“Everyone – down on the floor!” That’s how it started. Several members of the “Manitoba Militia” burst into the high school’s gymnasium proclaiming that they had come to take over the school and that if we wanted to escape with our lives, we would need to run for the refuge of the buses waiting outside.
Last Friday, I took part in an “In Exile” exercise. (Our organization, Canadian Foodgrains Bank, is one of the creators of the program.) Organizers had invited high school students from across the province to join them in the simulation exercise that provides students with an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a refugee for a day. I was an honourary high school student for the day.
There was relative calm on the bus as we escaped our “country”, but when we arrived at Bird’s Hill Park, pandemonium broke loose once again. Guards burst onto the bus, demanding that we stay silent and keep our eyes to the front of the bus.
Each of us had been given a passport complete with an identity, a country, and a story. I was Balaputa from Indonesia, a 17 year old girl who’d had to flee with her family because of political unrest. There’d been bombing in my village, and my sister had been killed. Together with my fellow Indonesians, I was ordered off the bus and made to lie face down on the ground with my hands on my head. Anyone who moved was subjected to persecution from the guards. Some had to stand on one foot in the bush, and others had to do multiple push-ups.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of watching the ants crawl past my face, we were told to get up. But the persecution wasn’t over yet. Partly for their own sport, and partly as an exercise in breaking our spirit, the guards put us through several nonsensical exercises. We moved picnic tables from one spot to another and then back again. We held the picnic tables above our heads until we felt our arms would collapse.
At long last, we escaped into the bush. In our walk to find safety we encountered exploding land mines, rebels who killed one of our people and took all our food and water, exploded body parts, injured people in need of assistance (do you help them and risk your own safety, or walk away and leave them destitute?), benevolent villagers offering us candy, temperamental border guards on power trips, more rebels who destroyed our passports and persecuted us further, and aid workers who spoke a language none of us understood.
Finally we arrived at camp. We thought it would represent safety, but there were still more surprises in store for us. First there were papers to fill out – if we could understand the language they were written in. Those of us who were sick or injured were sent to the medical tent for attention.
Then there was the long wait for food after hours spent wandering through the bush. Throughout the long wait, we had to put up with more intimidation by the power-hungry guards. Just when it appeared that the food would be served, rebels burst into the camp and stole it out from under our eyes. The cook was shot and injured trying to protect the food. The food was finally recovered by enterprising refugees who collected all the earthly goods they could find in the camp and bartered with the rebels.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted and sore. My head ached and my muscles screamed for relief. It’s not easy being a refugee – even for a day.
More than anything, what I took away from Friday’s exercise was a glimpse into what it feels like to have your power taken away from you. Though we don’t recognize it in our daily existence, we have a considerable amount of control over what happens to us. Generally, if someone mistreats us, we can choose to challenge the person or walk away. It doesn’t work that way when someone has a gun pointed at your head. Suddenly, your choices become limited – either do ten push-ups or risk getting shot or tortured.
What I couldn’t help but wonder when I left camp was what kind of a person I would turn into if I were subjected to that kind of treatment on a long term basis. Would I retain any of my self-confidence? Would I have the courage to keep going? When I arrived in a new country, would I be able to trust people who were trying to help me? Would I believe in myself enough to start a new life? Would I feel I had the right to “get even” by mistreating other people? I’m not sure how I would respond. I certainly have a new perspective after this experience and I hope I will treat people with a new respect and empathy – not only refugees, but victims of abuse, persecution, oppression, etc.