Learning about life in a refugee camp

Participants in the refugee camp simulation try to build a shelter with tarps and PVC pipes at Chugach Optional School in Anchorage on June 14, 2017. (Photo by Anne Hillman, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Each of the world’s 21 million refugees has a unique story, but sometimes it’s hard to see past the numbers. On Wednesday, Catholic Social Services in Anchorage set up a simulation where people role played what it would be like to arrive at a refugee camp. It was to help people try to get a sense of what it’s like to flee your home with practically nothing.

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When Annie Derthick arrived at the simulation, tents were set up randomly around an open asphalt play area. Some were labeled in English, others weren’t. At the entrance sat a pile of household items — clothes, blankets, pots and pans. Like people fleeing their homes, Derthick quickly had to decide what to take with her.

“Oh my gosh what do I need, what do I need… I need shoes,” Derthick said.

Derthick shoved random items into a pillow case then tried to figure out what to do next. She was pretending to be an 18-year-old who was fleeing forced army service in Eritrea, a small country in northeast Africa. She read off a sheet of paper that described her situation.

“I don’t have a lot of options because crossing into Ethiopia is illegal and I’ll be persecuted,” Derthick said. “I can’t go back home because I would be deemed a deserter.”

So Derthick role-plays going to a camp that’s close enough to the border that it could be hit by mortar shells. Her next stop was the registration tent where she received her food ration card.

“Here’s the registration form for you,” the volunteer worker said, handing her a form written in Arabic.

“Oh, I don’t read this language,” Derthick replied.

“Just do the best you can,” the worker said.

It’s a common problem in the camps – refugees sometimes only know local languages which aren’t used for camp communications, and foreign aid workers can’t always translate. Derthick encountered the problem again at the medical tent and the food distribution tent. Eventually she got a small bag of uncooked rice from an aid worker.

“I didn’t bring anything to cook food with me,” she said, picking up the small bag of grains.

“Well, that is unfortunate,” the worker said, unable to help. “So if people aren’t able to bring their own pots and pans when they flee, they have to acquire them either from aid systems…”

“But I haven’t eaten in several days and all I have is dried rice?” Derthick interjected.

“Yeah, that’s too bad,” the worker said with a shrug.

As Derthick went through the simulation she had to give away her toothbrush to get help carrying water. Her few remaining possessions were stolen by a corrupt aid worker. And she had to find strangers who will let her live with them because the UN refugee agency wouldn’t provide tarps and tent poles to single individuals.

Her new friends struggled to construct a small shelter without any instructions, and Derthick couldn’t help. In the simulation, her arm was badly infected but the volunteer doctor wouldn’t arrive for at least a month.

Jessica Kovarik, the director of Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services, said people have lots of misconceptions about refugee camps but conditions vary widely. Some camps are meant to be temporary but others, like Dadaab, in northern Kenya, have housed Somali refugees for 25 years. Part of Dadaab resembles a small, permanent town.

Kovarik said about 60% of refugees aren’t in camps because they’ve moved to urban areas of neighboring countries and have resettled there.

“So a lot of people have in their head this misperception that the majority of refugees are in Europe or are they’re coming to countries like the United States and that’s not true,” Kovarik said. “The majority of refugees are hosted by lower economically developed countries. Countries that are already resource poor and are having challenges with the people who are there currently.”

UNHCR reports that fewer than one percent of refugees are resettled by the UN in countries like the US or Canada.

Derthick said she knows a lot about refugees – she’s worked with many as a behavioral health clinician – but the simulation still surprised her. She didn’t expect the different languages or people saying they wouldn’t help.

“From a behavioral health perspective, its evidence of the resiliency that people have that even is such a chaotic and disheartening and discouraging environment, they can still kind of figure out how to get their basic needs met and get themselves resettled,” Derthick said. “It’s really quite impressive.”

There are more than 65 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide.