Shawnigan students get taste of refugee life

A small group of students is sitting peacefully in the library, when the chaos suddenly begins.

Abigail Saxton Special to the Citizen

A small group of students is sitting peacefully in the library, when the chaos suddenly begins.

“You’re under attack. The guns, the dogs, the police — they’re coming.”

This cluster of Grade 11s is given one minute to choose five items from a selection of 20 scattered across a table. Options include water, passports, money, jewelry, books, a Swiss Army Knife, a first aid kid, pets, food, blankets — even a gun. They’re pressured by time and hostile voices. They make a choice, sneak a quick look at a map and race out the door heading for their first checkpoint.

Today’s Grade 11 Refugee Simulation will attempt to replicate the passage of refugees fleeing from conflict zones. For the next hour or so, this makeshift family will navigate border crossings, dangerous roads and cross a narrow strait on a raft. They will work as a team to solve problems as they arise. They will encounter IEDs that will cost one family member his sight, simulated by blindfold. Another will die from sniper fire.

“Halt!”

They know this man from their social studies classes, but today he’s an ominous border guard.

“Sie müssen dort warten.”

One of the students in this group speaks some German. After a clumsy exchange, the group manages to bribe their way through. They obtain directions to the next checkpoint where they will agree to adopt an abandoned child.

A cold snap has fallen on Shawnigan, and a few inches of snow blankets the fields and roadways. Despite being told to dress warmly, their footwear isn’t ideal for running across snowy fields. It’s -6 C — unusually cold for the area.

This family’s goal is a temporary refugee camp set up on campus. Once they’ve arrived and checked in, they will sift through paperwork and begin the process of reuniting with lost relatives.

As the simulation portion of the experience wraps up, the class moves back into the library. They watch short documentaries about the plight of refugees and take in a static display that includes many of the same heartbreaking images recently seen in the news. They don virtual reality headsets and spend a few minutes exploring the devastation caused by Syria’s civil war.

It’s an experiential learning exercise that dovetails perfectly with much of the Social Studies 11 content on human geography, particularly migration. And of course, it brings one of today’s most pressing issues into stark relief.

The entire simulation is based on Doctors Without Borders’ ‘Forced From Home’ initiative — an exhibit that creates a similar experience around the Northeastern United States.

As the simulation ends, students scatter into comfortable corners around the Jim & Kathryn Shaw Library and reflect on what they’ve experienced in the past two hours.

Their teacher, Tom Lupton, asked them about the challenges they’ve faced, and makes some comparisons to what is currently happening around the planet.

“Syria was the most stable country in the Middle East for decades,” he said. “We tend to think it’s just poor people or other people. It’s not. They’re people just like me — like us.”

According to Doctors Without Borders, more than 60 million people have been forcibly displaced. The hope for Lupton and his colleagues is that this journey will help them better understand the plight of refugees around the world, and perhaps even move from compassion to empathy. Or if nothing else, to better understand different sides of one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Abigail Saxton is director of communications for Shawnigan Lake School.