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'Stories that we should hear': Simulation provides glimpse of uncertain world in which refugees live

Participants in a Feb. 2, 2018 refugee simulation put on by Creighton University's Schlegel Center for Service and Justice and Lutheran Family Services, hustle to a "refugee camp" inside the Harper Center.The 50 people crouching in a dark stairwell and trying to keep quiet weren’t really in any danger.

There weren’t really mortars incoming. There weren’t really soldiers just a block away. There wasn’t really any gunfire. They were in the Harper Center, on the campus of Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska, in the United States. But any one of them could be forgiven for a knot in their stomachs at this very moment.

Feb. 2, as part of a refugee simulation hosted by the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice and Lutheran Family Services, they’d just been expertly hustled into this hiding place by LFS staff who can attest to the harrowing journeys many refugees take to escape their own beloved countries with just the clothes on their back and maybe a small satchel of personal belongings. All 50 carried with them one bag of whatever was close at hand — a pillow, a magazine, a photo album — and a gallon jug of water.

“There was a moment there in the stairwell when I realized that this wasn’t what I expected it to be,” said Lizzie Hudson, a junior from Bellevue taking part in the one-hour simulation with more than 200 other students, staff and faculty from Creighton, as well as with members of the Omaha community. “It suddenly became something more than a simulation and I didn’t know what that was exactly, but it hit you pretty hard.”

The simulation, titled “Omaha Neighbors Share the Journey: A Refugee Simulation Through Stories,” has been a collaboration between the SCSJ and LFS in the making for more than a year. Angie Ngo, a sophomore on the SCSJ’s Refugee Team, said the idea came about as Omaha has attracted a larger share of refugees from around the world.

“We wanted something that we could open to the entire Omaha community as we see a number of refugees resettling here,” Ngo said. “We want as many people as we can to see that refugees are your friends, your neighbors, the people you walk by on the street, and that their stories are stories that we should hear.”

Creighton’s simulation further grew out of Pope Francis’ “Share the Journey” movement in which the pope has encouraged people to go alongside refugees and migrants and understand the hardships they have faced in fleeing persecution, poverty and war.

“Going through the stairs, I had chills,” Ngo said. “This is where I study and have marketing class. But the volunteers from LFS have made this experience very real for everyone. A little discomfort can be helpful in thinking about what refugees go through.”

When the all-clear sounded in the stairwell that the soldiers had passed, the group trudged, still silent, to the Harper Center’s third floor, where simulation participants encountered two refugees from Burma who shared their harrowing stories of going through the real thing.

There was then a simulated border crossing, replete with a refugee from Afghanistan who told heart-wrenching stories of families parted by armed guards who also heisted what meager personal belongings carried by those in flight.

“I don’t actually know how to feel, except uncertain,” said Chelsea Riediger, a freshman in the Cortina Community, as she waited to cross the simulated border. Up the stairs to the fourth floor of the Harper Center, the man playacting the border guard could be heard barking interrogations. Along the way of the simulation, Riediger had been saddled with a “child” (a stuffed doll) whose parents had gone missing. She clutched the child as the guard questioned another person in line about a child he carried.

“It’s definitely making you think about all that a refugee goes through, and the years they spend in that uncertainty,” Riediger said.

Joe Forde, a sophomore from Kingston, Massachusetts, was also surprised with a wrinkle in his experience. After his escape in the stairwell, he was handed a pair of crutches that didn’t come close to fitting his 6-foot frame.

“I was told I stepped on a landmine,” Forde said. And he went along with it, too, trying to compensate on the short crutches. “I fell behind the group. The border guard really didn’t want to let me pass because I was injured. It was pretty clear that I would be dead and that’s sticking with me. How many landmines are out there in countries at war that people are trying to get away from?”

Once through the border, the simulation encountered a refugee camp and a young man from Somalia who spent nearly 20 years of his life in a camp in Kenya. Packed tightly into a space marked by blue tape on the floor of the Harper ballroom, and with the sound of a swirling windstorm piped into the room, the simulation participants heard of other realities in the tortuous journey of refugees: an uneasy existence far from home with little to combat stress, depression or boredom besides waiting for once-a-day water and food deliveries. There’s usually little in the way of schooling for youngsters and in some host countries, a suspicion of the new arrivals at the camp can create an ugly tension.

After a measured interval in the camp, it was time for resettlement and the group trudged heartily, relieved, to another upstairs room. There, they heard from Shafiq Jahish, who fled Afghanistan in 2014 after years living in fear for his and his family’s life. Jahish had served as a translator for the American military in its fight against the Taliban and such service made Jahish and his family vulnerable to attacks.

Now working for LFS, Jahish said he was pleased by the response to the simulation.

“It shows people are interested in knowing about their new neighbors,” Jahish said. “We see more and more refugees coming to Omaha and it’s good, if you’re living in this community, to know who they are. Some people might be afraid but that’s only because they don’t know their neighbors. Once you do know them, you’ll find they are good people with an important story to tell. I know, because four years ago, I was on the other side of that table and telling my story. If we listen, we can learn and come to greater understanding.”

At its conclusion, the participants filed out of the room to see a collection of photographs taken inside refugee camps around the world by renowned Creighton photographer the Rev. Don Doll, SJ.

Looking at some of the heart-rending images, sophomore Eric Villarreal of Houston let go a sigh.

“Getting into the resettlement, I felt like I could relax,” he said. “But I know that’s not the case for a real refugee. This simulation is an experience I’d recommend to anyone to get even a little glimpse at what a refugee feels. I’m glad I did it, glad we had the opportunity.”

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