Welcome to “Camp Refugee”

Cara Winters, who works with IRC’s refugee resettlement office in Phoenix, set up a 12-hour overnight program at Arizona State University designed to bring attention to the realities of refugee life. Students slept in makeshift tents and listened to actual refugees tell their stories:

Several IRC staff members arrived early to help set up, role play, and support the refugee speakers. All in all we had about 60 paying participants, of which about 40 stayed ALL NIGHT in shelters built from the provisions we distributed at the beginning.

We had over 20 volunteers who role-played, stayed most of the night, and arrived early Monday afternoon to build the camp itself. Most of the participants were college students, but we had quite a significant number of professors, community members, and people from the larger Phoenix community.

The most exciting part is that nearly all the people involved—both volunteers and participants—were totally clueless about refugee issues before the event. That means nearly 80 people were just introduced to refugee crises and how to help!

Every participant was put into a family group based on different conflict situations around the world, both past and present: Somalia, Cambodia, Liberia, Colombia, Afghanistan, and human trafficking situations.

After being assigned an identity, the participant was given an information sheet about who they were in relation to the family, the background of the conflict displacing them, and a “Things to Remember” sheet giving them additional information about the nature of being persecuted in their particular family, conflict, and age/gender role. Then they were given a map of the ASU campus marked with a path to follow and told to register themselves with the contract aid agency (IRC of course!). Then, they had to go through the registration process—half of which was an interview because the families were illiterate in the registration form’s language. The form was based on the United Nations refugee registration form I found online.

After that, the head of the family was given an ID card and one or two members were told to go to the health clinic. At the health clinic, the nurse had a list of all the identities and what their related diseases were going to be, based on the what was most prevalent in that part of the world. She did a “check-up,” used her stethoscope, weighed them, etc. After that, the family was directed to the shelter distribution site, then the food distribution site.

They had to build shelters out of 1 sheet, 2 dowel rods, 4 safety pins, 5 tent stakes, and 5 pieces of twine (1 was 10ft, 4 were 4.5ft). Most of the supplies were lent to me by family friends. We made the participants aware that this was not what refugees would actually receive in the camps, but what we as a non-profit could provide in the way of build-your-own-refugee-camp supplies.

I made large posters for each site that had pictures and statistical information about what real refugee shelter provisions were like, as well as food, health, and sanitation. After people built their shelters, they were invited to come listen to the guest speakers – which lasted about an hour. After that they had 15 mins to pack all their belongings in two pillow cases that I provided each family and our “militia” volunteers “attacked” the camp.

Then participants had to navigate their way through a road block, where they had to forfeit half their belongings and receive a second information sheet for each family member. Then they had to get through the “border crossing,” where we blocked off the main walkway through campus with chicken wire, lumber, and “no trespassing” signs—and stationed three military types to prevent passage (we got a lot of curious onlookers at that site!).

Each border guard was given specific instructions as to which family to work with and under what conditions they could cross—again, this was based on what happened in each of those countries.

Once they crossed the border, some families discovered their children had been trafficked and were then met by a UN convoy who gave them a third sheet of information and escorted the family to the “Joint Volunteer Agency office.” Once at the office, they had to show their letter of invitation and go through the interview.

After the interview they had to wait outside until the Department of Homeland Security character called them into his office and put them through another interview. Once that was over, they were instructed to return to the camp and wait for a response. Wait they did—and not until all families were back, did I make the rounds and reveal whether or not they were accepted for U.S. resettlement.

After the simulation ended (around 11 PM), we broke into discussion groups and answered a lot of the questions participants had about why or why not their “family” was resettled, why they had go through road blocks and border crossings, and why they had to go through three interviews before finding out about resettlement. We raised a little over $600 for the IRC, which isn’t a ton of money but I wanted to keep the cost accessible for the largest number of people.

We capped it off with small group debriefings and made everyone breakfast in the morning.

For a pilot program built on the time and energy of 20 different volunteers and designed to reach people who’ve never heard about or cared for refugee issues – it went quite well!

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