An Eye-Opening Experience

When twenty-seven Gonzaga University freshmen recently filed into the World Relief Spokane office, they were laughing and chatting, trying to make friends like any other brand new college freshmen would. Although many of the students have come to Spokane from faraway places to start a defining chapter in their lives, they bore little resemblance to the refugees that we serve here.

We set out to change that.

The students were brought there by Elly Zykan, a Gonzaga senior, to participate in a refugee simulation, an event designed by World Relief to put Americans in the shoes of refugees and give them a small taste of those trials that refugees face during their vetting process and transition to living in Spokane.

Elly described an afternoon of powerful experiences. During our simulations, each participant spends time going through several key steps in the refugee resettlement process in the hopes of making refugees’ experience more real to Americans and spurring participants into action.

Participants are broken up into four families; taking on the biographies of people who resettled in Spokane. During their experience simulation participants go to four stations: United Nations interview, medical screening, language learning, and food & shelter.

For Elly, the station that drove home the refugees’ experience was the United Nations interview. Participants enter an office one at a time for a security interview with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The rest sit outside the office in silence, unable to make sure their remembrance of events lines up. If the memories don’t, their journey to America becomes much more difficult, if not impossible. All they can do is give the most honest account of what they remember.

“I felt anxious and panicked when I realized that each one of my family members was going to have to go into the interview alone. We just had to hope that we were all saying the ‘right’ things to do well.” – Elly

The experience is familiar to refugees, who interview with the United Nations to ensure their refugee status before also doing multiple interviews with United States’ security agencies.

“I remember that the interview wasn’t easy. They were asking lots of tricky questions that were hard to answer” – Emmanuel Kassa, Former refugee and World Relief Spokane volunteer

For refugees, the interviews can come after spending weeks, months, or years simply trying to stay safe. Then, they return to the same homes or camps to await the UN decision. In the simulation, Elly and her family did the same, experiencing simulated trials that many refugees face.

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Students at the Language station learning Kazakh.

After the interviews, Elly’s family had to construct a shelter for themselves, sift through dirty rice, and attempt to learn Kazakh without any translation from English. Each station adds another layer of the refugee experience for participants until they understand, as much as an American can, the experience of their friends and neighbors.

“Our hope is that increased understanding of the refugee experience will translate into empathy and action on behalf of refugees.” – Richard Mandeville, World Relief Spokane Refugee Simulation Coordinator

“The people and places that I see on the news don’t feel so far away from home anymore. I feel like my eyes are open to these stories,” – Elly

Here at World Relief Spokane we hope that people from all walks of life will find simulations to open a window on the refugee experience like it did for Elly and her classmates. We hope that after a simulation, when people see refugees in their neighborhoods or on the news, they won’t see a statistic. Our goal is to help participants see what motivates our staff and volunteers to serve: people.

If you’d like to schedule a refugee simulation for your group, church, or workplace email Richard Mandeville at rmandeville@wr.edu. 

Andrew Goodwin, World Relief Spokane’s Digital Communications Assistant, wrote this post. 

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