“10 seconds to grab three of the most important things in your home. What would you choose? Before this exercise I would have grabbed my cat, a photo album and my phone. After the exercise I would choose my ID, some form of food and a blanket. After the 10 seconds during the exercise all I had in my hands was a bag of apples. I was so nervous I couldn’t choose anything else. Luckily the others grabbed a water jug, the potatoes, pasta, lentils and a cup. With all we had we had to walk from Webster Geneva to Les Berges (4.5 miles/7.4 km). Luckily we knew the way and it only took about an hour and a half. After arriving we waited, and waited and then waited some more until our ‘guards’ showed up. They asked what we brought and why; then they sent us straight back to Webster Geneva. We are lucky. We knew where to walk, how to get there, the safety of the trip and how long it would take. We only had to walk for 3 hours total in the high sun. Real refugees aren’t that lucky. They walk for days in a direction only to find out it was the other way or they get turned away completely. Not enough food, water, shelter or even the knowledge of what is coming next would drain my mind as well as my body. Refugees must be some of the strongest willed people in the world. When we did finally get back to our camp after what we now know was just a stroll, we found our camp raided. Our tent was missing pieces, our food supply almost completely gone; the water emptied on our firewood. Honestly that was all fine to see. The part that ruined our day was seeing all of our personal belongings gone through, thrown around and some even missing. We all saw that and our hearts sank deep.”
You all must be wondering what the above passage is talking about. Well, I recently participated in a Refugee Simulation at Webster Geneva and this is one of my journal entries from the experience. Let me give you a bit of background before I start though. Geneva Switzerland hosts over 250 international organizations including the headquarters of the UN, UNHRC, WTO, WHO and more. Due to this and the culture of Webster campuses around the world Webster Geneva hosts a refugee simulation on its campus every year to bring awareness about refugees a bit closer to home. This was the 4th year it’s been done and I had the honor of participating as a refugee for 5 days and 4 nights. UNHCR provides a tent as well as cooking utensils, the exact same ones that are given to real refugees around the globe. We ate, slept and bonded in an approx. 50ftX50ft roped off camp on Webster Geneva’s’ campus right in the middle of all the buildings. On September 5th five current students at Webster Geneva, myself included, met up at UNHCR in Geneva and that’s where our journey began. We had to bring clothes, a blanket and a pillow for the simulation. We arrived at UNHCR and from there we had to walk to Webster Geneva (3 miles) with everything we had brought. The journey didn’t take as long as we (or our guards) thought it would because we actually knew the way to campus. It was about 50 minutes walking and then we arrived.
After a few hours of waiting on campus we had to go through “Border Crossing” and get our papers, food rations and tent. The Border Crossing was pretty nerve-racking even though I knew I had nothing to be scared of, unlike real refugees when they cross borders. My husband (we were given back stories we had to follow) and I were the first of the group to go through the crossing. The guards asked us all sorts of questions, “Why are we there” “Why did you have to leave your country” “What family members came with us” “How we find out to go there” etc. After successfully answering their questions they went through all of our personal belongings. The clothes that had been folded nicely in my bag were unfolding and looked through; every pocket of my backpack was opened and felt for hidden pockets. Anything they didn’t think we needed or that was a luxury – they took. They took toothpaste, deodorant, articles of clothing, books, and even matches I forgot were in my bag. Then I was patted down and searched. Luckily I wasn’t trying to smuggle anything in unlike a few other participants of the simulation. My husband, Mo, and I had to wait for everyone else to go through Border Crossing and then the boys were taken one way and the girls another way. The boys later told us they were taken downstairs and had to strip to their boxers due to contraband being snuck in, in previous years. Us girls were given all the food for the next 5 days and told to start making dinner. The boys met us in our camp and they had to set up the tent. The food we were given included pasta, potatoes, lentils, beans, flour, rice, apples, and about 10 cans of food that all the wrappers had been torn off so we had no idea what was in them. Later as we opened them we found it was tuna, corn, veggies, and lentils and hotdogs. To make dinner the first night we first had to go collect firewood, make a fire and ration food for the next 5 days. While us girls were doing that the boys were setting up the tent and a storm was on its way. Luckily the rain only hit for about 5 minutes in a light sprinkle. Around 9pm it got dark and none of us had any electronics of any type so the camp got dark as well. We were all exhausted from walking and going through the first day so we all fell asleep around 10 pm.
The first night was the worst night. It was freezing, the ground was hard and the drunken college students coming back to campus on Friday night kept waking us up, “REFUGEES. Are you sleeping? Wake up!” They weren’t allowed in our roped off camp but that didn’t stop their yelling. Drew did the simulation as well so we luckily got to snuggle to keep a bit warmer than our other friends. We still froze though. Geneva at night in September drops down to about 45 with the days reaching 75 maybe 80. Of course during the simulation it was the hottest days and the coldest nights. We all woke up on Saturday around 9am with sore backs and dirty bodies. We weren’t allowed to shower for the 5 days we were there but we were able to use the indoor bathrooms. Our water supply for everything, washing hands, making food, drinking, etc was about half a mile away and we had three water jugs to fill up. The walk there and back was beautiful but it was a pain having to go so far with heavy jugs full of water. So on Saturday morning, three of us walked to get water while the rest of us started to boil the water we did have for tea and instant coffee. By the time we ate our 2 apples between 6 people and had our fill of coffee or tea it was time to start thinking about lunch. We managed to make potato bread and then whipped up some lentils and whatever else we made. I do remember it taking about 2 hours to make the food. Having to make a fire, keep it going at the right height and cooking all at the same time was definitely something we got better at as the days progressed. We had a bit of time between lunch and our activity of the day to lie around and deal with boredom.
