By: Amy Gorman
“You are now a refugee from the country of Qinta. Here are two tokens that represent your sense-of-self. Don’t let anyone take those from you. And here’s a burlap sack to wear as a skirt. Good luck.”
Each day millions of people around the world are displaced from their homes due to violence, persecution, and natural disaster.1 On the rainy day of March 29, 2014, I participated in the American Red Cross Global Refugee Simulation & Conference in Washington DC and Bull Run State Park, VA. The largest refugee simulation in the world, it is intended to educate participants about the challenges that refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) endure. Over 500 participants worked in simulated family groups to escape a war zone, traverse minefields, cross a patrolled border, and find accommodation in a refugee camp. Once there, they had to secure food, seek medical attention, and build a shelter, all while staying within assigned roles.
I was introduced to my new “refugee family,” the Conney’s, a mix of students, graduates, former Peace Corp volunteers and me, a member of the STAR-TIDES Network. We hopped on a bus to Bull Run Park, VA and began learning our roles. For the purposes of the story, I will only refer to people as their character names. The Conney’s consisted of our father and Head of Household, Anah, his wife, Aryah, and four teenagers, Levi (me), Ethan, Eko, and Branson. Anah is unemployed, Arayh makes handi-crafts, and the kids worked odd jobs. The Conneys were of Banami ethnicity, a minority in the country, and as such had little to no political power.
A historically fractured country, Qinta faces rebel forces (dubbed “terrorists” by the government) who are citizens fighting for freedom from oppression and corruption. Piece by piece, the country disintegrated into war, and the escalated violence and chaos has made it unsafe for civilians to stay. Now the Conney’s must flee to the only place of sanctuary: Renimar, a country that is not much better; with high unemployment rates; poor infrastructure; and with fears that the political and ethnic conflict will spread into their borders. Renimar is for the moment at peace.
As soon as we got to Bull Run State Park in the cold rain, we were accosted by smoke, loud gunfire, and angry Quinta rebels forcing us and other families off the bus (our home) and into the woods. No hope remained of returning to our Qinta hometown (the bus). Instinctively, the Conney family stuck together, huddling when harassed by rebels, constantly counting family members to make sure no one got separated, taken, or lost. No one else on this muddy, rainy and cold trail was as important as those five other Conneys to me. We knew we were not going back to the bus, and we didn’t know what was ahead. However, we did know that we would do our best to take care of each other and problem solve through any obstacle. I was surprised how quickly this family structure felt real, despite the knowledge that this was only a simulation.
The rebels harassed us, pushed us a bit, fired their weapons, but as we were among the first on the trail to Renimar, they were not yet comfortable enough in their roles to make the simulation feel truly real. However, there were moments. We all quickly learned that if you keep your head down and keep walking, they wouldn’t bother you so much. Ethan (in real life, a woman) was surprised that when she first encountered the rebels, a pang of fear coursed through her, and she instinctively hid her pigtails in her ball-cap so she looked more like a boy, thus less of a target. Another interesting aspect of the simulation was the use of tokens to represent our sense-of-self, dubbed Dignity Tokens. Having been told to never give them up, tokens were cajoled from us at various points. Though they were never physically taken, it was all agreed that had we been real refugees, keeping those “tokens” would be much more difficult.
We befriended one girl who had no family, and was going through the simulation alone. She was harassed more by the rebels, and though we brought her into our group through some scenarios, at checkpoints she faced the rebels alone. I was struck by her independence, and even though we could have helped her more, there was a difference between the Conney family and everyone else, even if everyone else included someone on the same trail.
Our family bypassed various rebel and military groups, crossed through land mines (little air-horns hidden in the trails), and encountered ad hoc merchants selling granola bars and information both at inflated prices. Dodging mud puddles through hours of constant rain, we finally reached the border of Renimar. With French speaking border guards, we were lucky that our “Mother” Aryah, spoke French, but others were not so lucky. An intimidating pitbull was also used in this event to train as he inspected us for nefarious substances, and was not afraid to bark or growl as unlucky refugees were whisked past him to the interrogation station.
