MOUNT VERNON — Nearly 150 Cornell College students sat on a gymnasium floor Friday morning debating whether to flee to another country.
The students and faculty were part of a refugee resettlement simulation capping off a week of social justice engagement events following Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“The end goal is for them to get an appreciation of what refugees are going through and an understanding of how difficult it is to be a refugee going into a country,” said Hemie Collier, director of intercultural life at Cornell. “The way the political climate is right now with immigration and refugees, we want to give people a sense what it’s like. I think a lot of people don’t understand what they have to go through with paperwork and just getting here.”
The exercise was modeled after a United Nations refugee simulation.
“It’s one of the best methods,” Collier said. “It allows people to experience emotions or experience different degrees of things.” they have to go through.”
Students were broken into groups of five or six and given a back story — as if they were a family deciding whether to leave — or not leave — their homeland.
David Berger, a junior, was in a group of six whose family was part of a minority ethnic population that had heard rumors of ethnic cleansing.
The guardians in the group, a 56-year-old grandmother and a 34-year-old widowed father, manage to get a 6-year-old child and twin 3-year-olds to a refugee camp. Each group is allowed to pick a few items — rope, a light, tools, clothing — to take with them.
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Now the family has to decide whether to stay in the crowded refugee camp with little food or try to move to another, unknown country.
But the 6-year-old is injured and can’t walk well.
“How are we going to cross the border?” Berger asks.
The group considers staying at the camp until the child’s injury heals.
“Hey, don’t we have diseases in the camp?” asks Hugh Wright, a freshman.
The family discusses how they could leave, the students well aware of the real-life dangers refugees face in traveling by boat or by foot.
The family decides to leave, but first has to fill out a form full of gibberish, meant to represent the struggle refugees go through filling out paperwork in another language. The students guess at what goes on each line of the form — first names and dates of birth.
When they finish, they walk through a fenced-in area strung with netting. Jars and cans hang on strings from the top of the structure and papers and boxes litter the floor. It’s meant to be a snapshot of the physical difficulties a family may face in crossing a country’s borders, traveling over rocks or through brush, Collier said.
For one group member, Robert Stasick, it’s clear this is a simulation and not as difficult as the real process.
At the border, faculty sternly ask each traveling group questions about their forms, pointing out the form doesn’t have sufficient information or questioning each individual’s occupation. It’s clear that some students are uncertain how to answer, and some groups are rejected multiple times before they can move on to the next steps in their new country.
Berger, who is from Germany, said he was interested in attending the simulation because his home country is actively welcoming refugees. It seems clear that many Americans are currently reluctant to do the same.
In fact, Berger said, when he flew back to Germany over Christmas, his parents introduced him to two Syrian refugees now living in Germany. The two boys, now 16 and 18, left their parents behind in Syria to escape mandatory military service. Berger said he spoke to them a bit about their struggles.
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“We talked a little bit about this, but I thought it was better to talk about their life right now,” he said. “They had picked up German so fast and were fluent and going to high school. I had heard a lot of bad stereotypes that they don’t want to learn and stay cliquey, but they were not like that.”
Max Richardson, a freshman, said the most interesting part of the exercise was at the beginning, when he learned his group’s back story. Then simulation leaders told the “refugees” to put on blindfolds.
“They read a narrative that said planes were dropping bombs and your city is on fire,” he said. “You had to keep your blindfolds on and find your family members, only knowing a few details about them. It was intense.
“I think I’ll have a better appreciation of where we are and what we have because not everybody has such a fortunate background,” Richardson said.
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