Every day the WHA (Webster Humanitarian Association) guards made us do certain activities that simulated being a refugee. On Saturday our activity was simulating finding our families and leaving our homes. Our guards lead us to a park about a mile away from campus. On the way to the park everytime a plane flew overhead (which is a lot in a big city) we had to drop to the ground and cover our heads because bombs were being dropped on us. Every time a car passed on the street we had to find shelter because they had guns and were trying to find us and kill us for escaping. Halfway through that exercise one of the guards told me I didn’t get down fast enough when a bomb was being dropped and my left leg had been hit by shrapnel so for the remainder of the 5 days every time we did an exercise I wasn’t allowed to use my left leg properly. I had to limp and get people to help me. My husband also lost his right in by gunfire because he started to run instead of hid when a car passed. When we finally got to the park we were all blindfolded and lead to different sections of the park. We then had to call one another (our family members from our back stories) and find them. I walked into multiple trees but Mo and I finally found one another. The second time we did the activity we were only allowed to use noises, no name calling because in certain situations it’s unsafe to call your family by name to find them. Once again we were all blindfolded. This tested our knowledge of one another also because I could only find Mo by the sound of his voice. The third time we did it, we weren’t allowed to make any noise at all. This was definitely the hardest one to accomplish because we had to listen for footsteps, leaves rustling and general noises. The guards also made it much harder because they would walk next to us, make noise and try to confuse us. After we finished the 3rd exercise we were told to walk by home on a path none of us had been on before. We were all really scared that they were going to raid our camp while we were going back so we decided to run. The mile or so back to camp was pretty hot and the path unknown but we made it back.
Saturday and Sunday were the worst days in the sense of having so much free time to do nothing and the activities kept us thinking of real refugees. The mood of those of us participating went from optimistic to sad every hour as we thought more and more about how fortunate we are and how unfortunate so many others are. Just because we were born in a certain country to parents of a certain nationality we are given privileges that millions of people aren’t. We’re allowed to eat, think, and be however we want. The activity on Sunday was one that I opened up this writing with. We had 10 seconds to choose 3 things from camp and then walk with it for 3 hours. The five of us realized in that time how lucky we really are. For us the activities were a game but to millions of people every single day, it’s their reality. They don’t get to go back to warm beds, peaceful homes and schoolbooks after 5 days. They live in places with no running water, no school, and no happy lifestyle for months, years and even generations. When they go to bed at night they thank whomever for being alive that day while commonly the people I know on a first hand basis go to bed thinking about all the things they need to do tomorrow and all the reasons why they didn’t do it today.
On Monday and Tuesday we all had to go to our classes but then go straight back to the campsite afterwards. We had to wear orange vests so everyone knew we were refugees and technically no one was allowed to talk to us. It had been days without showers or soap so we didn’t get the best attention either. Of course people were interested in why we smelled the way we did and why we looked the way we did but even when we would answer, they didn’t seem that interested as soon as the word refugee escaped our mouths. Monday’s activity was the worst activity. Halfway through our dinner we were told to finish in 5 minutes because we had an activity. When we finished, we were blindfolded and put in a single file line. From there we were yelled directions, “Roll, crawl, duck, walk forward, and stop.” It wasn’t all in English or in French. Webster Geneva has a plethora of nationalities so the guards recruited all the angry sounding language speakers to scream at us. At one point we were crawling through the forest by school, most of us in shorts and tank tops due to the heat. My knees were almost bleeding. At another moment I was told to sit and not move; that I could do. Then cold water was poured over my head. After about 30 minutes of these types of things we were lead back into our camp, still blindfolded, and put in different places then told to find one another without any noise again. Just like on Saturday. This time it was harder because we were on campus and noise was everywhere around us. We did succeed though. About 2 minutes after that a downpour of rain came and we had to cover all of things. Monday night we all sat in the tent and talked about what the experience made us think and realize the most in our lives. It was a wonderful talk that I will never forget. Tuesday was the last day of the simulation so we were all ready to sleep in the tent for one last night and have a good last day. On Tuesday the activity was a talk by a woman who works at UNHCR. She is actually getting ready to give a TEDTalk at the global convention about refugees so she practiced on us. It was such a moving speech that by the end most of us had chills on our bodies and tears rolling down our faces. We gave her feedback, things that worked and things that didn’t. The conversation rolled into what we felt and how we as 5 individuals can help the millions of people who are displaces and stateless. After the speech the simulation was over and the last thing we had to do was clean up the camp. Tear down the tent, clean the pots, and all that jazz.
After 5 days and 4 nights I still have no idea how real refugees live their lives. What I experienced is nothing to what real people have to go through every day. I know it and so do the other four people who did the simulation with me as well as the people who have done it in the past. The sad part is that not everyone else does. For all the millions of people who live in refugee camps there are millions more who don’t and who don’t even think about those who are displaces. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t think of them that often before. Since the last day of the simulation I’ve thought of them every single day. The 23 bug bites I got in five days are nothing compared to the lifetime scars that they live with. The point of the simulation worked because we are thinking about real refugees but for us it was 5 day game. The noise of planes overhead and cars passing don’t send us dropping to our hands and feet in fear of being shot or kidnapped. There was laughter and playful noises during our activities not cries from mother and father who find their children dead or explosions that are so deafening your balance is thrown off for days. The fears we had included being woken in the middle of the night and the camp being ransacked. When 3 of our family members took too long to get water we didn’t have to think about them never coming back because they’ve been killed. The fears of real refugees change from “is there enough food” to “will I ever see them again” to “please don’t kill/rape/torture my family members or me”. The differences we had in the simulation versus the real thing are astounding but the point is definitely recognized. We’re thinking about them. I’m thinking about them.