The most unnerving part of our journey was that Branson, one of my siblings, had never received a passport. We spent most of our time on the trail trying to figure out how to sneak him past the guards, switch passports, change identities, and create diversions, all to keep Branson with us. Maintaining the family structure was everyone’s number one priority. We were able to sneak him through one of the checkpoints, but at the border we were not so lucky. He was separated from us, not allowed to pass, and when the entire family finally got through, we looked back and Branson was still standing there behind the barriers. No one would leave, despite yelling from guards to keep moving, and we tried to will Branson through the border. Again, my real feelings of sadness for the loss of a “family member” surprised me though I knew it was a simulation. Eventually, they let him through, but I am not convinced that this happy turn of events would have happened in a real situation. It is very possible that families are forced to separate for a variety of reasons, with great difficulty in reuniting.
Having weathered the “dangers” of reaching the refugee camp, it was a welcomed sight to emerge on a large green field full of smiling United Nations volunteers, Red Cross tents and a flurry of activity. We had already gotten used to long lines throughout our journey, so the long lines at the UN registration tent while standing in the pouring rain went almost unnoticed by the Conneys. One woman, ill-prepared for the weather and having just walked 2 miles through the cold, rain, and mud was standing in line to check in when she saw a UN volunteer skip up to her peers with hot coffee, exclaiming, “Starbucks!” A poignant point for her, she was well aware of the difference between her current station and the volunteers.
Having had real UN volunteers checking us in with the same registration forms used in real refugee situations, we were then sent to the medical tent for evaluation. The head of household, Anah, and Eko, one of the teenagers, wisely asked for medicine (Tic-Tacs) to take with us despite the fact that we didn’t need them. They were used for trade when the head of household searched for food at the Market Place, resulting in the acquisition of a large bag of apples, 2 granola bars, and a bag of cookies; all which were gladly shared. This underlined how aware we were that survival and well-being was still not guaranteed just because we made it to the camp.
We were then sent to pick up five wooden boards, 11 nails, a hammer and a tarp to make our shelter. In the pouring rain, we tried to set up our tent as quickly as possible, but unfortunately we were not successful the first time, as the tent collapsed with me (Levi) inside it. After flattening some nails and regrouping a bit, we got the shelter up and the head of household was sent to get food for the whole family through a ticketing method common in all refugee camps. He soon returned with a vat of rice and beans, which we gleefully scarfed down, finally out of the rain.
We were happy to also take in a woman who was separated from her family. She was also delighted to get to share our tent, and we were pleased to share her extra blanket, mat and rations. This mutual benefit aspect of refugee life also struck me in the dynamic of refugee life. I would not be surprised to see such bonds in the name of friendship evidenced by ration sharing in refugee camps and other survival situations.
The last part of the simulation was a camp meeting. The Conney family and the rest of the groups that traveled the same route we did were brought together under a UN tent to discuss self-governance, schools, and how we wanted to manage our refugee life. Some people were interested in higher education of the high school-aged kids (our group had no young children), others were interested in setting up a craft shop, while still others wanted to set up a community that divided up survival tasks like cooking, sanitation, water collection, etc. Some believed they would be leaving soon; others seemed to be of the mind-set that this is where they would spend their lives. It was interesting to see everyone’s divergent values, priorities, and thought processes so clearly in such a short amount of time. It was clear that in a real situation, self-governance, health and safety at the camp would be issues every a refugee would face.
This six hour simulation did not completely immerse you into the life of a refugee; the traveling would be longer, the rebels scarier, the threats more tangible, the loss more real, and the future less known. However, it created moments where the participants felt glimpses of the same emotions and concerns that I would imagine a refugee would. It also took us through the steps of a refugee from fleeing to crossing the border to the immersion into refugee camp life. It gave us all an opportunity to gain understanding, respect and empathize more with the people who go through similar situations. It’s one thing to look at refugees from the comfort of a developed nation. It’s something else to be one.
“The participants left the simulation even more stimulated to act upon issues of international crisis and working with and responding to the needs of refugees globally,” said Aisling Swain, Associate Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University. To learn more from experts in the field, listen to the follow up digital, Global Refugee conference, click here, 30 March 2014. Speakers from organizations from around the world such as the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Refugee International, U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), International Committee Red Cross (ICRC), UN Women, Amnesty International, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc. and the Children’s Services at United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) shared their insights.
The STAR-TIDES Network shares technological and social solutions that can be sustained by the local populations in disaster, development, or impoverished situations such as refugee camps. From water purification to communication, to shelter, sanitation, cooking, lighting, power and heating/cooling TIDES is always on the look-out. If you are interested or have a solution that you want to share, check out www.star-tides.net.