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Refugee simulation event instills empathy during Cedar Rapids Welcoming Week
Getting through the process is easier said than done, they found
CEDAR RAPIDS — It starts with a blindfold.
After hearing a narration of the visceral terror your family has just experienced — planes swooping in, explosions scattering debris, and a smoke that blinds and chokes you as you try to find your family — Katie Splean, a volunteer and outreach coordinator for the Catherine McAuley Center, blows the whistle.
“Find your families,” she says flatly — the last instruction they’ll receive to complete a journey they know nothing about in this refugee simulation event.
Then the chaos begins.
Families try to locate each other after spinning around five times — easier said than done. In the cacophony of displacement that forces refugees to leave their homes, even something as simple as hearing your name is a struggle with a multitude of other voices trying to call for loved ones.
As they’re blindfolded, workers scatter resource cards on the floor for them to find currency, household goods and commodities — something they’ll need for success at and beyond the border they trek to after finding their families.
“It’s a weird experience, but it gets at those disparities,” said Megan Altman, associate professor of philosophy for Cornell College, who helped form the simulation. “It’s simulating despair.”
With eight stations around the large room at St. Jude Catholic Church, participants must make it to registration, get cleared by a doctor, learn a foreign language and secure nutrition before being screened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — all the hurdles real-life refugees have to clear to get a flight for resettlement in a new country.
The simulation is designed to impart the frustration, disconnect, fear and confusion refugees experience. But as time marched on the two-hour exercise, Cornell College students had no trouble going above and beyond in their roles at each station to simulate the red tape, inefficiency, lack of humanity and corruption refugees experience.
Only with time do the participants realize that they’re playing a game in which they don’t fully know the intricate and unwritten rules.
The Catherine McAuley Center’s Refugee Simulation was part of Welcoming Week in Cedar Rapids, an annual event that affirms the value of immigrants and refugees in the community.
Welcoming Week concludes with two major events:
Cedar Rapids Festival Latino will be held on Sept. 18 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW, Cedar Rapids
AsianFest will be held on Sept. 24 starting at noon in NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
Participants heckle their way across the border as they try to tell guards why they’re fleeing their homes. Many wait hours with no movement in the line for registration, filling out forms in a foreign language when they finally get to the front.
Jailers wander the large room, sending some to the makeshift jail for no apparent reason. A 7-year-old is taken in for suspicion of terrorism.
It’s a thought that, understandably, strikes some as funny. But volunteers later remind participants that refugee children being put in cages has happened in the real world.
Goods are bartered for survival. A little girl goes to the nutrition station to trade her only material belonging — a doll — for a bowl of rice to eat.
Desperation was inevitable. After completing every step needed, a man at the last United Nations station is questioned about the authenticity of his documents and their signatures — a process that was within full view of the workers questioning them. An argument ensues and the man, Loren Brown, is taken to jail.
In a reflection after the activity, he details how he was forced to lie, cheat and steal to get his family to safety in a game made virtually impossible to win. The game became a matter of checking off the boxes at all costs — the value of each step became a matter of bureaucracy.
He got lucky. Others had their paperwork confiscated or torn up by unsympathetic workers at various stations, rendering them unable to complete the refugee process.
“It was interesting to see how desperate people were becoming. They were stealing pieces of paper from us,” said Cornell student Maddie Maley. “Something I’m realizing now is how fast the humanity can leave you. It’s scary how quickly you can lose that empathy for people.”
“We’re out here ripping up papers when we started, not even wanting to not check their boxes (at the beginning,)” Cornell student Tre Chatman concurred.
Laughing became a default reaction for many — a giddiness they would come to regret later.
“I started laughing not because it was funny but because I didn’t know how else to react to things,” Maley said.
That’s part of the point, organizers of the event said. Empathy is the ideal end goal.
“Part of the issue is how to get people to see strangers as neighbors … and get past the rhetoric,” said Altman, who teaches a course on the relationship between hospitality and hostility at Cornell.
Even sympathy — being able to feel for someone whose situation you don’t fully understand — is a secondary benefit. With climate change posing new crises that will continually intensify migration and refugee movement, she said the need for refugee empathy will be “non-stop.”
For refugees here already, the need for empathy goes a long way in helping them decide whether to stay in the Corridor or move on to another community, Splean said. She hopes the simulation instills an appreciation for the difficulty it takes to earn the refugee designation and what being a refugee means.
And as misconceptions are dispelled with that understanding, the effects reverberate through everyday interactions.
“Patience is huge — for people to be willing to take the time and allow somebody to repeat themselves, let somebody take the time to get a sentence out and express themselves,” she said. “It just creates a safe space where our neighbors feel like they’re welcomed as opposed to not being listened to.”
More than telling them, the simulator is an activity that will leave a lasting impression as participants feel the experience, said Benedicte Chubaka, resettlement program manager for the Catherine McAuley Center.
The experience, arranged as part of Welcoming Week in Cedar Rapids, is one of several activities that helps organizations and communities affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive spaces for the long-term sustainability of Cedar Rapids.
“Welcoming communities are more appealing to workforce as it helps attract and retain talent here in Cedar Rapids,” said Doug Neumann, executive director at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “Immigrants continue to contribute to the rich, multicultural tapestry that makes up the United States.”
Welcoming Week concludes with Cedar Rapids Festival Latino on Sept. 18 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW; and AsianFest on Sept. 24 starting at noon in NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE.
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