Monday, April 14, 2014

Living Like a Refugee

The Global Refugee Simulation and Conference

By Dana Ayers, Volunteer Contributor 

A few weeks ago I learned that the Red Cross was creating the largest refugee simulation in history in Bull Run park in Virginia. I knew I had to go check it out. 

I was aware that Red Cross strives to educate civilians about international humanitarian law (IHL) through efforts like Raid Cross, so to hear about a full-scale exercise to hammer these issues home was intriguing. 

As I started learning more about the simulations, it became clear that this was a massive undertaking. More than 500 people were expected to attend the 6+ hour event (it ended up being more like 13+ hours for some of the committed volunteers). Students, volunteers, Red Cross personnel, Marines, Special Forces, humanitarian NGOs, local industry - all were involved to support this.

The purpose? To simulate what it's like in real life for those who are forced to leave their homes due to conflict. One Red Cross volunteer, Sue, explained that the simulation would expose participants to every aspect of humanitarian law and refugee crises. "Maybe they are doctors, or lawyers, or ditch-diggers - but they've all lost something," she explained, referring to the reality of displaced populations. 

The base camp was already set up when I arrived, but no refugees had yet made it through their journey to the camp. The "refugees" were brought by bus from DC and dropped off in waves at the park. They were given back stories, with details such as how many were in their family, what ethnicity and religion they were, and why they were fleeing their country. The country in conflict was referred to as "Quinta" in the scenario, while the country across the border - which held the refugee camp - was referred to as "Renimar."

The back story of the citizens from Quinta included the fact that many of them would be discriminated against for their gender, ethnicity, or religion. Some were given 5 pound flour sack "babies" to carry along the journey, while others would "have" new babies inside the camp. Some would lose family members along the way, others would lose possessions while being robbed by rebel forces on the border. All would lose some part of their dignity - represented by two red coins - before the day was over. It was all based on true realities of conflict and displacement. 

I decided to leave the camp and trek out into the woods to follow one of the waves of refugees on their journey. Once they arrived, the wave had to go through simulated minefields - complete with trip wire and smoke bombs, not to mention live gunfire going off at the Bull Run shooting range next door for added realism. The group then worked their way through a disorienting forested area, which is where I caught up to them. They were lost, and it was raining. This, again, added to the realism of the simulation.

Eventually, they found their path and about 15 minutes later, finally reached a set of vendor stalls selling food and other items. The refugees began to barter for goods to keep them going. It was there that they were approached by fake members of the media, who asked them to tell their stories. Again, a realistic experience for these wearing, displaced citizens.

I asked one of the vendors - a local college student - about her experience so far. She told me she had learned so much already that day, and she noted that the nasty weather made her all the more empathetic to those who really go through this type of crisis. 

Shortly after leaving the vendors, the wave of refugees I was following was seized upon by rebel forces in Quinta. A group of volunteers - led by real-life Special Forces personnel - began yelling at the group and brandishing weapons. The group was told to form a line and give up their money, food, and, at times, their dignity - a reminder of the horrors that refugees actually face when trying to escape. 

I asked one of the active-duty Marines helping with the simulation why he got involved. "I did a humanitarian mission in '05 and I've been deployed to Third World countries. I just wanted to see a different side of this and facilitate the Red Cross putting the participants through the exercise," he explained. His team's efforts definitely made the simulation more memorable for the participants!

After the rebels eventually let the group go, the refugees finally made it to the border of Renimar. But, here again, they were roughly approached - this time by border patrol soldiers who were speaking a foreign language. The simulation used French-speaking international students and volunteers in military uniforms to create realism. There was even a border patrol K9 played by real-life Iraq war-deployed military dog "Junior."

At the border, the refugees were harassed, questioned for IDs, yelled at in a language they didn't understand, and often separated from their families and detained while their intentions were questioned. Here, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stepped in - as they would in real life - to ensure everyone complied with the Geneva Conventions. As I stood in line behind the group attempting to make it through, I overheard the participants assuring each other of things they had learned. "Remember, they can only touch you on the shoulders..." Clearly, this event was hammering home some humanitarian law education. 

Once the refugees finally made it through the border, they entered the open field where the camp was waiting. There, they were to go through the real life steps of joining a camp. First, they were to head to the registration tent where they were questioned again on their background. From there they could receive medical attention at the first aid tent, receive food rations at the market, receive supplies to build their own tent, and report missing family members to the "restoring family links" office.

I started asking some of the participants inside the camp about why they did this simulation. One local George Washington University student told me she was going to Jordan this summer to work with refugees from Syria. The simulation was a way for her to better understand what they've gone through. 

Another student I encountered, Juliette, is a peace and conflict resolution major at American University. "This was everything I thought it would be, which is good and bad," she told me. She went on to explain that how the displacement experience is such a big journey. "Crossing the border was so dangerous in itself, but here it's still dangerous," she said, referring to the camp and how pandemic diseases could easily break out in a group so large, all living in close quarters. 

I learned that at the end of the day, the participants would be able to talk about their experiences with IHL experts, Red Cross staff, and mental health experts - as well as discuss things such as the ethics of covering news in a conflict zone. All very important, considering several of the participants will likely end up in careers focused on humanitarian assistance. 

Beside those who have interest in future work, there were also participants who are already working in teh field who took part in the simulation because they will soon deploy to real life conflict zones. Some merely found out about the simulation through their Friends' Facebook pages and came just to check things out. Regardless of why they showed up, there's no doubt that everyone walked away from the day with a deeper appreciation of the plight of displaced citizens and the need for humanitarian aid. I know I did.

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