Later, Oo, 22, discovered that the family's documents, including asylum papers for the United States, were hidden in his bag. Authorities were less careful in checking children's luggage.
Even now, he says, he gets chills when he thinks about how he carried his family's future.
Oo's decision to go to Berry spread among other students connected through Thompson's school for refugees. In the end, seven of them from four countries -- Burundi, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Liberia -- were admitted to Berry.
Thompson knew that they did not have the SAT scores or the money to make it to a college like Berry, but she was moved by their determination to make it in America, a land that Oo said was as different from their homelands as Earth is from sky.
Thompson kept thinking of what one student's mother had told her: She'd dreamed of education for her girls in Afghanistan but then the Taliban came.
Thompson's dream was to see these students, who had survived extraordinarily challenging circumstances, succeed.
She believed Berry would provide the perfect environment. It was small and intimate. The students would be able to regain a sense of community lost in their process of resettlement.
She reached out to Briggs and other Berry officials and shared her hopes for the refugee students.
Berry, a predominantly white Protestant college, had not had students like these before.
But admitting them was in line with the same kind of calculated investments that Martha Berry had made in students in her day, giving boys and girls trapped in poverty an opportunity to better their lives.
Briggs, the college president, knew that it would take an enormous amount of resolve and resiliency on the part of the refugee students. It would be an experiment.
Berry had just started a program that let students work their way through college with the hope they would graduate debt-free. Why not extend such a chance to the refugee students?
University administrators understood that these kids wanted education as much as a drowning person needs air. They also understood that the refugees were going to be treated like any other Berry student.
"The only reason we took a look at them was because of their remarkable backgrounds," Briggs said. "But they were not given a free ride. It wasn't going to help to coddle them."
In the summer of 2009, the seven students arrived in Rome. They arrived early so they could get settled before classes in the fall. They were immediately put to work with the grounds crew.
"That first summer, it was just us," Oo recalled.
Naseri, 21, whose family fled Afghanistan, said the students all knew of one another mainly through the refugee school. Once at Berry, they became a tight-knit group.
"It felt good knowing we weren't alone," she said. "We inspired each other."
They knew that no one else around them could possibly understand what it's like to leave a homeland for good or to live through genocide.
But quickly, their tree of friends branched out.
"I looked at this opportunity to not just get an education but educate others," Oo said.
Gaining back what was lost
On her first day at Berry, Fakhria Hussain's brother drowned in a swimming pool in Atlanta. She'd already lost her father; he was killed in Afghanistan.
Hussain had felt she was flying high when she came to Berry. The news of her brother punctured her.
"I felt I was dropping from the sky," she said.