In college I learned about how entire generations can pass in refugee camps. Families forced to leave their homes would never have a home again. Water, food, sanitation, and education -- basic necessities to me, had become a luxury for 15.4 million people around the world.
How could this be fair? On Saturday, I experienced just a little bit of how unfair it is.
It was a cold and rainy day. We were told the simulation would happen regardless of the weather because refugees often live through inclement weather. When I checked in, I was given two tokens. One token represented my dignity and the other token represented my self worth. I was warned not to lose these tokens during my journey.
I then joined a group of participants and we were dubbed the Limboda family from Qinta. During our ride to the refugee site, we carefully studied our family background, country history, and simulation ground rules. Winston Limboda was the patriarch of our family, a former university dean and philosophy professor. His wife Denny and daughter Sydney were elementary school teachers. Sydney’s husband Jessie, was a professor and the head of our household. The Limbodas adopted the neighboring children Avery and Micah, whose parents were killed as a result of violent conflict. There were also two family members, Christina and Hyun Ji, that were forcefully separated from us years ago and we would be desperately searching for them during our journey.
I was Micah, 21 years old and my sister Avery was 19 years old. We only had a high school education.
We also met Denise and Leah on the bus, two women who had been separated from their families and were alone. We took them into our family.
Our family was overall well educated and we apparently were used to lying relentlessly just to keep ourselves safe.
I will not dwell on the country background here as the circumstances never justify the human rights violations. As for the ground rules, we were informed that by saying “Neptune” we could break out of character if needed as the simulation was bound to be emotionally intense. Furthermore, we were given SOS cards to use in case of a real emergency.
Upon studying the facts and trying to get into character, my group stayed rather quiet during the bus ride. We didn’t know what was going to happen but tried to have light hearted conversation with each other the rest of the way. Others were talking and laughing occasionally and it almost felt like a field trip, but not for long.
We arrived at Bull Run Park and the bus abruptly stopped in front of the woods. A group of soldiers started banging on the bus and yelling at us to exit as quickly as possible. There was a lot of smoke and we blindly entered the woods where we were given a general direction in which to go. The soldiers warned us that there were rebels in the woods, that they would do all they could to stop us from advancing to the border, and that the slightest eye contact with them could be extremely dangerous.
As we trekked through the solemn muddy woods, we heard gunshots and explosions. We didn’t know where they were coming from. I looked around to make sure my family was ok, I began to feel very anxious. We soon realized the ground was filled with landmines.
The gunshots got louder and louder and sure enough, we were stopped, pushed, and shoved by a group of rebels. They yelled at us to put our hands up and look down. They grabbed our belongings as if they owned them and were entitled to anything in them. They began to eat our food and drink our water. They also laughed at the remnants of our lives that we carried with us to keep close to our hearts. In order to advance to the border, they demanded money in return. We were called scum, trash, and worthless people, among other things. After they were tired of looking at us and got what they needed, they released us.
We hurried away and trekked for what seemed like a very long time, but not nearly as long as the plight of those we sought to simulate. We then came across two women who were selling food, both had lost family members during their journey and begged us to let them know if we found them. As we were just swallowing our first morsels of food and taking in their stories, a group of soldiers dragged us back into the woods. They communicated with us only through profanity and disgust. Money or food would not be enough. They pulled a few other families away and we didn’t see them again.
Denny, our mother, was forced to give up one of her “tokens”. She lost her dignity in order for us to proceed.
We were torn and deprived of hope at this point. How could life be so cruel? How would we survive, and even if we survived, would we actually be living?
We trekked in silence. We finally reached the border where we were instructed to have our passports out. Some couldn’t understand what the soldiers were saying to us as they were speaking French. All we understood was that we were almost at the border and upon seeing Red Cross volunteers with these soldiers, we felt a little hope. The soldiers pulled Jessie out of line and shoved him to the ground. Jessie didn’t even understand French but the soldiers didn’t like the way he reacted to their questions and dragged him away where they accused him of terrorism. The Red Cross volunteers reminded the soldiers that they must treat him as a human being and with respect. The volunteers began to approach us and explained they may be able to help find our missing family members. They gave us notes so that we could send messages to our lost loved ones.
Slowly but surely, we were reunited with Jessie. We then stood in line for what felt like ages before we could cross the border. One by one, we showed our passports and tried to answer questions that were directed to us in French.
Denise was in front of me as we were stopped once again. The soldier took out a big chocolate bar and started to eat it. She looked at him and told him she was hungry. He almost didn’t even acknowledge her existence. He merely shrugged and said it wasn’t his problem. Denise proceeded to show her passport to the next soldier. Upon seeing her name, she was yanked away from the group and like Jessie, was accused of being a terrorist.
As we crossed the border, we were weak and were very wary of what lied ahead. But what lied ahead was something unlike anything we had ever seen before. Tents everywhere, food and water, medical camps, and hundreds of people. It didn’t matter where they were from and that we came from different ethnicities. We may have lost a lot on the way, but we didn’t lose our humanity and our sense of empathy.
We registered with UNHCR and were given wood, a plank, tarp, nails, and a hammer to build our tent. This would be our home for an indefinite period of time, maybe years, maybe an entire generation. We were given a set portion rice and beans and were told there was a marketplace to buy more food. Soon afterwards, we were approached by Red Cross volunteers with a letter from Christina and Hyun Ji, our lost family members. They were ok but could not express where exactly they were. We pinned their letter up in our tent as a sign of hope.
After some time, UNHCR convened everyone in the camp for a community meeting. At this meeting were shocked to hear that only 1% of refugees are actually resettled and that we would indeed be in this camp for an indefinite period of time. We were advised to devise a way to govern ourselves, which resulted in us electing community leaders and setting up a system in which we could express our needs in the camp.
The simulation ended after the community meeting.
I breathed relief. I had my life back. I was free to walk away, and I am overwhelmed by how lucky I am to have done so.
I want to wholeheartedly thank the Red Cross for organizing this invaluable experience. While I know it was within the bounds of simulation and not nearly as realistic as the true suffering and agony of refugees, I am now able to better raise awareness of this harsh reality.
After graduation, I grasped the opportunity to work at the International Institute of St. Louis, a refugee resettlement agency. I’ll always remember the day of my interview, I was greeted by the hustle and bustle of at least ten different cultures all in one room, something about this place was so warm and so intriguing. I had the invaluable opportunity to experience the resiliency of refugees. I will always remember my clients and their determination to start their own businesses in their new home country.
There were a series of gun shootings in St. Louis this past year. Innocent people died, including a resettled refugee who had a family and a newborn child. One of my former clients, a resettled refugee from Senegal and owner of her own hairbraiding business became determined to start Community Talk Information Centers where she could educate others about nonviolence, health, entrepreneurship, and bring together other resources that would help her community thrive. A gun shooting had occurred right next to her business.
I dedicate this post to the refugees that have touched my life in so many ways. I hope I can do justice to your stories and resiliency.
Contributed by Amy Badiani