Refugees for a Day: A Lesson in Empathy

On a gloomy Saturday earlier this spring, I watched 500 young Americans pretend to be refugees for a day. It was raining as buses delivered them to Bull Run Park, Virginia, where fake rebels boarded their vehicles and smoke bombs went off. A shooting range was situated on the side of the park and the sound of real gunshots echoed around us. Participants were told ahead of time about an imaginary conflict and assigned family groups with instructions to stay together. They were given fake passports and tokens that symbolized feelings of dignity and self worth. Throughout the day, pretend soldiers would confiscate these items.

The event, Global Refugee Simulation and Conference, was organized by the American Red Cross. It occurred as a result of a visit last year to Red Cross headquarters by Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Secretary-General. During his visit, Mr. Ban reflected on the state of 14 million refugees and the world's lack of empathy towards them. Young people especially, he said, should be at the forefront of advocating for the world's most vulnerable. In a room full of Red Cross officials, he asked: "What are you doing to engage youth?"

After taking over the buses, the rebel soldiers ushered the refugees into the wet woods and moved them onto a trail. The group started stepping on hidden horns that represented landmines. They slowed their pace and walked single file around the triggers, guiding each other as they went along. Participants had some choices to make but mostly choices were made for them. They were separated, bullied and questioned by border guards who would only speak French. "I had to flee my country," the refugees pleaded in English to the guards. "My people are being targeted. Please let me cross the border."

To envision students as natural advocates for the world's refugee population makes sense. Of today's 43 million forcibly displaced persons, nearly half are young people. Entire generations that could help shape our world are being lost and neglected at a staggering rate.

Once they made it past the border, the Red Cross refugees set up shelters to gain some protection from the rain. Then they visited health tents, tried to barter with one another, ate rations of food and waited to hear if they would be resettled in a third country. In between these activities, they had time to reflect. Some had simultaneous feelings of loneliness and of hope that someone, somewhere might care enough to help.

At the end of the day, the student refugees attended debriefings with refugee resettlement professionals, including myself, who volunteered at the event. We talked about what parts of the simulation had been realistic and what real refugees go through. Every group wanted to know how they could help. Donating to relief efforts, advocating for our government to take in Syrian refugees, and volunteering with refugee families in their communities were all on the list.

No one who was involved in the exercise honestly thinks that Americans can truly comprehend the realities of refugee life after one day of acting. What is possible, however, is for them to cultivate empathy. Sympathy is when you see someone else and say "oh that is so sad for them." Empathy is the acknowledgment that you could be in that situation.

Empathy offers an understanding that we are connected and that connection is followed by a commitment to make things better for one another.

Instead of skimming sad articles on the Internet, 500 college students agreed to turn off their cell phones and spend hours outside in the rain. They agreed to a day of discomfort and complexity, as a step toward a more compassionate world.

*Mental health professionals were present at every stage of the simulation and the volunteer actors were trained. Participant safety was the first priority of the event, closely followed by an effort to make the simulation as realistic as possible.

*The American Red Cross was the leader and catalyst for this event. Over 40 agencies gave support in smaller capacities.