Said was driven out of her home. "It's hard to imagine how people can be so hateful to kill people for no reason — to destroy because of some sick ideas," she reflected. "How did they change overnight — my neighbors, colleagues? That is something I will ask for the rest of my life."
The memories of neighbors who became filled with hate for her, or were too scared to stand up for her, are painful to recall, Said said, but important to retell. "I will keep talking about it for the rest of my life," she pledged. Others "shouldn't have to experience that. We should be able to learn from history."
"Human kindness is so powerful; human madness is so powerful, as well," Said continued. After receiving so much help and support from Minnesotans, it is an honor to be able give back to new refugees, she added.
Winona Police Officer and Project FINE Board Member Kevin Kearney said it is a powerful thing for Americans to hear from refugees. "It's humbling and good for other Americans to experience things like that," he said. "Especially in my line of work, where so many take their freedoms for granted."
"This is what America is all about," said Project FINE Board Member Vicki Englich. She called Said's story "truly American." Given Said's hard work as director of Project FINE, "boy, does she deserve the recognition," Englich added.
Said was honored with an award from the McKnight Foundation last month. St. Charles Schools Superintendent Mark Roubinek said he was so proud of Said and praised the positive energy she brings to Project FINE. That encouragement has made a real difference for many students in St. Charles, he said. Said is a great leader for Project FINE, but the support of the local community has been crucial to the organization's success, he added.
When asked how she felt about the White House visit, Said replied, "I just can't stop smiling."